Paul Jacob

It's an election year, so we can expect a lot of nonsense. But more important than "who said what" and "what did he know and when did he know it" are the more general myths we vote by.

1. Your Vote Counts

If you're lucky, your vote is counted. But how much is it really worth? Even how you value your vote differs, say, from how you value the dollar you spend at the corner store.

You want a snack? For your dollar you can get a chocolate bar, or a licorice rope, or some chips. Your dollar matters, because with it you can get something you want. Whichever you prefer, it's yours. Choose the item, plunk down your dollar, and immediately you get what you want.

Not much like a vote, is it?

You'd like to be represented by Rufus T. Firefly, or not be represented by his opponent, Larson E. Whipsnade. So, you take the ballot and put a mark next to the Firefly name. Your vote is indeed counted. But does Firefly's ascent to office depend on that vote? It depends on the votes of a mess of people. If this election plays out like nearly every other in history, even had you switched your vote to Whipsnade, Firefly would have been elected. Your vote does not make a difference in the outcome.

Already 32 states have been written off as uncompetitive by either the Bush or Kerry campaign. True, in the 18 states in play, your vote might matter. But would you put you money on the counter if all you could say is you might get a product?

2. Non-Voters Are "Apathetic"

A few days before Vladimir Putin's overwhelming electoral victory in Russia, the Wall Street Journal printed an article under this heading: "Putin's Main Rival Is Apathy." On the same day, the Houston Chronicle asserted that "Voter apathy keeps growing for primaries." Neither article justified the word choice.

Use of the word "apathy" smuggles in more than a tincture of moral disapproval. The word, after all, means "lack of interest or feeling; indifference." One isn't supposed to be indifferent on matters of grave political concern.

Truth is, many people who "stay away from the polls in droves" aren't apathetic about the outcome. They often have strong preferences. But they just don't see how their vote can make a difference. And they are usually right--and not just because their vote has little instrumental value.

We vote, after all, for reasons other than deciding elections. We vote to express our allegiance to certain ideals, principles, parties, and candidates.

But what is a voter supposed to do after she's figured out that the candidates most likely to win routinely lie about their agendas, do precisely the opposite of what they say, and behave remarkably like their opponents when in office?

Figure it's not apathy that keeps her away from the polls; it's disgust.

3. The Party of the "Common Man"

It's often said that "there's not a dime's worth of difference" between Democrats and Republicans. Most party members disagree. Republicans claim that Democrats are dangerously anti-business, and favor big government. Democrats say that Republicans favor the fat cats over the little guy, and are set out to slash domestic programs for those in need.

Well, these charges may reflect the values of blocks of party members, and hence the rhetorical strategies of politicians who curry their favor. But they rarely have much to do with actual legislative behavior.

How do Democrats fight big business? They add regulations; so do Republicans. But unlike Republicans, they often talk about "making big business pay its share" and ending "welfare for the rich." So how do Democrats behave?

How often do you hear Democrat politicians talk about getting rid of the Export-Import Bank, the federal program that multinationals milk for all it's worth? If they mention it at all, they merely want to increase the bank's loan subsidies, or to add a political agenda to some of the loans.

America's vast expenditures and regulatory supports for huge agribusiness companies get even more Democratic support. Even Democratic Senator William Proxmire, who in his day made a big deal of his Golden Fleece Awards for idiotic government expenditures, worked diligently for subsidies to agribusiness.

So it comes down to taxes. The Democrats favor soaking the rich, right? Yes and no. Rich individuals always appear to be fair game for them. But businesses? That depends.

In state after state, governors, legislators, and lowly city councilpeople work mightily to relieve large companies of their tax burdens. Localities around the nation compete with each other to make special tax cuts for the biggest of companies, ignoring the little ones that are the mainstays of their economies. Such tax breaks and "deals" for businesses adds up to at least $40 billion per year.

Now, this is a bi-partisan effort. Governor Jeb Bush of Florida has earned a great reputation for his version of crony capitalism. But Democrats enthuse about these deals at least as loudly as Republicans do. The Democratic governor of Washington State just set a new record, throwing nearly four billion dollars in "special deals" at Boeing.

After all, Democrats "know" only one thing: government is the key to everything. So when they want to encourage economic growth, they will never be content to even the playing field. They must "do something." That's often a tax break, or a special favor--welfare for the rich.

4. The Party of "Small Government"

Republican politicians bill themselves as opponents of Big Government to their fiscally conservative supporters. As I've often noted in my Common Sense e-letters, to see how wrong this is just look at the record of the current Republican-controlled Congress and Executive Branch:

  1. Special-interest pork is up to record-high levels.
  2. President Bush proudly touts his whopping Medicare increases and the massive educational centralization of "No Child Left Behind."
  3. The rate of increase in government expenditures ballooned after Clinton left office.
  4. There seems to be no program not worth pumping money into--even the Republicans' old whipping boy the National Endowment for the Arts has been favored with a 17 percent increase!

Look at the record, look at the obvious: If GOP politicians nurture small-government convictions, it's obvious they don't have the courage of those convictions. Or else they lack the smarts to see them through.

But lack of cunning is one of the few problems not afflicting our politicians.

An End to Myths?

Only in the 24 states and the majority of U.S. cities where citizens can avail themselves of initiatives and referenda do citizens go to the polls with their heads held high--casting votes that might actually result in the policy desired. The rest of us are stuck choosing politicians, who lack convictions, much less the courage that goes with them.

But, don't drink the elixir of myth. Let us go to the polls with our eyes wide open. Whether you smile knowingly, or curl your lips in disgust, well, that's your choice.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.