Bramson’s Election Musings – Viewer Guide

By Noam BramsonVoting 2014

I don’t watch much TV — Game of Thrones, Top Chef on DVR.  That’s about it.  So I’ve been pretty disconnected from the ongoing campaign, which is playing out primarily in 30 second advertisements.  Then the other day, I turned on the box for a few minutes.

Whoa!

Heated charges, ominous voice-overs, dire warnings that the end cometh if Candidate X somehow attains public office.

There’s nothing new about this.  We get it every election nowadays, and I was up to my ears in it myself when I ran for County office last year.  But it gets worse with each cycle, as more money gets poured into the process.

It’s easy to understand why so many people feel disgusted by it all and swear off politics entirely.  But if you want to be a responsible citizen in a democracy, that’s not a good option, so I got to thinking about how to sort through these ads and determine which are worth our attention.

First, step back for a moment and consider how, in an idealized world, we would cast our votes.  In this fantasy scenario, every one of us would have perfect knowledge of how the election of one candidate or another would shape the actions of our government, we would be able to predict with perfect accuracy the consequences of our vote, and then we would cast ballots in order to best advance our own interests and values.  In other words, we’d behave like rational actors in classic economics theory.

Well, even if such perfect knowledge were attainable (and it’s not), who has the time?  So, in the real world, we use short-cuts.  We vote for the candidate who belongs to our party, or the candidate who was more cogent in a debate, or the candidate we met at the supermarket, or the candidate who seems like less of a jerk.  All those 30-second ads are aimed at influencing our shorthand, sometimes emotional, impulses.

And the more I reflected on those ads, the more I concluded that the usual standards for judging them — whether they are positive or negative, whether they are nasty or polite, even whether they are 100% truthful or cut some corners with the facts — kind of miss the point.

The better standard is whether an ad moves us closer to or farther away from that ideal, perfect understanding.  Does it connect our vote to future actions and consequences, or does it draw our attention away from future actions and consequences.  In short, does the ad clarify our real choice, or does it insteadobscure our real choice?

How can you tell one from the other?  There’s no foolproof method, but there are a couple of tests that make sense to me.

One, is the ad mainly about who a candidate is or mainly about what a candidate has done and will do?  Anyone can make claims about character, pro or con, and such claims rarely have much to do with the responsibilities of an office-holder.  Give more weight to ads that focus on deeds and plans.

And, two, is the ad about consequential topics or about minor side subjects?   If you’re on the wrong side of the big issues, you try to make the election a referendum on the trivial.  So beware of ads that focus on second or third rank nonsense with short-term emotional punch and no long-term relevance.

Apply these tests, and ads can start to look very different.  A nasty commercial that goes after Candidate X for positions on important public policy may be unpleasant, but it can help clarify our choices.  A gauzy, upbeat commercial featuring the testimonials of Candidate Y’s family may be nice, but it can obscure our choices.

Of course, a lot of this is a matter of opinion.  It would be hard, for example, for a media outlet to subject political ads to an objective clarity-meter, like the more familiar (and largely ineffectual) truth-meters.  But I still find this to be a helpful framework for my own use, and maybe it will be helpful for you, too.

So next time you see an ad for or against a politician, before deciding whether you agree or disagree with the position expressed, before deciding whether the ad leads you to think better or worse of the candidates, ask yourself a more basic question: does the topic of the ad even matter in the first place.  Does it matter to your life, to your family’s life, or the life of your community and country.

If the answer is no, then tune it out.  And if enough of us do just that, it won’t necessarily make our politics less nasty or less polarized, but it might make our politics more relevant, and that would be a step forward.

Guest Blogger Noam Bramson is the Mayor of New Rochelle

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Vote on Nov. 4!

A friend sent me a text today, “If it weren’t for Facebook, I’d have no idea we were having an election this year.”

At first, I thought she was kidding or making a statement about her feed being overrun by political posts.

But she went on to explain that she doesn’t watch a lot of television or get the local paper and most of her day is spent transferring kids from school to activities (read the Monster of Youth Sports here on Free Voter). Checking Facebook on her iPhone is an easy way to spend her waiting time. And, apparently, it’s where she’s learning about these off-year elections.

A few things interested me about this:

1. As a female voter living in a highly contested seat for NY State Senate, she said that she didn’t receive  mailings or phone calls. This is odd because many other people have stated just the opposite – too many calls and too much mail.

2. She also said that she likes the mailings and always reads them. Hmm. Go figure. So many people tend to complain about the mailings, not only the sheer volume of them, but also the content.  Maybe the whole world isn’t as cynical as I thought. Maybe people really do still read….

3. ….just not any local papers. This is a huge issue not just for political campaigns, but for everything that impacts our community.  The local paper used to be the hub. The source. The thing that bound the neighborhoods and created a sense of community.  It’s harder and harder to get the word out about issues or events (not just those of a political nature). So many wonderful community initiatives and resources go under-used and under-funded because the local paper is dying.  And no single online website is “the definitive” source the way the local paper used to be.

So, where does this leave us? Let’s go back to her original statement about Facebook. Can social media really be the new source?  It’s sort of terrifying, but it very well may be true. As someone who often posts or shares political information on Facebook, I have to admit that around election time, I become highly annoyed by the number of political posts as well as the tone of them. Don’t get me wrong: if you want to share facts and information, I’m good with that; I’m not good with the petty or mean posts that seem rampant.

Just today, I saw a post: “Vote Democrat. It’s better than the alternative.” What does that even mean? How is that a thoughtful commentary on what is really one of the most awesome and overwhelming rights we carry as Americans?  Should anyone blindly vote strictly for a party and not spend even a minute doing research on the issues? Let’s face it, each party has its own share of less-than-stellar candidates. Having a party affiliation doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidate subscribes to each and every doctrine of the party (but I suppose we are all naive enough to believe that if THE PARTY nominated the person, they must be good. If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you). In the past elections of my husband, if people voted for his opponents strictly based on party affiliation they chose: a pedophile, a Democrat that was a hard-line right-to-lifer, and a man who, if you did a Google search on his name, would promptly direct you to mugshots.com.  Vote only for the party? I don’t think that’s always the wisest thing to do.  Actually, I can probably train my dogs to just fill in the circles across only one party line – it doesn’t take much intelligence.

That kind of only-one-way-is-right post is irresponsible, narrow-minded and shows that there’s no reasonable perspective left in American politics. It’s part of the concern about the connection between social media and politics. People will click and share a witty but thoughtless, utterly meaningless and most likely vastly untrue status update because it’s easier than actually spending the time to learn what’s going on.  Raise the bar. Have a debate. Talk issues, not parties or personalities.

Remember: you get the kind of government you deserve. The vote is in your hands. Use it wisely.

Jean Maisano
Jean@FreeVoter.com

This Blog’s Purpose – An Informed and Independent Electorate

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In 1789 Thomas Jefferson stated, “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” As usual, Jefferson was correct and that is why we created this blog. In modern America, the voters know way more about television shows, sports and celebrity gossip than about the candidates running in our elections.

We will be discussing the important issues facing our country in an independent and thoughtful manner on the Free Voter Blog. Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow are not good fits for this blog. Join this effort by reading our posts and providing us with feedback through comments.

No one can believe that the current harsh partisanship we see in Washington, D.C. is best for our country. Instead, the Free Voter Blog is advocating for an INFORMED and INDEPENDENT electorate. We believe you should not just vote the party line, but rather follow the campaigns, study the issues and vote for the best candidate in all elections. This blog will set an example for reasoned debate between thoughtful people who truly care about our nation’s future. Please join us on this positive adventure in democracy.

Jim Maisano

Jim@FreeVoter.com