It’s election time again.
Once again, we face the task of choosing the leaders of our local and state governments, as well as our representatives in Washington.
That’s a tough job, or at least it should be. Making an educated choice between two candidates requires information about each of them. Ideally, a voter should consider the candidates’ backgrounds, philosophies about government — and even their temperament might be important in determining who a person should vote for. In addition, a voter would want to consider the candidates’ positions on issues of the day.
Obviously, it would be impossible for ordinary people to collect all that information, even if we only had to choose between one of two candidates for one office. A person would have to barricade himself or herself in a room filled with nothing but information on government, politics and current events for six months and spend 16 hours a day reading for weeks — and they’d still not find and digest all the information about just two candidates. (A person who could do that is also not someone I want to spend time with.) Choosing whom to put in a government office should be difficult, but trying to find out everything would be ridiculous.
For better or worse, then, most voters have to use shortcuts. I suspect the most common one is considering a candidate’s party affiliation. In recent years, most Wyoming voters look to see who the Republican candidate is. That’s harder for Democrats because, in too many cases, they don’t field candidates. Closely related to party is political philosophy — is the candidate conservative, liberal, libertarian, pragmatic, socialist or whatever?
These shortcuts can fool a voter, though, because it’s not always clear what is meant by terms like liberal and conservative. When I was teaching government, for example, usually students would accuse me of being a liberal, but sometimes they would tell me I was too conservative. It’s also true that not all Democrats are true liberals, and not all Republicans are very conservative. Because of the dominance of the Republicans in Wyoming, an ambitious politician with moderate views might run as a Republican because it gives him a better chance of being elected. It’s also true that Wyoming Democrats are by and large more conservative than Democrats nationally.
I had a boss who was like that. He voted for Democrats, but when you talked to him, he sounded more like a Republican — and a conservative Republican at that. I’ve become convinced over the past few years that many people who think they are in one camp are really in the other. Why that is, I can’t say.
Many times people make their choice at the ballot box based entirely on a single issue. Usually it is a hot button issue, such as abortion or firearm ownership, but sometimes a current issue drives some voters. But if voters focus on only one issue, they might end up voting in a candidate who may be right on that issue, but a horrible official when he gets into office.
Many years ago, as an exercise for my students, I created two fictional candidates and made up lists of positions for each candidate. I made sure one was more conservative than the other, and included on the liberal list a promise to pull American troops out of Vietnam and end the war; the conservative list supported continuation of the war.
A death in the family meant that a substitute teacher presented the lists to my class and asked them which candidate they would vote for. Sure enough, the class full of Wyoming Republicans — including one whose father was an elected official — chose the liberal candidate who would end the war, even though everything else on that list was a rather liberal position. When I returned, the students wanted to know why I had played that trick on them. I gave them the obvious answer: that they should be careful to look at everything the candidate represented, not just at one hot issue.
I believe we all should be more careful about who we decide to put in an important office, whether it’s a school board member or the president of the U.S. I believe everyone who votes wants what is best for the community, state or nation, but to ensure that, we have to put some effort into choosing whom we vote for.
Maybe you’ll vote my way or maybe you’ll vote the other way. Whatever your decision, it should not be made in ignorance, but after careful consideration.
If we did that, I believe we would have better government.