I just returned from a trip to see family in the Midwest. I spent time with my relatives in rural Ohio and in Chicago. I will try not to devolve into Brooksian pop sociology, but I found both groups rather interesting. In Ohio, my relatives are rural white poor; on welfare with more illegitimate children than high school diplomas. In Chicago, my family is urban middle class: strong marriages, cute kids, picket fences and unions.
Both were insular in their own way. In Ohio, convincing them that politics mattered was a Sysiphian task. Pointing to cash assistance, food stamps and housing subsidies, they acquiesced that government policies affected their lives, but they just could not connect it to paying attention and voting. In Chicago, politics always matter, but local politics rule. Daley, the City Council, Springfield were far more important than Kerry and Bush.
They also shared a certain social conservatism. Their positions on race, religion, homosexuality, and abortion were more Republican than they were Democrat.
The Chicago clan was far more politcally literate than those in Ohio, but not as much as I expected. They knew to vote; they knew to vote Democrat, but beyond that, they paid little attention to taxes, war, spending or any other policy. Furthermore, the Chicago group was much more given to complaints and bold assertion that they could not back up with facts or figures.
My family represented two groups that I often rail against: those that don't vote and those that simply vote the party line. They are both part of the composite that makes up the infuriating electorate.
My simplified view of the electoral landscape sees three culprits for the sad state of American politics: parties, money and people.
Much has been made about the evisceration of the parties. I don't buy it. Their power is not as manifest, but it still plays an important role. True, the silly presidential primary system has changed the nature of the game for that office, but local offices and the House are still very much party affairs. This is especially true given the rampant gerrymandering and the virtual elimination of unsafe districts. When victory in a party primary is tantamount to an election victory, the purists and exteremists that control that process are given a ridiculous amount of power. Also, since they are the only ones with the energy, obsesssion and time on their hands to follow Congressional (or City Council, or whatever) voting, their ideology holds sway even when the voting is done.
I am forever hearing complaints about money and special interests. Unfortunately, campaign finance reform is subject to the law of unintended consequences. McCain-Feingold has not reduced the amount of money poured into campaing coffers, but simply reorganized the way contributions are made. Instead of large donors, candidates are beholden to the more furtive masters of the rolodex. A case in point is the recent uproar over the Swift Boat idiots. It was rather refreshing that they were backed by one big donor whose politics and methods are widely known. It was a relief from plowing through the articles that detail Pioneers and Rangers and how they arranged for such large contributions. I don't see how Ken Lay giving $200,000 or raising $200,000 makes a difference in the final analysis. It just makes it harder to track.
Finally, there are the people. Some just don't care. Some are in it only for themselves (subsidize my business, cut my taxes). Some have only one issue (Guns; Abortion; Gay Marriage) Some treat the parties like sports teams. (Go Republicans! Liberals are American hating pussies!) Some make incompatible demands (Lower my taxes; Increase my services) Some don't think their demands are incompatible because they have subscribed to various myths (Eliminating "waste" could cure the deficit; Immigrants cause the decifit; Welfare causes the decifit; Bad administration is the only difficuly facing education). All of these groups share a similar distaste for reality that interferes with their beliefs; they categorically refuse to pay attention.
Reform is possible. Moves to instant runoffs, districts drawn by bipartisan, professional committees, and reworking of electoral apportionment could make politicians more beholden to the moderation of the majority than the extremes of minorities. Taking money out of the system through public financing, forcing television to give politicians airtime and limiting how much they themselves could spend on commercials would lessen the hold of moneyed interests and decrease the pressures of the constant campaign. Yet, I, for the life of me, have yet to see a solid proposal for a better electorate.
The media deserves quite a bit of blame, but what can they do if people choose FOX News over PBS, Rush Limbaugh over NPR. If I owned a station, it would be difficult to put on a show featuring Bill Moyers rather than Little Russ. Even if the former is the ten times the journalist, the latter gets ten times the ratings. Similarly, as a politician, the guy who promises universal health coverage, reduced taxes and a budget surplus is going to get more votes than one who admits that expanded coverage either means more money or less benefits and that the Laffer curve is an absurd construct.
The panaceas/silver bullets/cure alls always revolve around the press, education and leadership. When the first is done right, we ignore it. We refuse to fund the second. We do not reward the third. I have a visceral dislike for George Bush and his policies, but a part of me always feels like we are getting what we deserve.