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Stop Pandering to Those Lazy Undecideds

October 22, 2000|JONAH GOLDBERG | Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist and editor of National Review Online. Copyright National Review, 2000

If you are honestly torn between eating a thick, juicy porterhouse steak or gnawing on a month-dead raccoon, you are not considered a gourmet. Generally, we do not expect a person who walks into a theater halfway through the film to be the most knowledgeable about what's happening in the movie. In no sphere of human activity do we automatically associate indecision, laziness and ignorance with shrewdness, commitment and expertise. No sphere, that is, but one. In American politics today, undecided voters are revered as the most virtuous and committed of citizens.

Campaigns pander to them, which is understandable; their votes are political gold. But what does it say about the American media that they treat the least-engaged and least-serious voters with the highest regard? Read the newspapers and you will see statements by these voters combed over for significance every bit as lovingly as the ancient Roman soothsayers would try to make sense of animal entrails. An example from the Boston Globe: " 'One day [I'm] for Gore (her mother called from California to say he'd protect the environment), the next day it's Bush (she thinks he's funny). . . . If I had to go out to dinner with one of them, I'd choose Bush. . . . But here's what goes through my mind. Let's say a meteorite was coming toward Earth. Who has the better judgment? . . . I wish I could decide.' "

On her choice hangs the destiny of a great nation. To see this orgy of ignorance at its most decadent, one need only watch the civic pornography known as the post-debate focus group. For each debate, the major news networks corral a host of citizens and ask them to be pundits.

These "normal people" watch the debates like no other viewers in America do (except journalists), furiously taking notes with a mind toward making an interesting comment to Frank Luntz or Wolf Blitzer in lieu of saying "Hi, Mom" into the camera. Invariably, these lumpen pundits say that they want more "details" or "specifics." I'd like to hear more about education, says one. I didn't hear enough about the Middle East, notes another. Back at the studio, anchors nod like anthropologists at a native religious ceremony.

But how did these people ever get the impression that presidential debates--less than a month before the election--are the traditional or even a good forum for unveiling detailed policies? Perhaps they missed the memo that explained that the answers to most of their questions can be found in these things called "newspapers" and "magazines," and in even greater detail on the campaigns Web sites or on C-SPAN.

The truth behind the mass hagiography of undecided voters is that they are, for the most part, either lazy, ignorant or just plain dumb. Last summer, just a week before the GOP convention, Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project conducted a survey that revealed that three out of four Americans didn't know when the convention would be held. One in four Americans do not know the name of their governor; fewer than half can name their member of Congress or state senator. Half of all Americans are at a total loss to explain what the Supreme Court does. A recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine explored the rising trend among young people to get all of their political news from late-night comics: Almost half of those aged 18 to 29 "often" get information about the presidential campaign from the likes of Jay Leno.

Of course, there's nothing inherently irresponsible or immoral about being ignorant of American politics. One could argue that such apathy is a sign of generic social and political satisfaction. Indeed, those who argue that voter apathy is a sign of deep-seated social alienation usually have a deep-seated interest in stirring up trouble for their own benefit.

Many undecideds are, in all likelihood, not morons but latecomers. Until now they have simply not paid attention to the campaign, and that's why they want to hear more specifics. That's fine, but it should not be considered a sign of merit on their part; we don't think the best math students are the ones who cut class.

The real reason the press is so willing to lionize undecideds is that these voters are essentially independents, which is what most journalists consider themselves. Journalists see their own reflection in the pool of public indecision, their cynicism about the alleged lack of differences between the major parties confirmed in the ignorance of the least-informed voters.

Yet isn't there something morally questionable about putting such voters on a pedestal, and something deeply irresponsible about hectoring them to vote?

The whole point of democracy is that citizens can rationally make their own decisions and determine their political interests. If they are unwilling to make those calculations in a serious way, why do we want them to vote? Voting is the last stage of civic engagement and participation, not the first.

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