What is Voting For

By Robert Bernstein   |   December 13, 2022

The 2010 midterm election for President Obama brought a devastating change in Congress. But, what did it mean?

I happened to be listening to San Francisco talk radio KGO for several hours just before that election. The host asked people to call in, offering this framing of the issue:

President Bush made a mess of the country.

Obama hasn’t fixed everything yet.

Obama must be punished for not fixing everything.

Therefore, we will elect the Bush people back to punish Obama.

He asked people to call in to justify this insane sort of thinking. There was no shortage of people who called in and said that was exactly what they believed… and were proud of it!

I listened in awe as one guy repeated this absurd “logic” back to the host. He agreed that Bush had wrecked the economy and started wars for no reason. He agreed that Obama was doing the best he could to fix things.

But he felt angry that he was hurting financially. And the way to “express this anger” was to vote Republican. Even though that has the effect of making it even harder for Obama to fix things. And he knew that!

The host calmly tried to point out that this was the question, not an answer. The question being, why would you vote to make things worse, just to express your anger? When the conversation was over, you could tell that the caller was sure that the host was an idiot.

This was in the forefront of my mind during this midterm election. The country is fortunate that Republicans taking away women’s reproductive rights created enough anger to prevent a repeat of the 2010 debacle. But is anger and irrational punishment any way to run an election?

What are elections for? I have met real people who vote with “horse race” logic. They want to be on the winning team. They do not care which team wins, as long as they are supporting the winner.

In my parents’ era they had civics classes that were supposed to teach good citizenship. I learned from them that elections are a way to support people who share your values. So that they can enact policies in line with your values. Civics classes are fading. Is this logic also fading?

Are people aware that the 2020 Republican Platform was to have no platform at all? Past platforms were about cutting taxes on the rich, taking away women’s reproductive rights, cutting social services, cutting environmental protections. All horrible things. But at least they stood for something. Now is it anything more than “Yay for us”?

Candidate Reagan infamously asked President Carter, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Is that any way to run a country or an economy?

Carter correctly was starting to invest in solar, wind, and other sustainable energy sources. He put solar panels on the White House roof. Which Reagan triumphantly tore down.

Do voters understand that the effects of policies may take years or even generations to be visible?

In my view, the mistake made by both Carter and Obama was to be too timid in their investments in the future. They both knew that investment in sustainable transportation and energy had to be done in a massive way. But they were afraid of that silly “logic” of being punished for not making everything perfect right away.

Right now, President Biden is doing his best to deal with Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. This has meant taking military risks, with Putin irresponsibly talking nuclear war and endangering nuclear power plants in Ukraine. In my view Biden has done exactly the right thing by standing up for justice and not caving to terrorist threats.

But Biden has also been taking economic risks by leading the world in reducing fossil fuel purchases from Russia. This has raised the cost of fossil fuels. At the same time, Biden is investing in sustainable energy. Some voters are angry at higher fuel prices. Do they understand that this is driven by supply and demand? That maybe they should be angry at fellow motorists for driving too much in excessively piggy vehicles?

Thomas Jefferson said, “The government you elect is the government you deserve.” Can people try a bit harder to think about why they are voting? To think long term? To understand that you may not deserve good government, but the future of our planet needs it?  


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