The 2008 primaries and general election were the first in which I could legally vote. They were also the first that I had ever taken a substantial and meaningful interest in. I followed the campaigns and speeches and commentary every day, and after witnessing all of the stunning and ridiculous events leading up to that historic November, I started my YouTube channel. I promised myself that when the next presidential election came around, I would be there to cover every moment of the madness.
Let it be known that I was four years less experienced and four years less intelligent. At this point, I'd rather catch norovirus than endure another six months of predictable trivialities, uninformative news and distracting nonsense. I have no interest in covering the same banal and meaningless stories, or making the same obvious points as everyone else, because that would be a waste of time. But I've now realized that this actually rules out an enormous fraction of events in the political sphere, simply due to the nature of modern politics.
Because the presidential election is such a major event, with ramifications for most of the world, it's already being covered from almost every possible angle. Truly unique insights are bound to be rare, and if I can't offer that, then what's the point of even saying anything? But more than that, there's just not that much to talk about. There should be, but there isn't. Instead of taking actual policy positions for us to examine the effectiveness of, candidates keep themselves flexible, refusing to anchor themselves to a specific stance in case they need to change their position in the future. Since they need to appeal to as many voters as possible, they tend to speak in general terms and try to make their ideas seem agreeable to everyone.
In the absence of meaningful stances on important issues, we all start to focus on irrelevant minutiae, such as who we'd like to have a beer with, or who transported a dog on the roof of their car, or who attended a madrassa as a child, or who's perceived as being too "stiff". Media coverage reinforces this, because delivering the news to a general audience requires simplifying many aspects of it and presenting it in a way that's entertaining and attention-getting. In this way, political campaigns and the accompanying coverage become ensnared in a self-perpetuating cycle: the shallower their content is, the more people it appeals to, and the more people who are following the events, the shallower the associated ideas and narratives become.
This does a disservice to the voters, the candidates, the political process, the country, and the world as a whole. It seems like nearly everyone is failing to delineate the pertinent issues we face and focus on finding viable solutions. The modern political landscape is dedicated to almost anything but actually getting things done in a sensible way.
Let's take a look at what Vice President Biden said last Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press:
The president sets the policy. I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women and heterosexual men and women marrying are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.
What followed were days of speculation about what this means. Does he actually support full marriage equality? Or does he only believe they should have the "same exact rights" in the sense of civil unions offering everything but the title of marriage? He used the word "marrying", but said nothing about whether he believed gay marriage ought to be legal or what approach to gay marriage should be taken at the state or federal level. His remarks could be interpreted in many different ways, and Biden did nothing to clarify this. If he wished to eliminate the ensuing confusion, he could easily have done so in a followup statement explaining that he either does or does not support legalizing same-sex marriage. But he didn't.
In light of this, it seems probable that what he said was intended to be ambiguous - it's not hard to say the words "I support same-sex marriage" if that's what you really want to tell people. Instead, he more likely wanted to appeal to gay people and supporters of equality while trying not to drive away voters who oppose gay marriage. The result was a barely coherent statement that hardly qualifies as taking a stand on anything, because how can you possibly have this both ways?
If Biden had been more honest and simply said, "If you re-elect us, we'll legalize gay marriage and ban gay marriage!", everyone would see how bizarre and ill-considered this approach is. But by being subtle and evasive about it, he managed to generate a few days of news about what amounts to nothing at all. It wasn't until this Wednesday when the president himself actually said "I think same-sex couples should be able to get married" that we were able to get a clear answer out of the administration. Was that really so difficult? It shouldn't have been.
Now let's examine a story from TheHill.com: "GOP plans East Coast missile defense shield to counter Iranian nuclear threat". The only significant information I obtained from this article is that we currently have two missile defense sites in the United States, and Republicans and Democrats disagree about the need for a third site and the potential threat posed by Iran or North Korea.
Does the story say anything about where our existing missile defense sites are located? No. Does it tell us which areas of the US they're capable of covering? No. Does it tell us how vulnerable the East Coast actually is? No. Does it tell us how effective our missile defense systems would be in the event of an attack? No. Does it say which countries we're currently prepared to counter a missile attack from? No. Does it tell us how close Iran or North Korea are to developing a missile that could strike the United States? No. Does it tell us anything that would help us decide whether an East Coast missile defense site is actually necessary or would successfully fulfill its alleged purpose? No. Did the writer of this article expect that we would care about any of these facts? Apparently not.
Instead, the politicians involved have seemingly turned this into an issue of making the other party look bad, and this reporter has gone along with that narrative. The question of whether our country is at risk of a nuclear attack and how we should best prepare to defend against this has been reduced to a conflict between Republicans and Democrats. For the record, the current Ground-Based Midcourse Defense sites are located in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and the system has successfully intercepted targets 50% of the time during tests. The Pentagon has stated that the current sites are sufficient to defend against an ICBM from Iran, and plans are already underway to station sea-based and land-based interceptors in the Mediterranean and in Europe. To find this out, I had to go to Wikipedia and Wired.com, where this information is actually considered relevant to the issue.
And then there's a slideshow on CNN listing some of Mitt Romney's possible running mates. While this is certainly an important question, this piece isn't going to tell us anything useful until they can narrow it down to fewer than 19 potential candidates - at least 9 of whom have already said they don't want the job. The story tells us nothing but "Mitt Romney might pick one of these people, or he might not." Wow, thanks! I'm so informed now.
And the daily parade of bullshit marches on: Ron Paul picked up some delegates in a race Mitt Romney is still going to win. A prisoner got 40% of the vote in West Virginia's Democratic primary, as though we expected that West Virginia would be enthusiastic about Obama. Mitt Romney restated his opposition to gay marriage, to the surprise of no one whatsoever. Then he apologized for allegedly attacking a gay classmate in prep school, which will be mostly forgotten in the next 48 hours unless something worse comes to light. Evangelicals seem likely to support Romney - who else are they going to vote for? MSNBC provides us with Obama's "Voter Confidence Index", a quantity whose current value tells us nothing about what Obama's chances of victory will be six months from now. As MSNBC describes it, "The VCI is not meant to be predictive of any specific outcome". No, really?
Eventually, it just becomes exhausting. Every day, you skim through headline after headline of pop-news that ought to be inconsequential, but has become consequential by virtue of everyone treating it as such. Let's not forget that this election is one of the most important decision processes in the world. We're going to select the candidates who we think would be best at running our nation and writing its laws, and they're going to be faced with the problems of reducing unemployment, provisioning healthcare when millions of people have no coverage, addressing massive income inequality, and handling conflicts around the world. Also, these people are going to be in charge of thousands of nuclear weapons. It does matter how our country is run, yet voters, reporters and politicians themselves treat this process with all the solemnity of someone who goes to a NASCAR race in the hopes of seeing drivers crash into each other and catch on fire. Can't we do better than this?
Instead of keeping their positions amorphous and poorly defined so that they can force us to focus on their "likability" and never be accused of changing their mind, why don't politicians endorse specific goals and strategies that can be supported by actual evidence? If they turn out to be wrong, there should be no shame in changing their views, and the rest of us shouldn't hold it against them if they've done it for a genuinely good reason.
Considering that politicians have made themselves so untrustworthy in the pursuit of re-election, the media have chosen to focus on whatever sensationalized nonsense will draw the most attention, and voters have abdicated their responsibility to take politics seriously, it seems unlikely that we could even do something as basic as working together and putting some actual thought into solving the problems we face. Yet those problems will remain until we address them in a meaningful way. We can either flounder in a morass of self-imposed ignorance forever, or figure out how to make things better. Isn't that what the political process should be about?