Election Day is overrated. The days just before Election Day are the worst.
Election Day is overrated because elections are overrated. Elections are useful for one thing, and it is an important one: allowing the general public to check the people and parties in power. For all the “throw the bums out” rhetoric, we historically have not done that very often, though in recent years we have swung erratically and dramatically in both presidential and congressional elections. We tolerate more than we should, but we can, when needed, show the powers that be the door.
Beyond that critical – irreplaceable — function, elections are a pretty dumb way to make decisions. Consider three controversial issues: the national debt, our anti-terrorism efforts in the Middle East, and climate change. To get a broad general understanding of the competing policy agendas touching any one of those issues requires a considerable amount of work; to gain a real command of any one of those issues at anything approaching real expertise requires a commitment of years of study and discipline; to truly master any one of those issues is not an avocation, but a career. Never mind that ordinary voters have neither the time nor in most cases the capacity to do that for one of those subjects, much less all three — much less everything we expect federal officials to deal with — the people running for president do not have that expertise, either, nor the time nor, in most cases, the capacity to develop that expertise. Of course they have advisers, but in most cases they lack the training and background to evaluate those advisers as advisers in the relevant field. Instead, they are forced to rely on such nebulous considerations as personal trust and, inevitably, political expediency.
To bundle every important national question (and a great many things that really should not be national questions) into two packages, Option R and Option D, and then reach a decision between them by asking whatever unwieldy cross section of legal adults — out of our 320 million citizens — who are interested enough to show up and weigh in on the question to pick one out of two (or even four) options — you could hardly come up with a system better guaranteed to produce incoherent, contradictory, and ignorant outcomes.
It is true, as the anti-motivational poster says, that none of us is as dumb as all of us. The problem is that it is rare for all of us to be as abusive, wicked, or greedy as any one of us can be when invested with princely power. Hence the division of government into three branches, the bicameral subdivision of the legislative branch, and the ultimate investment of power in the people themselves rather than in any particular person — and, most important, the constraint of the popular power under the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.
They never put it quite this way in Civics 101, but that is what elections are: a crude and clumsy but necessary contribution to the division of political power against itself, a necessary condition for liberty.
That’s Election Day, and we tolerate it because we have to tolerate it. But the day before Election Day is very nearly intolerable.
We have, in a fit of national madness, nominated as our major-party candidates two of the worst of us, two people who are morally and intellectually unfit for the office of the presidency — or for any other office of public trust. There is no good outcome on the ballot: Even the admirable campaign of Evan McMullin offers only the symbolic opportunity to vote without choosing between Evil Clown A and Evil Clown B. Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, two libertarian-to-liberalish former Republican governors, are the two best-qualified men in the race in terms of their actual records in public office — conservatives will find plenty to disagree with in their views, but both were reasonably good and responsible governors. But even though the Weed and Peace party has a couple of unusually mainstream candidates this year, they do not inspire a great deal of confidence.
The United States of America is not a wreck.
But here’s the thing: The United States of America is not a wreck. We have some real problems and real challenges, from the national debt to the Islamic State. But we also are incredibly rich, free, peaceful, prosperous, innovative, productive, and, in our better moments, sober, with a record of responsible self-government unrivaled anywhere in the world. Trumpkin rhetoric notwithstanding, we are not being overrun by Third World hordes and pillaged by wily Chinamen. Mrs. Clinton’s bed-wetting notwithstanding, Americans are not dying in the streets, Dallas doesn’t look very much like Dhaka, and we are not on the precipice of fascism. There is not going to be any revolution or coup d’état whichever candidate wins on Tuesday, and the Democrats who swore there was one in 2000 were as wrong and irresponsible then as they are today.
This is not the end. The people who are telling you that it is — on both sides — are trying to sell you something.
Don’t buy it.
On Tuesday, those who vote will have a choice between A and B. On Wednesday, there will be choices, too: about our jobs, our businesses, our families, our schools, our churches, and cities and states, what we tweet and what we post on Facebook. Citizenship doesn’t start and stop on a Tuesday in November, and voting is hardly the full, or even the most important, expression of what we owe our country, which includes what we owe to those who came before and those who come after. It wasn’t elections that built this country, as important as those are.
We will survive Election Day 2016 and its consequences. And we will have exactly the sort of country we choose to have, because there is nobody building it but us.