No doubt everyone is relieved to have the election behind us, even if some of us are less than ecstatic about its result. The president-elect and Democrats in Congress very much want to move forward, talk about the future and get busy on their agenda. After all, the oceans aren't going to stop rising on their own.
Of course, how we move "forward" (quotation marks are necessary because one man's forward is another man's backward) depends very much on how we view the larger meaning of the election. Was this a vote for radical leftwingery or a vote for moderation? Is the electorate pro-liberal or merely anti-Republican? What did voters have in mind? What do they expect?
The nice thing about such questions is that you actually get real debate about them, and we'll be hearing lots of that in the weeks and months ahead. But there are other questions no one ever asks, in part because our political discourse is choked with stupefying clichés and gassy assumptions about what matters and what doesn't.
So while the election is still fresh in our minds, let us look at some of the goofy assumptions and buzzwords that defined so much of the coverage discussion this year.
Ever since the primaries, Democrats have been promising to be "agents of change" (which kind of sounds like a brand of James Bond villain; watch out -- he's an agent of C*H*A*N*G*E). It's a weird quirk of our television-soaked culture that we think change is a good in and of itself. The phrase "change the channel" is a ubiquitous explanation for voters' desire to be done with President Bush. Fair enough, but change has no moral content. Winning the lottery is change, and so is catching a ball peen hammer to the bridge of your nose. The desire for change for change's sake is the stuff of children and attention-deficit disorder.
Speaking of children, the national obsession with the "youth vote" is one of the great embarrassments of deliberative democracy. Why is the participation of youth so vital? According to "youth activists" themselves, it's because they bring so much "passion" to politics. Passion, again, is not necessarily a good thing. Mobs and small children are passionate. There was a time when voting was supposed to be a matter for sober, mature reflection. Now it's more like a fashion statement. "In America," remarked Oscar Wilde long ago, "the young are always ready to give those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience." The only difference now is they get to vote.
In fact, everyone gets to vote, or at least that's the hope of vote-voluptuaries. The country is experimenting with ever-more-novel ways to make it easier for people to join "the process," which makes democracy sound like a digestive phenomenon. Gone entirely is the tradition of Election Day. Now it's Election Week or even Election Month in some states. Voting by mail, online voting, even voting by phone are increasingly in vogue, all because it's assumed that we desperately need input from voters who couldn't be bothered to get off the couch for a normal Election Day but can be coaxed to vote if it doesn't interfere too much with their video game schedule. In Arizona, there was an aggressive movement to make voting into a lottery, where casting a ballot could also lead to a big payday. The logic seemed to be that having the same folks who hang out at the local liquor store or keno parlor move their action to the polling station would enrich our democracy.
Of course, helping the infirm, the handicapped or soldiers overseas cast ballots makes sense. But do we really think the outcomes will be improved if we triple the turnout of the lazy and uninformed?
Apparently, the answer is yes, particularly judging by the virtual deification of "undecided" voters this year. I understand why campaigns care so much about the undecided voter in the last days of the election: They're kingmakers of a sort. But the press lionizes these people as geniuses and, judging from some of the focus groups we've been subjected to, these proudly indecisive and lazy voters actually believe all their good press.
After each debate, some network would convene a focus group of undecided voters who then preened over their lofty status. Pollster Frank Luntz, CNN's Soledad O'Brien or some other enabler would gush over how fascinating it was to talk to "real people." Indeed, so exotic are these creatures, most of the journalists actually observed them from the other side of a two-way mirror, like visitors to the "Earthling Exhibit" on some alien planet in that old episode of "The Twilight Zone." During the debates, the creatures were monitored every second, their instant reactions to the candidates' every vowel and burp were charted, often in real time, for the rest of us to decipher and applaud. Invariably, they shook their heads, more in sadness than anger, and complained they didn't get enough "specifics," as if presidential debates are the proper source of basic campaign information.
And that proves the point. These people are undecided because they don't do their homework. CNN profiled an undecided voter from Nebraska the day before the election who said he is "definitely pro-life" and a single-issue voter on abortion. But, according to CNN, he was still trying to figure out which candidate was pro-life. Um, really? Don't strain yourself trying to figure that one out.