Straw poll: Whom would you vote for in 2016? Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, or Darth Vader? Tough choice. How about Chris Christie, Bernie Sanders, or the shark from Jaws?
If a poll conducted by Google is to be believed, a ticket of Mr. Vader and Mr. Jaws would be more popular than any of the aforementioned non-fictional, fully human politicians.
This past summer, Google polled more than 1,000 Internet users and asked them to rate the favorability of the candidates currently running for president. It then plotted the politicians’ favorability ratings against those of well-known movie villains, revealing that The Terminator, Darth Vader, and the infamous mechanical shark elicited more favorable ratings than any presidential candidate, even more than President Obama. The only movie villain not to come out on top was Voldemort—the genocidal dark lord of the wizarding world in the acclaimed Harry Potter series—though he still managed to rank above Muggles Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, and Donald Trump.
Although easily dismissed as tongue-in-cheek, this poll reveals a sentiment many Americans have expressed in recent years.
“The goal is to acquire the most amount of votes so as to win the election. Within that model, as long as it’s legal, everything is fair game.”
You might recall the 2013 poll that ranked Congress’s popularity behind things like head lice, cockroaches, and root canals. President Obama’s approval ratings scraped bottom at 38% five times during his presidency. Anyone paying attention to politics has seen story after story of the historical inefficiencies of the 113th Congress, the borderline quid pro quo nature of campaign finance, and scandal after scandal after scandal that reveal our political system to be at worst corrupt and at best run by unthinking individuals whose self-interest trumps that of the public that put them in their position of power.
In fact, a Pew Research Center study conducted last February showed that an overwhelming 75% of Americans distrust the government—a level unmatched in the two previous decades.
So as election season for the 2016 presidential race gears up in earnest this fall, you might be wondering—given the current state of the union—if it even matters anymore who’s elected next November. Why bother getting invested at all?
Robert Cavalier can sympathize with these sentiments. “Our current model of democracy is vote-centric,” explains the Carnegie Mellon professor and director of the Philosophy Department’s Program for Deliberative Democracy. “The goal is to acquire the most amount of votes so as to win the election. Within that model, as long as it’s legal, everything is fair game.” Including, cites Cavalier, manipulative tactics like reframing and spinning complicated issues and running sensationalized 30-second TV spots. “And in that ‘game’ of democracy,” he continues, “I do believe we have seen a growing dissatisfaction—especially amongst Millennials—with the political system.”
Jennifer Billock falls in that Millennial age bracket. She’s a freelance journalist and published author whose work has appeared in national publications, including The New York Times and National Geographic. She agrees with Cavalier’s assessment. “I don’t feel like I saw any payoff from voting,” she explains, reflecting on how she felt the first time she voted, more than a decade ago. Billock is a travel and food writer who notes with some irony—given her political ambivalence—that her grandmother was an alderwoman in Chicago. A sense of futility drives her decision not to vote. “It doesn’t really matter what we want—it’s about what the politicians want, and what they want is going to happen regardless of what we want.”
Billock’s chilly attitude toward voting has some philosophical support from Anthony Downs’ "An Economic Theory of Democracy." As Cavalier explains, there’s a principle called “rational ignorance”—meaning that if citizens took time out of their day to go vote, as well as time to become truly informed about candidates and issues before casting their votes—they wouldn’t be doing important things in their daily routines that have a more immediate chance of improving quality of life, such as going to school, looking for a job, exercising, etc.
“For the average citizen, the cost of becoming informed about an issue is compounded by the very marginal possibility that his or her vote will actually make a difference in the outcome,” Cavalier adds.
Billock relates. She doesn’t feel that she has enough energy to dive into the issues, and even when she does, she still doesn’t necessarily know how they will impact her life. “It’s really difficult for me to look at an issue on a national level and understand how this will affect me.”
She’s hardly alone in feeling jaded. Voters in her age bracket and younger express high levels of disillusionment with the election process, with only 23% of Americans under 30 indicating that they would “definitely vote” in last fall’s midterm elections, according to the Harvard Institute of Politics. Much ado has been made about dismal voter turnout amongst Millennials, and who can blame them when 62% of them agree with the statement “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons?”
It may also be, as pointed out in an article that appeared in The Daily Dot last year that Millennials are prioritizing other, more immediate, and “efficient” forms of self-expression than voting.
The author of that article, Danielle Chilton, writes, “In a sea of millions of votes, it's hard to feel like your solitary ballot really means that your voice is heard. Millennials may be prioritizing forms of expression; if someone tweets their opinion on an issue and it is seen by multiple Twitter users and shared, does that mean that the tweet was able to exact more change than that one vote?”
Allan Meltzer, University Professor of Political Economy at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon, doesn’t agree. “You have to vote,” he declares simply. “If you don’t vote, you’re out of the game.”
Now in his 58th year of teaching at the university, Meltzer has penned dozens of papers on monetary policy, has written books on capitalism and the history of the Federal Reserve, and serves as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. He acknowledges that there are other ways to engage civically that are more direct than casting a vote every few years. For those feeling disconnected from our democracy, he advises going to town hall meetings with political candidates and even writing to and calling their offices to ask them the “hard questions” and demand solutions to the complicated problems that candidates tend to shy away from in the spotlight because they’re considered unsexy and difficult to understand.
“The country has 18 trillion dollars in debt—that gets talked about,” explains Meltzer, by way of example. “What doesn’t get talked about is that we have unfunded liabilities—that is, government-funded promises to pay—of 90 trillion dollars. There is no way that we’re going to be able to pay that. So a real challenge for us is to find a way to begin to work on that problem over time that is just and humane.”
But issues like this loom on the horizon rather than hit close to home, making them unpopular topics. “If we wait until the crisis comes, as it surely will, we will face the kind of problems that Greece is facing. If we do it now, we will be able to find a much less draconian way of doing it,” says Meltzer. “There are answers to these questions!” he insists. “There are a lot of smart people who have thought about it.”
As noted by (in)famously brusque Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in an interview with The Nation, “The most serious political problem facing this country is that we don’t discuss the serious issues facing this country.”
Perhaps what drives some of the public’s skepticism of politicians’ motivations and sincerity is the recognition that the issues being punted back and forth in campaign tweets and sound bites aren’t the issues that really matter; rather, they’re the fashionable, controversial shorthand topics that will make headlines—like reducing the complex issue of immigration reform to building a wall on the border or granting full amnesty.
Meltzer thinks politicians are shortchanging the public by not addressing these issues head on, such as funding health care and social security, and that it’s not a matter of the topics themselves being too dense or convoluted. “This is a country that sends huge numbers of people to college,” he says. “We ought to be able to explain to them in ways that they can understand that we have a problem.”
Cavalier would agree. Through his real-world applications of the principles of Deliberative Democracy in Pittsburgh and beyond, he’s become somewhat of an expert in distilling unwieldy issues into straightforward problems the general public can digest, discuss, and express nuanced opinions about in polls. Policymakers can, in turn, use these polls to inform their decision-making.
“Civil society can be enriched when people come together to work on problems and bring diverse perspectives to the issues under discussion. There are very good ways to design that opportunity,” says Cavalier, who approaches voting in the context of a larger background of civic engagement that places an emphasis on what happens before voting ever occurs.
Indeed, what happens before voting is at the crux of the Deliberative Democracy model of a public forum or town hall, a multi-step process that starts with recruiting a representative and an inclusive sample of the population. Participants are asked to read a specially prepared, well-vetted background document on the issue to be discussed. In small groups, participants discuss the issue with a trained moderator and come to a consensus on a few questions to ask an expert resource panel in a plenary session. Finally, participants take an exit survey to gauge their opinions about the topic. In certain cases, entrance and exit surveys are administered to track how much people’s opinions change. Rather than the responses swinging to one end of the spectrum or the other, it’s common to see opinions meeting in a more nuanced middle or evolving into a more reasonable choice.
Many other organizations like the Deliberative Democracy Consortium are continuing the research to improve the process of democratic practice and governance. Cavalier has employed Deliberative Democracy events in diverse settings: on Carnegie Mellon’s campus with relaxed demographic sampling criteria to discuss things like public art; at the city level to address hiring the new Pittsburgh chief of police; and at the state level to measure public opinion of the 2007 Pennsylvania bill (since tabled) that would ban gay marriage in the state. Democracy, he feels, is an everyday process—not something that happens only when a citizen is in a voting booth. A continuing partnership between the Program for Deliberative Democracy and the City of Pittsburgh has transformed the City Council’s town hall meetings from being centered on concerned constituents monologuing at a common microphone to being forums for productive conversations with hundreds of citizen stakeholders.
“I’ve noticed how people have really transformed themselves in the process of engaging with others,” Cavalier reflects. “They may come in as individuals with preferences, but within an hour or so they become citizens with judgment. They roll up their sleeves, and they say, ‘What ought we to do?’ It helps to structure the conversation around a problem to work on rather than an issue to debate.”
Although Cavalier admits that on a national level something like Jim Fishkin’s Deliberative Poll® would be difficult, that’s almost beside the point for him. He cites political theorist Benjamin Barber, saying that the dysfunction of our democratic institutions at the national level and even at the state level has required us to return to the origins of democracy: the city. He means this quite literally. The polis, or ancient Greek city-state, is considered to be the birthplace of what we now know as democracy. He imagines a not-too-distant future where state and federal lawmakers look to the decision-making processes of the nation’s cities for examples of good governance with community buy-in and participation.
“One of the side benefits [of the Deliberative model]—and we see this in exit surveys all the time—is that people have a very positive experience with the democratic process,” he reflects. “They want to become engaged. And the increased civic health that emerges from these kinds of events over time will, in fact, create a more active voting public.”
Even Billock, agnostic as she is about the political process, says she’s most optimistic about effecting meaningful change on the local level. “I live in a really small town, so on the local level, I feel like it’s more likely that the citizens’ voices are being heard. At the national level, everybody’s voice is just drowning in the other voices.”
At a time when there is much chatter about how to incentivize citizens like Billock to vote, some states are ironically making it that much harder to do so. Since 2010, 15 states have passed new laws requiring voters to show specific types of identification at the polls in order to vote. These laws were drafted in order to protect against voter fraud, specifically voter impersonation. Curiously, since 2000, there have been a reported infinitesimal number of voter fraud convictions, and only 3.6% of those convictions were for in-person voter impersonation. If you do the math, that works out to 1 case in the past 15 years.
Over-dressing the wound isn’t necessarily an issue, but critics of these laws—which have been implemented overwhelmingly in Republican-controlled states—allege that the heightened ID requirements disproportionately affect minority and young voters, demographics which tend to swing Democrat.
In response to a request from Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report last fall about implications these laws had for voters, including potential cost to voters and changes in voter turnout.
“GAO’s role is to provide fact-based, objective, nonpartisan, non-ideological information to Congress and decision-makers that they can use in considering policy decisions,” explains Rebecca Gambler, director of Homeland Security and Justice for GAO, a position she’s held since 2013, though she’s worked for the organization since 2002.
The report looked at Kansas and Tennessee, two states with changes to voter ID laws between the 2008 and 2012 elections, and compared them to four other states without changes, controlling for all other factors. Although turnout decreased in all six states, GAO found a larger decrease in Kansas and Tennessee as a result of the new laws. And the populations most affected?
“Registered voters who were younger, who were African American, or who were recently registered,” says Gambler, though she’s quick to point out that the parameters of the study were limited to those two states and the results cannot be extrapolated to other places or future elections. Further study will be needed to determine how wide-ranging these effects are and whether they are changing the results of elections.
So what’s the average voter to do for the next year? How does a regular Joe or Jill America make sense of and participate in the democratic process today, and should he or she even care? There are already nearly two dozen candidates who have officially announced their presidential intentions. Maybe the best answer is just to brace for the tidal wave of Facebook ads and yard signs, incendiary TV spots and pamphlets slipped under your car’s windshield wipers. For the 75% of Americans who regard the government with suspicion, there may only be one solution: Vader-Jaws 2016.
But Meltzer cautions: “Instead of opting out and leaving decisions to others, voters should ask hard questions of the candidates as they travel around.”