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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How I Managed to Miss the Election


I have a passion for politics. Thus, I deeply regret that about the only access I have to its vicissisitudes is through the media, so beloved by Americans today. The truth is, I’m what once would have been called, metaphorically, of course, a “junkie.” You can imagine what this means for me during the year of a general election. At least I had the sense to wait until January 1, 2008 to tune in to campaigning that had already been going on for nearly a year. I vaguely recall the relief I felt when the primaries were over.

That was nothing compared to the relief I now feel about being able to think about something other than the future condition of the United States of America. That was such a huge responsibility. The election took that particular weight off my shoulders. It was as if the fate of our national culture had been decided and there was nothing left to do about it. My vote had been cast (by absentee ballot), and my contribution—the climax of hours, days, and months of careful analysis of every nuance of truly weird media coverage—was complete.

But there’s something else that fills out the explanation for my equanimity subsequent to this particular election decision: I missed it! I missed the election!! I was holed up in a cabin on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, with no TV, no radio, no web connection. I did have popcorn and a microwave, but that didn’t translate into an evening of couch potato, election-watching entrancement—I mean, enchantment—that has been my joy every four years since Ronald Reagan challenged Jimmy Carter.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. But I’m on sabbatical leave from my teaching duties, and due to a series of unavoidable events, the only days I could work into my calendar for “ideal sabbatical working conditions” encompassed the one day when ideal working conditions would cause deep frustration—November 4, election day.

As it happened, I managed pretty well. I did have a cell phone, so my wife was able to fill me in with admirable brevity and enviable composure. She should have been a news anchor for a major cable network. At any rate, and to my surprise, the call was enough for me. I may have swallowed hard a couple of times. But I got right down to work on my writing projects with virtually no remnants of concern. And so, I owe a great debt to the simple grandeur of the Olympic Peninsula and my dear friends who graciously made their cabin available. I learned that I could survive without the usual inoculation of political serum. I found that I could miss the election . . . without missing the election.

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