Coping With Democracy

Overcoming The Shame Of Voting

I guess I need my consciousness raised. The newspapers keep fussing and fidgeting because Americans don't vote. Something is wrong with us Gringos, they say. We're shirking. We're no damn good.

Huh?

I look at the last ten or so presidents we've had, and think: hooboy, is that what comes of voting? Every one of those reprobates was elected. It's a historical fact. If we can't get any better results by voting, I figure we ought to make it a misdemeanor.

How much faith can you put in a system that, out of 280,000,000 people, comes up with Al Gore? Besides, there's the question of culpability. If I voted for one reprehensible nonentity in preference to another, and he won, I would reckon that he was my fault. I don't want a President on my conscience. Further, I do not see how anyone with the slightest self-respect could vote.

Anyway, you can't vote for a candidate, because there aren't any. The apparent existence of candidates is a sleight-of-hand.

Do you believe that, say, Gore is a candidate? No. He, like any candidate, is a committee consisting of three speechwriters, a gestures coach, two pollsters, a makeup artist, an image consultant, and several crooked advisers. An alleged candidate is a phantasm, a blank slate or, in the case of Al, a mass of unflavored bean curd.

A candidate is what his advisers tell you he is. Think about it. Often you can read in the Washington Post that the candidate, Senator Palmoil, say, is having image problems. Focus groups have discovered, the writer will explain, that he is seen as Insufficiently Manly, that he is not thought by the voters to be adequately decisive, and that his delivery of a speech is positively Caesarian.

The paper will announce that his handlers have decided that he needs to Adjust His Image. That is, the principal organ of Washington will announce to all the world that the Senator Palmoil is about to pretend to be something he isn't. It will also name the advertising agency hired to perform the mummery.

Sure enough, in his next appearance on television, Palmoil will appear wearing a codpiece. It may have a NOW sticker on it so as not to be threatening to women, and not be excessively protuberant, and perhaps be in an ambiguous beige so as not to be clearly black or white, but it will look no end manly. He will then say Something Decisive, invented for him by the speechwriters and crooked advisers. He will contemplate at the teleprompter with an unblinking pole-axed stare, to communicate firmness, and avoid waving his hands around as if he were swatting bugs.

For the next week the talking heads of the Yankee Capital will drone about the effectiveness of the candidate's access of masculinity, about the precise tone of voice in the saying of Something Decisive, and whether the NOW sticker on the codpiece was overkill. In short, the mechanism of deception will be discussed until it collapses into rubble.

Yet, though detailed in advance, though explained in its every calculated nuance, it will work. The polls will show that, yes, the Merkun People now believe that Senator Palmoil is now of one blood with Clint Eastwood, and that his newly-acquired earnest intonation has satisfied voters of his warm and rich inner life.

I'm going to vote for that?

Anyway, you won't know who you're electing until after you have elected him. A campaign is intended to hide the candidate, not to reveal him. The truth is that few candidates have the knowledge or experience to run a Shriners' picnic. Occasionally the veil slips. Recently it was revealed that George the Shrub, son of Bush, didn't know the names of the leaders of several mildly important countries. Do you believe that any of them do? The candidates usually are provincial governors, men who have spent their lives crawling up the ladder from law school to county chairman. How could they know of the likelihood of a Baluchi irredentist movement or where to find Bishkek?

Now, the professionals of Washington, the reporters and chattering craniums and mechanics of the image trades, do not see things just this way. They take elections seriously, odd though it may seem. They do not understand that they are hucksters playing an elaborate shell game, yet they carefully shield the scam from public gaze. The rule in journalism is that it is acceptable, indeed career-promoting, to trick the candidate into saying something unwise about abortion. It is not acceptable to show that he knows far less about the world than most of the reporters covering him.

Note that a news weasel will ask a candidate, "Governor, what is your position on Afghanistan?" The reporter will not ask, "Governor, precisely where is Afghanistan?" The governor will respond to the first question by saying that he favors decency and motherhood, a better life for all Afghans, and human rights for everybody. The response would equally apply to Key Largo or central Illinois. He doesn't know where Afghanistan is.

Oddly, keeping the voters from learning that the candidate does know anything (an unlikely circumstance, but it has happened) is as important as concealing that he doesn't. The voters will resent anyone more intelligent than they are, which we in Washington assume means anyone at all. If a candidate ever mentioned the influence of Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst as empress of Russia in continuing the policies of modernization of Peter the Great, he would (or so it is feared) lose the election immediately.

The French will elect a man because he is intelligent and cultured. We want someone we can imagine managing a minor Safeway.

A crucial point however is that American elections are not about policy, but about the division of spoils-appointments, contracts, invitations to parties at the White House. Sure, Republicans behave slightly differently from Democrats-but only slightly. Which is to say that elections don't matter.

The economy determines the fate of this country. Presidents don't. They are at worst annoyances and embarrassments, at best a sort of national hobby. What counts is Intel, Microsoft, Boeing, Lucent Technologies, Cisco, AT&T, agribusiness, the Internet. We survive on a strong economic back and a weak governmental mind. Always have, always will.

Vote? Why?