This article is particularly appropriate for young people in the United States at this time because this is a year of elections, including a presidential election. It is also a year when for the first time in U.S. history eighteen-year-olds will be able to vote.
The principles and guidance set forth in this article, however, can be readily applied to most democracies where free elections are held.
Political campaigns are an essential part of democracy. They may not always reveal all we wish to know about the candidates, and at times the tactics may disappoint us, but they are our main source of information. Through campaigns we come into contact with the candidates and somehow must warily sift the relevant from the nonrelevant and decide how we’ll vote. It can be tricky.
What are some guidelines to help us peer behind the scenes? What can the average voter do to find out more than surface campaign information? What should he study? What questions should he ask? The following comparisons may help. As you go through a campaign, run down this checklist several times, asking, searching, and studying.
Reason or Emotion. Every voter maintains that his vote is decided upon reason; in actuality, studies show that emotion sways most voting decisions. Fight to drain your decision of emotion. If you feel strongly about an issue, ask yourself why. If you can’t repeat back substantive reasons for your stance based on facts, you may be motivated by undue emotion.
With each advertisement you see on television or hear on the radio, mentally eliminate the supporting music and sound effects. The music track of an ad contributes nothing of substance. It is used as a reinforcer and as an appeal to emotion. Ask yourself: What does this ad tell me if I eliminate music?
The other main appeal to emotion is fear. With the many problems our nations face, there is need for concern. But it must be intelligent concern. Ask yourself: Does this ad portray legitimate and reasonable concern for our problems, or does it exaggerate? Am I being approached as a thinking citizen or as a frightened animal?
Knowledge or Folklore. How did I find out what I know? This question is especially useful at the beginning of a campaign when our memories of past elections and our latent loyalties are being awakened. Separate your understanding into two groups: Those facts that you can verify from credible sources (knowledge), and those you can’t (folklore). Remember which is which so you won’t use folklore in your voting decision and so you can help correct distorted ideas held by friends.
Don’t accept any slogan on face value. Politics is ever-changing. What may have been a good description of a party or a politician a few years ago may not represent reality at all today. Watch out for nutshell history, that glib phrase that pretends to adequately encompass a complex topic. Do such slogans as “End the war” or “Win the war” contribute to serious decision making? Do slogans such as “It’s time for a change” or “A man for our time” actually add to our understanding? Rephrase the slogan: Is it time for a change, and is he the man for our time? And then, why or why not? Scrutinize every slogan. The more clever the phrase, the greater our responsibility to verify its accuracy.
Read about current events constantly. Draw from several newspapers and news magazines. Read what a variety of analysts and commentators have to say. Weigh their sense of values and priorities and compare them with your own. Study the history of your country, the political parties, the candidates. Almost every librarian can direct you to useful material, including incumbent candidates’ voting records. Read one or two pieces of legislation that the candidate voted on and ask yourself how you would have voted had you held his position. Read, study, search.
Issues: Legitimate or Contrived. For each vote you intend to cast, write down what you believe to be the top five problems facing that officeholder. If you’re voting for a U.S. congressman, for example, write down the top five problems facing his district. Next consult the published public opinion polls to see how your perceptions compare with those of your neighbors. Now as you go into a campaign, write down the top problems each candidate appears to be emphasizing. How do the lists compare? Which candidate most closely emphasizes the problems that concern you and your neighbors? What solutions does each offer? How well thought out are the proposed solutions? How do they compare with what you personally would do to solve each problem?
Some issues lend themselves to dramatization more readily than others. Crime issues, for example, are much easier to emphasize than a complicated economic situation. But the economic issue may be more important in a certain district than the crime issue. Check to be sure the candidates are addressing the issues on the basis of actual importance and not on the basis of ease of emphasis. Especially watch for fear appeals here.
Image or Mirage. Our vote is not decided entirely upon issues. A candidate’s characteristics should also be examined. Again get out your pad of paper and write down the five top traits you believe an officeholder should possess: for example, honesty, ability, experience, patience, determination. Now, as you read about and listen to the candidates, which traits does each have and who comes closest to your ideal list? If you get stuck trying to decide, ask yourself: Which candidate do I trust the most? And then: Why do I trust him more than the others?
Strength or Weakness. As each campaign tries to project a certain image for its candidate, ask yourself not only what they are saying, but more important why they are saying it. A campaign manager may fear his candidate is getting too old, so before the opposition points this out to the voters, he may decide to emphasize wisdom, seniority, and experience. These points are indeed strengths, but they are also being used to cover up a weakness. In a recent election a candidate was shown on television in a variety of robust, fast-paced activities. To the average voter he appeared physically active and capable of holding the office. The more astute observer noted, however, that the candidate’s voice was rarely heard in the ads. A few well-placed questions revealed that this was the campaign’s technique for de-emphasizing a throat and voice malady. A legitimate technique? Yes. Nothing says a campaign has to purposely point up weaknesses, which is all the more reason for a voter to look behind the scenes. Ask yourself: Why are they doing and saying what they are?
Promise or Guarantee. “As worthless as a campaign promise.” Unfortunately, this little ditty is becoming embedded in our cultures. And why? Because too many candidates promise more than they can actually deliver. So when you hear campaign promises, ask yourself: What power does the office have? Do his campaign pledges fall reasonably within his jurisdiction and abilities? A mayor of a small city, for example, simply is not going to have much influence on his country’s foreign policy and shouldn’t be promising along those lines.
Distinguish between promises of effort and guarantees of end results. A legislator can promise to introduce legislation and work for its passage, but he isn’t in a position to guarantee it becoming law if the executive says he’ll veto it. Similarly, an executive-type officeholder can promise to ask for authority to institute certain programs, but he can’t promise they’ll become fact if his legislature resists. Weigh and analyze promises of effort, but shy away from guarantees.
Standing or Posturing. Why is a certain candidate running for a particular office? On the basis of his past work, who stands to benefit? How sincere do you believe he is in the reasons he cites for his candidacy? Is he standing for office as a concerned, able citizen, or is he posturing for ego gratification?
Account or Attack. There is a legitimate place for sincere questioning of an incumbent’s actions. We rightly demand an accounting from our representatives. We also have the right to debate with them, hold a differing viewpoint, and bring others to our persuasion. In the intense heat of a campaign, however, care must be taken that questioning does not become a personal attack. If the personal characteristics must be brought into doubt, examples of where these deficiencies have hindered the incumbent in representing his constituents are much better than frontal attacks on the person himself. A campaign with a legitimate complaint will bring out these examples and let the voters decide; a campaign desiring victory through destruction of the opposition will not. Ask yourself: Is the charge a legitimate call for accounting or a personal attack? If personal deficiencies are claimed, would they in actuality hinder the execution of duties, or are they immaterial to the office sought? Also remember that it is more natural for a challenger to be aggressive and the incumbent to be defensive.
Action or Reaction. Be independent in your decision. Base it upon what you have found out, what you believe to be important, what you perceive in the candidates. Don’t support a candidate just because your parents might—and don’t support him just because they might not. Be your own person. But, at the same time, don’t be afraid to gather information from others. A good exercise is to choose three or four people in your community whose opinions you respect most and talk to them. Ask them why they are voting for the candidates of their choice. Use the information they provide—you may or may not arrive at the same conclusions they did. Ask yourself: Am I acting on the information I have gathered or reacting because of parents or peer group?
Candidate A or Candidate B. You have now arrived at your decision. Take whatever time you need to mull over the information you have gathered and then make a tentative choice in each race. Now search out acquaintances who have made the opposite decision. Talk with them, ask them why they are voting for their candidates, and volunteer the reasons you are voting for yours. You will find out how well you have thought through your decision. By all means don’t be afraid to change if someone advances compelling information you haven’t considered. Debate and discuss, but remember that little is gained from arguments. And then, when you are finally content with your selections, enter into the excitement of representative government: work and campaign for the candidates of your choice.