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The point is not something as good-government sententious as “oh, why can’t the media focus on the issues instead of irrelevancies?”—though I have no doubt it would be a great thing for the Republic if people were polled and reminded constantly of, say, the answers to this list of mostly unasked policy questions Dave Weigel put together.
The point is, if you really seriously want to make your voting decision based on someone being black or Mormon or old, it’s easy to be sure you have the relevant information. In political markets, it’s very hard to get whatever you might think you are choosing by voting. We frequently have little way of knowing what actual political action we will get out of a candidate, even if we have taken the trouble to study their pronouncements and the records of their advisors—which usually isn’t worth doing given the minuscule effect any one of our individual votes have. Think of George W. “No nation building” Bush, a fiscally conservative Republican responsible for a brain-bustingly expensive expansion in public spending on medical care.
Thus, even those who might vote for John Edwards because of the universal health care scheme could very easily—indeed, very likely—end up not getting it. And no matter how much about George W. Bush we might in retrospect decide we would never have consciously voted for—hello, approval rating in the 30s—our buyer’s remorse does us little good.
Our great need to know every bad thing about politicians beforehand, when it might possibly matter, is why much maligned “negative campaigning” and “attack ads” are so important. There are lots of good reasons for Americans who want liberty, fiscal probity, integrity, or a history of sharp forethought out of their leaders to never in a million years vote for a given candidate, and we can only rely on the competitive pressures of electoral politics to bring us the delightful politics of carping, petty and major, opening up as many wounds in the other politicians as possible. When it comes to people we are contemplating granting the insane powers of the modern American state, it’s the patriotic duty of all of us—candidate, pollster, pundit, citizen—to remind everyone everywhere of every potential bad side of the candidate, from religion to gender to age to, say, actual politics.
We have another year at least to discover all the reasons why no American should ever even consider voting for the “viable candidates” out there. One of them, though, will win. And you can be sure the winner will go on to do many things that many, even most, Americans wouldn't have ever voted for. (In fact, well more than half of Americans, guaranteed, will not have voted for our next president.) But in politics, we don’t get what we choose. We get whatever the person we choose chooses to give us, whether we like it or not.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.