Turning off all media for 48 hours does amazing things for clarity. When you return, the insane and unintentional comedy of the civilized world becomes clear. As Voltaire wrote, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh”. Among the many salient things I noticed after my media hiatus, the U.S. Presidential election stood out as the most curious drama of all. I couldn’t stop laughing, and crying, about how, despite our solemn patriotic pride, we have no idea what we’re doing. Although we’re often asked to vote, we are often too ignorant and self-centered to make good choices.
Our checkered history of presidential voting
Take a good look at the previous presidents of the united states. You can find credible literature describing many of them as both gods and as failures, often for the exact same deeds. In hundreds of U.S. history classrooms, right now, kids are writing papers about whether Reagan, Lincoln or JFK were the greatest, or the worst, presidents in U.S. History. Many historians agree it takes at least a decade to sort out the impact of a presidents actions. Yet we bet so much on rejection or approval of the last president or two: four or eight years, being less than the decade needed to have a sense of what they did well, and what they did wrong.
And experts know a president’s influence is, by design, magnitudes weaker than the public perception: one of three rings of power. By constitutional design the three branches of government keep each other in check, and no matter how great a single president is as an individual, the condition and party balance of the senate and judiciary they inherent determine their fate at least as much as their ability does. Political campaigns stress the individual, but what is harder to evaluate is their skill at working with other branches of government.
While we push as many people as possible to vote, there is no primer, handbook, or tip sheet provided on how to avoid mistakes of elections past. We’ve been doing this election thing for quite awhile, don’t you think we should review how we’ve done? Take a look and see if the way we vote has resulted in what we voted for? And perhaps make some adjustments this time around?
The mistakes we make when voting
Many people vote for self-interest. Construction workers vote for the president they think best understands construction workers (e.g. pro union), Venture capitalists vote for the president they think best serves venture capital (e.g. low taxes), and Star wars fans vote for the president most likely to ban more bad star wars movies (e.g. mandate the imprisonment of George Lucas in a room with only star wars merchandise to wear, star wars food to eat, and post 1983 star wars movies to watch, and force him to write Han shot first a million times on a chalkboard).
But how can it make sense for everyone to vote solely on what suits themselves best? It’s not a United States of Me. Certainly self interest is a major consideration in a vote, but it has to be weighed against others. There might just be people in this country, or challenges to the common good, whose needs are more important to the future of the country than our own. State and local elections often matter more for self-interest than national elections, by design.
And serious weight often goes to superficial things. The jokes about high school elections being popularity contests are apt: we are distracted by surfaces. People forget we are biased towards picking people who look like us, or fit an image of what we think a president should look like. We are easily distracted away from better measures: namely performance, or our estimation of potential for performance. Consider how the JFK and Nixon presidential debate, the first ever televised, gave the GQ-looking JFK an unprecedented advantage over Nixon: those who listened on radio thought Nixon won, while those watching on TV, thought it was JFK.
Many of our greatest presidents were less than telegenic: Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, FDR (he hid the fact he was in a wheelchair). Even Thomas Jefferson loathed giving speeches, believing he wasn’t very good at them. In our short attention span media-rich times many great voices of our past would never have even been heard. Try closing your eyes in the next debate or interview, you might just improve your analysis of what’s being said.
Many people make their list of positions on issues and try to find a candidate that best matches those positions. This is the idealists approach to decision making: why does it matter if candidate A matches your positions if they don’t have the skills to deliver on supporting those issues while in office? Or if they will cause so much harm to the nation at large to outweigh the importance of those positions. The goal for the democracy is to do the greatest good over the long term, meaning it’s likely a mistake to allow regress on many issues just to defend one.
Handy decision making tools like iSideWith, that use multiple choice questions to identify the candidate that best matches your opinions, are useful, but offer zero information on the candidate’s ability to make any of these things happen. And we forget much of what president’s do is respond to issues we never imagined we’d have to deal with (Can you say 9/11, Katrina, and the sub-prime mortgage crisis? None of which showed up on position lists for the 2000 or 2004 elections respectively).
Then consider how shallow our modern debates are: Lincoln and Douglas debated for over 20 hours in 1858, and for a senatorial race! A full days worth of debate might be too much for us today, but the modern presidential debate protocols, diminish the candidates role in representing themselves to the public. Imagine how little need we’d have for pundits and commentary if our candidates were asked to represent themselves against the other in true discourse, with wise/fearless moderators, allowing us the benefit of our own judgments.
How to decode political coverage
The simple test for any political coverage is to ask this: What does this have to do with their ability to do the job? 75% of what gets passed off as commentary on the election fails this test. What you hear is either trivia, gossip, mythology or noise. (For example, McCain’s POW status, while noble and honorable, is not a primary criteria for an executive position. Neither in the case of Obama is one’s race). Pundits have failed when their commentary circles what’s fed to them by campaign staff, instead of applying their expert knowledge to help viewers evaluate the merits of the candidate. They are supposed to help us spot the good ones, or at least point out the attributes to look for, and that can not happen by endlessly dissecting the hidden meaning of a flubbed sentence in a speech, a vague promise, or a mistake of fact, things every president throughout history and forever into the future will, as non-robotic human beings, occasionally do.
The big confusion we make is mistaking the campaign for the presidency. Running a great campaign bears little relationship to being a great president, as the many mediocre and tragic presidencies in our history proves (They ran better campaigns, right?). It’s not like the campaign consist of a presidential Olympics, with simulations and events designed to test their abilities. They don’t even get to play RISK against each other, much less, say, a Will Wright designed ‘Sim-President’ or other cleverly constructed simulation. This means our job as voters is to look past the battles of the campaign and make a decision based on how we think they’ll perform in the real thing.
How to pick a president
It’s nowhere to be found in major coverage, but smart folks have studied what traits led to more successful presidencies. Sure, these things are subjective, but they offer a better framework, based on history, for making our next big bet.
Fred I. Greenstein, Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University, calls out 6 attributes most related to success in office, a veritable scorecard for our use:
- Effectiveness as a public communicator
- Organizational capacity
- Political skill (obviously, but he explains specific traits)
- Cognitive Style
- Emotional Intelligence
Read his descriptions of these skills, as he offers excellent, and easy to understand examples from history.
He also notes this surprising observation:
“Results of the research indicate that great presidents, besides being stubborn and disagreeable, are more extroverted, open to experience, assertive, achievement striving, excitement seeking and more open to fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, actions, ideas and values. Historically great presidents were low on straightforwardness, vulnerability and order.”
Which flies in the face of how the well mannered, A-student, stately-goody-two-shoes personality profile candidates are expected to fit into during campaign season.
The 30 minute prep for picking a good president
Here it is. In 30 minutes you too can have a solid grounding on what makes for a good president, and have everything necessary to make a choice truly in the best interest of the United States.
- Read the Constitution (10 minutes). It’s probably been years since you have, if you ever did. This is the engine the president helps run – how can you pick a president if you don’t understand what they’re running? Essential reading. Should be included in every ballot.
- Skim the Bill of Rights + Amendments (5 minutes). These are the rules the President and government are obligated to play by and protect. Also essential.
- Read the job specs for the Presidency (5 minutes). Written by former editor and chief of Time Magazine, outlines 30 attributes we should be looking for.
- Study the qualities that bear on presidential performance. Princeton professor Greenstein’s short, and excellent, essay (5 minutes).
- Make a position and issue list. Half the list should include your top issues and concerns for the next year, and half should include issues and concerns you imagine over the next ten years.
- Make a scorecard. With the above, you’re now informed about the history of good presidency. Make your own list of ten attributes, and use it to score the candidates.
You’re now prepared to watch debates, listen to the news, and provide historic context and bullshit detection upon what’s said by both pundits and candidates alike.
Bonus material – presidential comparative rankings for all U.S. Presidents:
- Historical ranking of U.S. Presidents
- Rating the presidents, Washington to Clinton
- Related: Why We Vote The Way We Do (Book Review)
Have better, more reasoned advice for Americans? How would you recommend Americans pick a president? Please leave a comment – I’d love to hear your opinions.
By Scott Berkun, September 29, 2008 [Updated September 2016]