I would never want to be an American politician. The most innocuous of statements are taken out of context, transformed into “coded” language, or otherwise exploited on Twitter.
Campaigns regularly engage in more cutthroat tactics than the infamous Standard Oil ever considered using to crush competition before being broken up for unfair practices in business.
Character assassination has become a sad matter of course for even journalists who knowingly distort real issues for partisan purposes or to sell papers.
It’s simply a fact in our consummate consumer culture that politicians are packaged like any other product, carefully positioned, and sold to voters like so many tubes of toothpaste.
This is worrisome.
Citizens—no matter which side of the political aisle is their natural home--must not continue to be complicit in a system that only presents glossy brochures, MTV interviews, and air brushed images during election cycles. They must strive to engage in more sophisticated analyses in the marketplace of ideas.
If this happened en masse—if there was less focus on the superficial and more focus on the substance—more people would want to serve in public office. More people would get elected on merit over image.
So how might we fix the system?
To start, instead of simply going down a checklist of the most facile planks of a general party platform to make a decision for the next leader of the free world, voters can open the ‘candidate boxes’ right now and delve inside the entire contents apart from the packaging.
After all, we should be able to agree that both 2012 candidates are more complex than a single talking point. In a two party system, national candidates must appeal to disparate groups to get enough votes to win. As a result, no candidate is ever going to be a perfect fit for any one special interest constituency.
In this context, Mitt Romney’s candidacy is worth studying.
Rather than being a monolithic group with just one outlook, many Romney voters are sophisticated thinkers who don’t rely on one-word labels to inform their decisions. They feel on measure Romney would make a better president than Obama. This is true even when many of these voters know they would have honest, vigorous debates with other voters in the Romney coalition.
For example, Libertarians who scorn government interference in their private lives are often not in agreement with Evangelicals on social issues. However, after careful analysis, they see a statist approach to governance as more of a threat to an individual’s right to self-determination than any Sunday school sermon.
Therefore, many sophisticated Libertarians have walked straight into the Republican tent. They do this because they feel less federal spending will have more of an impact on everyone’s individual rights than the Republican Party’s current position on gay marriage. (Even hardcore conservative Dick Cheney doesn’t agree with his party on this one. In fact, he supported gay marriage while President Obama was “evolving.”)
Conversely, as fervently as they advocate for their understanding of Christian tenants in politics, many Evangelicals find common ground with liberty loving Mormons who believe faith is a personal matter of conscience.
Instead of worrying about the semantics of a candidate’s theology, sophisticated Evangelicals want a president to more closely adhere to first principles when it comes to religion. While they will discuss points of contention, they have grown weary of hearing that everyone’s beliefs have merit except their own.
Women can also disagree about abortion. However, smart women need not be manipulated by a false narrative on restricted reproductive rights, which has been designed solely to distract from their financial health and the implications of unemployment on a million choices that have nothing to do with babies.
As Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, has said, “I am not always in agreement with everything that is written in the Republican platform about social issues, but I know that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are going to respect the views of those who may disagree….”
Sophisticated women like Rice may care deeply about choice, but they are not so narrow as to make a decision this election based solely on an issue that isn’t even in the purview of the executive branch. They—like their pro-life peers—also know Mitt Romney has never once proposed banning birth control.
Then there are Democrats who will vote for Romney. They may disagree with many Republican positions, but they are sophisticated voters. National security is a president’s most sacred duty, and they concede it is only intellectually honest to feel the current administration’s response to Libya has been—at best—disingenuous if not downright egregious.
Ultimately, I would not want to be an American politician, but I believe we all have a duty to become sophisticated voters right now. Political packaging doesn’t matter. Rather the full contents of the candidate are what should count.