It’s not lost on me that most of those who will read this piece will be folks who voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election. Some of those Hillary voters will be folks who loved the sight of Mrs. Clinton under the arm of Bill Clinton during the late 80’s–those innocent days of Arkansas governorship–up through the sordid, stand-by-your-man Lewinsky era, and then fully emerged from her chrysalis into congress as a Distinguished Gentlelady from New York. Then there is the other hardened faction of Hillary voters; those who swallowed hard, crossed their chests, and said Fuck it. I fancy myself a student of politics. I was not in the first group. I also never bought the lesser of two evils electoral demand from self-righteous politicos–and so I didn’t quite fit into the sweaty confines of the second group. And, if you’re wondering, I also didn’t vote for Trump. Both candidates brought enormous concerns when it came both to what we knew about them, and what we wanted to know.
This past election cycle was truly a war of attrition; a war on patience; a war of and on information; and an absolute brawl on the conscience and subconscious. Our political culture wouldn’t have had any less.
Daniel Elazar speaks about three forms of political culture. The Individualistic Political Culture, the most capitalistic of them, is common in the northeast US and emphasizes democratic order as a sort of marketplace, with a premium on individual action and private enterprise. Moralistic Political Culture emphasizes communal good, collective order and single objective truths, which often are tied to religion. Traditionalistic Political Culture, common in the South, is generally indifferent about the marketplace, and is lodged somewhere in the intolerant zone of the social and political freedom spectrum. The 2016 Election was a lesson in how these three very distinctive cultures can collide to energize, dazzle and devastate segments of the electorate; an electorate which has historically been conceptualized in very monochromatic ways. That gender was a prime motivator for women voters was turned on its head in 2016; that lower-income people would not sympathize with one quasi-billionaire candidate, etc.? These, and other theoretical sacred cows, were quickly dispatched in November. As were our traditional political identities: Conservative, liberal; Republican, democrat; Libertarian.
That said, it was the electoral culture, rather than the election itself, which we should be alarmed by. But this is not a piece about the destructiveness of these past politics, but more of an autopsy on what went wrong and where we might position ourselves in future elections.
Let’s return to an earlier point about knowledge and information, but rather than thinking strictly in terms of the emergence of “fake news,” focus on information itself, and what it is good for (and not good for). Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution talks about the dilemma of “imperfect knowledge,” which he defines in these contours: political parties do not always know what exactly citizens want, nor do they know what the government or its opposition has done; and the information needed here to untangle this ignorance is too costly (in terms of time commitment). Because we all do not collectively take steps to be well-informed (and perhaps cannot be because of how entrenched knowledge obfuscation is), individual actions toward information-gathering for the purposes of voting become worthless. So rather than being empowering, information–and our lack of ability to get it in a pure form–hampers our ability to effectively engage the institution of voting.
Because we all do not collectively take steps to be well-informed (and perhaps cannot be because of how entrenched knowledge obfuscation is), individual actions toward information-gathering for the purposes of voting become worthless.
Downs holds the belief that party ideology largely has stripped the need for people to think-through policy issues or social matters when deciding on a candidate, making the point that it is only rational to perform any act if its marginal return is larger than its marginal costs. For a generation taught that voting is a civic duty, this is rather sticky: voting in this context becomes almost anti-democratic. In essence, we should avoid learning about the issues because it’s too time-consuming and because no one else is doing it? Rather than a point of cynicism, this position may just reflect a simple point of rationality; namely that people are never going to be fully engaged or curious enough about democracy, policy or the outcomes of policy to make information-seeking a worthy undertaking. And this is something that effective democracy demands, but that a true modern democracy seems totally ill-equipped to cultivate.
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