Saturday, November 10, 2012

Attack Ads

One of the most influential figures in my life is the second President of the United States, John Adams. A consummate family man, he sacrificed his own happiness, health, and career for love of his country and family. Thoroughly detailed in the historical non-fiction novel John Adams, written by David McCullough, the life of our founding father and patriot is an example of the devotion to independence that makes our nation unique. When considering how the two dominant political parties campaign against each other, a quote in the book by Adams resonated with me.

"Fear is the foundation of most governments but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breast is predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it."

Stupid and miserable. Attack ads made up over 70 percent of spending by the campaigns over the past 2 years and in some states (see Ohio) made up over 90 percent. What does that say about the people who are campaigning for these offices? The policies supported by each party are so polar as to be impractical or inefficient. When your own policies are lacking, the only recourse is to attack your opponent's and scare voters into voting not for you, but against the opposition. This inevitably leads to the the classic "lesser evil" scenario.

The question arises, will moving from party politics to primarily independents actually improve the campaigning process? In my opinion, yes. Instead of having partisan support for absurd policy, each candidate is entirely on their own to defend their views. We frequently see candidates in support of a larger policy that is scary to constituents but is considered necessary to be in line with larger party opinion. When candidates must stand on their own merits, elections will be determined not by who is the least dangerous or scary but rather on who most closely represents the wishes of the voters.

Part of our responsibility as voters is to support candidates for doing, as my grandfather is fond of saying, "the right things the right way." We need to reward candidates for backing policy with fact and reason. We need encourage candidates to run educational ads rather than attack/scare ads. When we work together, the electorate has incredible power. When candidates wish to be reelected, they need the support of their constituents. Call and email your representatives. Tell them you expect educational ads, you won't support scare tactics, you require scientifically and economically sound policy. Be passionate and be informed. Encourage your family and friends to do the same.

Passion and volume have real impact. Your vote is important but there are more ways to express your voice. Take 10 minutes, once a week, to contact your local and state reps. It's not necessarily the smartest or the majority that are heard, it is the loudest. We need to increase the volume of the independent movement.

Friday, November 9, 2012

When Voters Don't Know

A colleague brought up a very good question this morning that I would like to address.

"What if I haven't heard what the rep stands for? I always vote conservative but if he doesn't have a party affiliation sometimes I don't know if they're liberal or not."

What are the consequences of random voting? I would never suggest that someone vote for an individual they knew nothing about, yet it happens in every election. Straight ticket voting essentially advocates partisanship and discourages having any knowledge of candidates beyond the Presidential candidates. How can we accept this? Fourteen states (Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin) have options on the ballot to vote either straight Republican or straight Democrat. This format not only allows uniformed voting, it encourages such.

How should you vote when you don't know anything about the candidates? You shouldn't. There is nothing wrong with abstention. Abstention rates will most likely sharply increase as Independent representatives become more prevalent. This should not alarm us. On the contrary, we should be pleased that those who are voting know who and what they are supporting. Choosing not to vote has been portrayed as the same as a nay vote, and in some instances it can be. If the alternative to abstention is an arbitrary vote based on which party pays for a candidate's ads, I believe most of us would prefer that voter to leave a blank.

How do Independent candidates force us to be more knowledgeable? They make voting for someone who directly opposes your views a real possibility. Instead of finding a list of people neatly labeled as Republican or Democrat, voters will find a collection of candidates without any party. How do they feel about abortion, military spending, gay marriage, government oversight, or any other contentious issue we face today? People at the polls must be aware of each politician's positions or risk voting for a pro-choicer as a pro-lifer, for a military expansionist as an anti-interventionist, etc. When you remove assumptions, people respond by educating themselves.

A believe a move in the right direction is to remove party affiliations from the ballot. This is obviously impossible in states where voting a straight ticket is an option and I similarly hope to abolish this practice. These are long term goals but goals keep the motivation and proverbial 'fire' burning. So call or email your state representatives and tell them you want a party-free ticket. Let's make all ballots non-partisan and, in the process, make each candidate responsible for their own platform.

"Part leads to vicious, corrupt, and unprofitable legislation, for the sole purpose of defeating party."
-James Fenimore Cooper, 1838 in The American Democrat

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Demands of Independence

The platforms of political parties in the United States focus heavily on trust and reliance in the American people. American resilience and intelligence pervade speeches given by candidates both left and right, from national to state and local representatives. Yet, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words and they are telling two very different stories. The public is fed opinion, sound bites, and party propaganda instead of factual information on which well founded policy can be developed. We are left to trust the respective parties to endorse sound policy without any information on which to evaluate it. With the devolution from partisan politics to independent candidates, we have the opportunity to correct this glaring shortcoming. However, the shift from the sweeping generalizations found in parties to a concentration on each issue individually is demanding on voters.

It requires a willingness to be educated about the issues. It is unfortunate that we expect fellow citizens to be disinterested and uninformed about policies and movements that affect all of us as residents of the United States. Apathy pervades and misinformation in advertising and in the media is effective. Why do we face such a poor state of affairs? We assume, and incorrectly so, that every Democratic representative holds the same political values as the most well known Democrat (President Obama at this time). The same holds true for the Republican representatives (led by Mitt Romney). We falsely conclude that every Republican or every Democrat demographic holds the same ideals and represents the same types of people. Let me give an example.

I live in a very conservative part of a very conservative state. Yet in every voting session we approve increased spending on education by a landslide; in every congressional session our representatives vote against it. They are so afraid of the backlash from their own party for crossing the aisle that they misrepresent their constituency. It is preposterous to the party leaders that an individual could cross party lines and still be representing the views of his or her voters. Criticism for faithlessness and insincerity inevitably follow. This is absurd and yet it represents the dilemma faced by the majority of congressmen and women.

To dispel these generalizations we must vote outside the parties. This is not to say that we need to shed our current representatives in Congress for independent candidates. Instead, we need our representatives to shed their parties in order to free themselves from the bonds of alliance. We need our voices in Washington to be free to speak our concerns and vote as we demand. The job of a congressman should be one of the easiest in our country: gauge the values and wishes of your constituents and vote in accordance. The complication of faithlessness in Washington could be completely corrected with the introduction of Independents to the House and Senate. Faithless voting will be rewarded with a single term and a cold shoulder on the way out the door.

Part of being educated as a voter is asking questions of your representative. We can't just accept advertisements and talking points as affirmation that our beliefs are being upheld. It is important to directly approach candidates in a public manner and ask "How will you vote on this issue?" "What is your reasoning?" "How will that help us?" Part of the responsibility of a representative is that their votes are truly representative of their constituents. That means that even if the issue is one upon which most citizens are uninformed, confused, or indifferent, they still need to vote for what is best for his/her people and have thought out reasons thereof.

"There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution."
-John Adams, 1789

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Be Yourself, Be Independent

This election season has prompted me to reconsider the way we go about electing public officials. After several months of disillusionment with our current system, I've decided to start a movement (or at least attempt) to make a distinct paradigm shift in our political process. In essence, I believe that the only way to make a legislature of individuals who truly represent their constituents is to elect independent candidates free from the obligation to follow party lines. What follows is an open letter I've written entailing my motivations:

Americans,

I fully support your right to disagree with politicians and encourage you to speak out against misrepresentation, dishonesty, and poor policy. But as the peoples of this country, it is our duty to band together in these times of strife and unify for the collective good of our citizens and humanity in general. Be educated about the issues. Be passionate about your opinions but attempt to think freely and be unbiased by those around you. As humans we have all been uniquely blessed with the ability to critically think for ourselves about individual issues. By defecting from your own thoughts to the hivemind of one party or another you disenfranchise your own intelligence and, in essence, admit that you are incapable of understanding these issues and will allow someone else to think for you.

Let's recognize when our thoughts and actions drift from disagreement to radicalism. Radicalism is a poison to our country and the freedoms of every American. When we elect radical officials, they attempt to win party support by leaning farther right or left. Eventually the parties we currently embrace will not represent anyone but the most extreme of either faction. We drive a wedge between ourselves and the ones around us who love us; family members from family members and neighbors from neighbors.

My plea is for each of us to become individuals again. With the passing of this election, we enter a time of reflection and introspection. How do you really feel about each issue? Ignore the partisan opinion, the media portrayal, the pundit pontifications. As a single individual, with your own thoughts determined by your own values and reasonings, how do you feel about each issue? When we stop accepting regurgitated sound bites and start reasoning apart from any party, we can accomplish amazing things.

Be independent. Trust yourself to analyze the issues. Stop following the well-worn path and make your own. I promise you'll like the journey.