As citizens of America, we grade ourselves as failures when it comes to choosing our government, especially at the federal level.
According to Gallup’s oft-quoted statistics, in 1972, 77% of Americans had a “fair” or “great deal” of trust and confidence in the federal government. In 2020, only 48% of us expressed that level of trust in Uncle Sam.
In a democracy such as ours, the government we get is the government we deserve, since it is the government we have chosen. Instead of washing our hands with the blame of elected officials, we would do better to reconsider how we approach voting.
One way to escape that responsibility is to blame others who vote differently than us. If we could just get our guys in, everything would be better, right? The problem with that excuse, is the steady decline of trust in government has been on-going for decades, including times when both parties have held power. It can’t be written off as dissatisfaction with a particular party or elected official.
Here are some things to consider that may make a difference in the quality of government we elect.
Beware of candidates who build their platform on a general disdain for government.
I’m not referring to those who espouse small versus large government, but rather those that seem overtly hostile to government. An individual hostile to the auto industry will never be a board member or CEO of General Motors. A person who despises oil companies will never be picked for a leadership position in Exxon-Mobile.
No matter how talented a manager they may be, it will never happen, because it just won’t work. Those persons have nothing positive to add to the organization and are usually serving a very narrow agenda. Yet in our desire for better government, we often fall for candidates who offer little more than their sneers about Washington or Harrisburg. Several terms and a decade or two later they are still sneering and we are still voting for them, while complaining about the consequences.
Vote in primaries. Those who forgo primaries are allowing others to limit their choice in the general elections. Because of closed primaries and lower turnout, a single vote is much more influential in a primary as opposed to a general election.
In Pennsylvania, if you are registered as an independent, register for one of the major parties. You can still vote independently and are not obligating yourself to the party’s ideals. By remaining an independent, the only statement you are making is that you are willing to allow the parties to disenfranchise you from primary voting. Having a large number of voters registered as independents tilts the odds to primary candidates that appeal to a narrow base.
Vote positive. Despite the expressed disdain for negative advertising claimed by the majority of Americans, many of us go to the polls, or mailbox, and cast votes based largely on what others have convinced us to fear.
Instead of being insulted by ads that tell us nothing more than “their man (or woman) is worse than ours” we eagerly take the bait. We have it in us to choose candidates based on their positive attributes and their expressed position on the issues, if we carefully examine our own motivations before voting. There are times when we may find a given candidate so objectionable that casting a negative vote is the best decision, but for thoughtful voters those times should be the exception rather than the rule.
Respect your independence.
As more of us have become entrenched in left- or right-winged ideologies our dissatisfaction with government has deepened. That is no coincidence. Deeply-held political ideology is an enemy of rational choice. Aligning with an ideology is similar to joining a fraternity or club.
The social pressure exerted by the ideological group, often fed through social media contacts, encourages us to make decisions such as others in the group, rather than following our own values and wisdom.
And those deeply entangled in ideology resist the compromises necessary for a successful democracy.
Finally, use the whole ballot. Neither party has served our country’s interests so well as to have earned the loyalty shown them by habitual straight-party voters. No one likes being taken for granted and straight-party voters almost always are.
The government we have is a reflection of us and our voting habits. If we don’t like that reflection, which poll after poll shows is the case, then we must change how we approach voting.