Why Winning a Presidential Election Is No Big Deal

Of course, being the President of the United States is a big deal. For one thing, you get to sit behind a cool desk and look powerful. (Apparently, however, it does’t take long to discover that even a president-elect has limited powers. Our current PE, Mr. Barack Obama, has already revealed plans to be more realistic than his campaign promises.) You get to travel the world and talk to all the other really important people. You get to live in the Big White House. And someday, you’ll have a giant library with your own name on it, dedicated to reminding everyone of your past greatness.

Still, there’s a sense in which winning an election, even a presidential election, is no big deal. It may attest to your campaign prowess, your ability to raise more money than you can spend, and your ability to look presidential. But does it establish that you are the rightful heir to presidential power? Constitutionally it does, certainly. But is this the only sense that matters, in a democracy? It shouldn’t be. A citizen becomes President by garnishing a sufficient amount of support from voters. And it’s the constitution of today’s voter, not the Constitution of the United States, that requires chastened realism about the significance of an electoral victory.

Since the voters decide who is to be president, the quality of the decision correlates with the quality of the electorate’s decision making powers. With this in mind, I’m led directly to wonder: how does it feel to win an election, knowing that those who voted for you, as a block, have no idea why you deserve to be President? Fortunately, with all the preparations before Inaguration Day, there is precious little time for sobering thoughts along these lines. Unless you’re not the president-elect and you don’t have such great matters to distract you. Then you can ponder the wisdom of the electorate—if you have the stomach for it.

There’s a common form of argument called modus tollens. It goes like this:

  1. If P, then Q.
  2. Not-Q.
  3. Therefore, not-P.

If P stands for “The majority of the electorate in the 2008 general election voted wisely,” and Q represents “The decision to elect Barack Obama as the the 44th President of the United States was a wise decision,” then we get the following argument, using the above schema:

  1. If the majority of the electorate in the 2008 general election voted wisely, then the decision to elect Barack Obama as the the 44th President of the United States was a wise decision.”
  2. The decision to elect Barack Obama as the the 44th President of the United States was not a wise decision.
  3. Therefore, majority of the electorate in the 2008 general election did not vote wisely.

I don’t think we need such an argument to establish the conclusion in statement (3). That’s because there is plenty of independent evidence that the electorate did not vote wisely, and, strange as it may sound, this has almost nothing to do with Barack Obama. The most salient evidence has to do with the appalling illiteracy of the American electorate, about history and economics, about values and political theory, and a host of other things.

Some who voted in the recent election believe that the Revolutionary War was won at the Battle of Gettysburg, that the Holocaust is a Jewish holiday, and that Lithuania is stored in a bottle in mother’s medicine cabinet. Suppose we subtract from the electorate any person who believes any one of these things, or anything else akin to such things. Why would we do that? Not simply because their beliefs are silly in the sense of being mistaken, but because they are silly in the sense of being believed for the reasons people who believe such things believe such things. Wouldn’t that be a step in the right direction, a kind of minimalist step, to get decision makers with a modicum of knowledge and knowledge-acquisition skills, capable of making wise decisions about who gets to sit behind the Big Desk?

To be sure, the intelligence test I’ve just proposed is pretty minimalist. It doesn’t account for level of reasoning ability. We should want our voting citizens to be well-informed and capable of basic critical reflection. Two of my examples of “silly beliefs” are taken from Lewis H. Lapham’s article “Playing with Fire” (Lapham’s Quarterly, Fall 2008). Lapham writes, “Why would any politician in his or her right mind wish to confront an informed citizenry capable of breaking down the campaign speeches into their subsets of supporting lies?” That’s an excellent question. It’s meant to be rhetorical: no politician today would wish such a thing. If Lapham is right about that, then we need different politicians. But then they might not be the politicians we deserve.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

3 Responses to Why Winning a Presidential Election Is No Big Deal

  1. emjay says:

    I’ve been thinking for a while that a Responsible Voters Act ought to be passed. I assume that lots of people have thought of such a thing, though I don’t know if any serious attempts have been made.

    Here’s the rough idea: In each state, a bipartisan commission would compose, say, five to ten questions about important policy issues. Each voter would be required to pass a short quiz answering questions about candidates’ (or parties’) positions on those issues in order to be eligible to vote. This wouldn’t solve any problems of “deeper ignorance” like those to which Doug alludes, but at least we could be confident that voters actually knew what they were voting for.

    Just a thought.

    Like

  2. Doug Geivett says:

    Hello GrandConjunct,

    I really have no idea.

    Like

  3. I know this way off topic, but what are the requirements to get
    an Invite to the Mind and culture . com web page ?

    Like

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