L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 322, June 5, 2005
"We have met the enemy, and he is us."Pogo
Special to TLE
America has long touted to the rest of the world its democratic process. Some claim that, by voting, Americans retain control of their own government and thus their own liberty. Some foreign countries not yet democratic in nature look on in fear of this process because of the changes it might bring; others look on it with hope for those very same changes. But what many people don't seem to acknowledge is that voting today isn't really the wonderful thing it's said to be, nor is it remotely as effective at its job as it ought to be.
If you're at all politically active, you're all too well aware that your vote is being sought or bought (don't let the fact that cash rarely changes hands sway you from the knowledge that, illegal or not, votes are indeed bought). Activist groups urge you to contact your political representatives and ask them to vote one way or another on a specific issue; politicians beseech you to vote for them, or at least against their opponent, every time an election comes around.
The problems with the voting process are two-fold: First and foremost is the fact that many voters are either lazy or uneducated. These idle voters don't know what the issues or the candidates are, and they don't care to. But yet they head for the polls and they vote anyway. They are the people who make decisions based solely on how cool a commercial is, what party a politician represents, or the way "everyone" they know has "always" voted. Secondary, but also serious, is the tendency of some who do at least attempt to educate themselves to believe whatever it is they want to hear. And finally, there's just plain old-fashioned dishonesty.
Politics is complicated. Everything from backroom deals to outright coercion to quid pro quo can be involved. But there's a fairly simple illustration of how voting can be corruptedeven without evil intentthat's broadly available to us in American right here and right now, and that's the highly rated American Idol television phenomenon.
American Idol, for the three of you who've not heard about it, is essentially a talent contest. Singers from around the country audition for a place. Those who get past the celebrity judges are pitted against one another every week on TV. Once the performances are over, the television audience votes on its favorite contestant. The person with the fewest votes is eliminated. The process is then repeated until there's only one singerthe American Idolleft standing. The only real difference between American Idol and an American political election (well, except for Democrats) is that Idol voters can vote more than once.
This all sounds like it should be marvelously fair, doesn't it? The most popular performer will survive week after week until he or she is crowned the American Idol and wins a lucrative recording contract. But that's not quite how it seems to happen. Although favors certainly aren't a factor here, the way our friends vote and a heaping helping of dishonesty unquestionably play a role.
Two years ago, a young man from Alabama won the American Idol contest despite being in the finals against a more talented man from North Carolina. Did Ruben Studdard beat Clay Aiken because he was black as some have suggested? Probably not. But what did play a big part in his win was the fact that his friends and family set up banks of phones at churches and neighborhood gathering places to vote for him, over and over again. While some of these people may have actually believed Ruben was more talented than Clay, many did it just because "everybody" else wanted their hometown man to take the crown.
We could say that "all's well that ends well" because the skewed results of that contest have been regularized by an entirely different kind of voting system. First runner-up Clay Aiken is now a concert draw with a debut album that outsold not only Studdard's initial offering (by three to one, as a matter of fact), but has gone past every other Idol winner's tallies as well. Studdard, meanwhile, has remained largely invisible (which, coincidentally, is the title of Aiken's popular debut single) with an appearance on a shoddy new sitcom being his only recent media exposure.
This year on American Idol (yes, I'm a fan, but nobody's perfect!), there were several very talented singers who were eliminated earlier than several who were less talented. Scott Savol, who hails from Cleveland Ohio, stayed on the show longer than an incredible singer from Florida (Nadia Turner) and outlasted a terrific stage performer from New York City (Constantine Maroulis). The one thing that Savol did have in his favor was a rabid group of Cleveland residents who voted unfailingly for him every week. While their loyalty to their local man has got to count for something, their dishonesty in voting for Savol instead of the best performance of the week cost several better singers their chance to move on, and took away from the inherent fairness of the voting system at the same time.
Meanwhile, Anthony Federov (a Ukrainian immigrant who would have been a great Idol based purely on the fact that he represents the very essence of the American dream) lasted as long as he did not on talent but on his baby-faced good looks. And while I don't imagine we can chastise 11 year-old girls for voting for "cute" over "talented," such results do still mitigate the credibility of a show where talent and charisma should override pretty any day.
In the case of American Idol, though the problems with votes cast by biased voters are obvious, we can at least trust that the "right" man or woman will win in the end when it comes time to buy a CD or a concert ticket. Unfortunately, the comparison with politicians ends there because once a politician is in office, inertia and then still more wrongfully skewed elections all too often ensure we're stuck with him or her for the long term.
As harmful as dishonesty and bias are in any system where voting determines the outcome, the worst threat to America and Americans has become a voting block made up of those voters who will cast their ballot for anyone or anything that tells them what they most want to hear.
"We'll keep you safer!" and these voters jump at the chance to retain and expand the anti-civil liberties USA PATRIOT Act. "It's for your security!" and these voters applaud their representatives for passing the REAL ID Act and establishing a de facto "your papers, please!" national ID. "Help prevent another terrorist attack!" and voters will line up to stand behind massive interconnected databases no matter the risks to privacy, or the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. "It's for the children!" and voters will instantly suspend disbelief and abandon logic to curtail the Second Amendment.
Just as a Florida columnist has written that we shouldn't let our embarrassment at appearing essentially naked before airline security agents stop us from flying, there are more than a few voters who will justify almost any humiliation or curbs on freedom if they're told that such is what they must endure to be just a little safer. No matter their intent, it's these same people who are misusing their power as voters to do exactly the opposite of what voting was intended to do and who are, in the end, a threat to freedom that even the most ruthless terrorists can't match.
The Founding Fathers believed that votes would be earned only by those politicians who upheld the Constitution and who themselves cast votes for national sovereignty and the preservation of freedom. Our Founders thought that representatives who truly considered their constituencies would only vote for treaties and laws that would enhance liberty while ensuring security. And above all else, those who created our Republic assumed that voters would value freedom enough to know and truly appreciate what they were doing when they cast their ballots. Sadly, they were mistaken on all counts.
There are some few (and growing) numbers of Americans who don't vote because they don't agree to abrogate their own personal responsibility to the oversight of an elected official. I don't disagree with their reasoning, but I've always voted and encouraged others to do so because I've always believed that votes can be the catalyst for real change. It turns out that I was right, but even more mistaken than were our founders. Votes have been a tool for change all right, but not the changes a thinking or responsible citizenship would desire!
It would be a shame if liberty in America should die because our country is attacked from either without or within. But it would be truly heart-breaking if the experiment failed because of the misuse of the very mechanisms that were intended to preserve it. 2005 isn't an election year. That means we've got about 18 months to buck up and accept our own responsibilities to educate ourselves to vote. We've got a year and a half to encourage others to learn and to think before they cast their own ballots. And we've got the next 525 days or so to decide that America isn't about what's easy or safe, but rather what's right and what's free.
If we're too lazy to do more than to cast an idle vote, then I'm sorry to say we deserve what we get. It's just unutterably sad that, while we can all choose which record album to buy or not to buy no matter which CD cover bears the official American Idol title, we're each and every one of us stuck with political election results whether they were achieved honestly and intelligently or not. I would hope that, even if you don't care about politics for yourself, you'd have the fortitude to care about it for your children, your friends and neighbors, and for the rest of us here in America who haven't yet given up on the vision of freedom that once was.