Poll Dancing

Politicians love to tout how they are just doing the will of the American people.  This is usually backed up by a poll of some sort showing a majority of their constituents are behind whatever it is they are proposing to do.

On the surface this seems to be the very essence of democracy.  Let the people decide.  There’s only one little problem with that… the polls would indicate that people are idiots.  Not all of them mind you.  I’m sure your bubble’s on the level, but there’s a non-trivial number of folks out there leaning more than a few degrees off of plum.

Consider that a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted near to Obama’s birthday showed that only 42% of Americans could say they had no doubts the President was born in this country.  Another 29% went out on a limb and said he probably was born in this country, which still leaves nearly 3 in 10 Americans in doubt of a fact that is about as demonstrably true as it could be.

Obama’s Hawaiian birth is not a matter of opinion.  The documentation exists.  It’s been vetted.  Even the conservative Republican governor of the state vouches for its authenticity.  Doubting Obama is a natural born citizen is about as rational as claiming we faked the moon landings.  Yet the idea persists and has even grown larger to the point where a majority of us have at least some doubt.

Now consider, these are the same people being polled on complex and abstruse issues like how to salvage the economy, how to handle Afghanistan, how to reign in health care costs, and how to manage our energy policy.  These are same people to whom politicians are listening in order to make decisions about our future.

This would be like having a friend who insisted smoking improved his health and then seeking his counsel on how to manage your IRA.  If he’s delusional about the straightforward stuff, why would you trust his opinion on something complicated and important?

We live in a representative democracy for a reason.  True democracy, where everyone gets to vote on everything, is simply insane.  It assumes everyone has an equally valuable opinion.  They don’t.  I don’t ask my dentist for advice on auto insurance for the same reason I don’t care if my neighbor supports supply-side economics.  I want advice from people who know what they are doing.

The way our form of government is supposed to work is that we elect people to represent our interests.  That doesn’t mean they vote just as you would have if you were there.  It means they enact policy that is ultimately a net benefit to their constituents.  At the end of their term they are graded on the results.  Good performance is rewarded with another term, bad performers go home.

However, our current system of 24-hour news, video archives, and incessant polling has resulted in politics having become an unrelenting popularity contest.  The campaign never ends.  No one works for long term net gain.  Everyone is just trying to survive the next news cycle.  Witness the recent defeat of the 9/11 healthcare bill in the House.  Democrats allowed the popular bill to die rather than risk having to vote on Republican amendments they expected the GOP to offer simply as fodder to embarrass them during the 2010 elections.

The perpetual campaign has also enabled the corporate takeover of politicians.  They need the money to keep the campaign going, and deep corporate pockets are bigger cash fire hoses than individual $25 donations.

The solution is not at all clear.  Less transparency in government would mean less news and less polling, but would be hard to defend as a step forward and would likely usher in more corruption than it cured.  It seems the rational solution has to lie somewhere in the realm of politicians who need not sweat reelection.  Politicians free to act in our best long-term interest without fear of repercussion.

Might this be accomplished with term limits?  Perhaps.  But that only really frees up the politician once he’s in office on his last term.  Further, term limits eliminate the notion of senior politicians with lots of experience.  In some cases, that experience could be a good thing.  Maybe it’s something more like indefinite terms.  Let’s say a Congressman is elected to serve a minimum of two years, but will serve indefinitely until his constituents force him out with a vote of “no confidence”.  Then his term ends on the next election day and he can’t run again.

There are likely better ideas, but the key point being that we need to break out of the popularity contest model.  That was annoying enough when it was used in high school for the student council.  The stakes are much higher in this case, and politicians need the freedom to act long term rather than be puppets dancing on strings held by people who think the sky is green.

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