Tactics and Substance in the 2004 Elections GoogleNews: Howard Dean

December 15, 2003

by J

Watch or Participate?

Over at Pandagon, Ezra is attempting to argue that dirty campaigning does not depress voter turnout. I don't buy it and Ezra's own language betrays his point. He notes that scandals do catch people's attention and the tabloidesque treatment of our most serious policy questions by the media does occasionally result in people "watching." But, as I note in the comments thread, "watching" is not the same as participating. I especially liked the comment by Hal O'Brien in that discussion. A few pullquotes:
The blunt truth is the American voter is the single most potent political force in the world. Most political professionals know this, and are scared stiff by it. They would much rather have a small, easily controlled cadre of "true believers" voting. Political professionals hate leaving things to chance.

Look at it this way: Campaign spending keeps going up and up, yes? Yet participation keeps declining, yes? You now have one of two choices: Either the political pros are all fools who don't know what the value of a dollar is, and are simply throwing their money away -- tempting, I'll admit -- or what they're buying is the silence of the electorate.

I would go further -- I find it very difficult to have a conversation with anyone in this country without it drifting into politics. Anecdotal, sure, but I used to travel a lot for a job, and would talk to strangers across the country. Even if I kept it to either short questions or yes and no answers... Politics. All over. Always closed, after hours of conversation, by the ritual incantation, "You now, I hate politics," -- because that's what we constantly teach people to say. With zero sincerity whatsoever.

[...] America's great strength, and great weakness, is this: We are the Government, and the Government is us. You can be an effective member of the Government, or an inefective one, but not being part of the Government is not an option. When it comes to citizens and the government, there is no "us vs. them" -- there's only us.

An extraordinary number of people have a large investment in making common citizens as ineffective as possible.
Ezra's question about the results of dirty campaigning did dovetail with another discussion I got involved in over at Electrolite. The discussion there was about, among other things, political independents. I was arguing with those who suggest that people who won't register as Democrats are the reason the Democratic party ... ummm ... sucks? Way to project blame, folks.

There was also the suggestion that we political independents are apathetic or perfectionist or cynical. Again, way to avoid the issues. Anyway, my path to political non-affiliation was fairly mundane (not really a joiner, Republicans became wacko, don't completely buy what the Dems are for or how they go about it, ergo, no party for me) but I suspect it's at least partially due to negativity on the part of the party structure. So, while dirty campaigns don't lead me to disenfranchise myself -- I believe it's ones civic responsibility to vote and keep oneself apprised of policy and politics -- they don't lead me to join a party, either. Hmm.
Posted by J at December 15, 2003 10:24 PM

All the scientific research I've seen on voter behavior indicates pretty conclusively that dirty politics depresses turnout. It's one of a very few rock solid findings in that area of research.

Posted by: Katxena at December 17, 2003 10:29 AM

Right. Over in the thread at Pandagon, John McCrory provides a citation. Ezra (who is not a fan of Dean) is just plain grasping at straws to nitpick at Trippi with here. *shrug*

Posted by: J at December 17, 2003 10:33 AM

Michelle Mitchell in "A New Kind of Party Animal" describes this in relation to party politics and particular demographics -- the fact that younger voters, generation-x and beyond, tend to vote third party or register "decline to state" more than any other age group. This makes us more unpredictable, thus the parties' disinclination to engage us, even while they use wacky cross-cut camera angles, music-video editing, and send their people onto talk shows on motorcycles.

The LAST thing they want is for the young voter to actually vote. They want as few peopel to vote as possible, simply because it's easier to manipulate few people than many. Jesus, who could possibly be so stupid as to dispute this? If I were designing a strategy to deal with that sort of thing, that's precisely what I'd do. When you have to deal with unpredictable public elements, the single best thing you can do is to disengage the most iffy ones, thereby enabling you to narrow your focus down to the ones that you know how to deal with.

This alone can be seen as a huge part of the country's swing to the right -- fanatics always vote. Republicans always do very well in low-turnout situations, absolutely every single time. Chart voter turnout alongside the number of Republicans total in House+Senate, and you'll see them march in lockstep with one another, with an appropriate timelag.

Posted by: Janis at December 17, 2003 06:33 PM

Recommended Reading:

The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity: A Diplomat's Memoir
The Politics of Truth... A Diplomat's Memoir

Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush
Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush

Against All Enemies by Richard Clarke
Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror

LIES by Al Franken
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right

The Great Unraveling
The Great Unraveling

The Great Big Book of Tomorrow
The Great Big Book of Tomorrow

Clinton Wars
The Clinton Wars

Blinded by the Right
Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative

Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat

Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture

Living History

The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton

John Adams

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

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