The candidates for president and vice-president have lots of messages for all of us as voters. I have a simple message for them: if you want my vote, stop insulting me. As a voter, I have felt a mixture of fascination, optimism, wariness, and ennui with presidential campaigns for many years. But this is the first year in which I have felt that the candidates think I am stupid and hope I don't even vote.
Let me explain. On the issues, President Obama wants me to believe that raising taxes on those with incomes over $250,000 a year will actually make a serious dent in our $16 trillion national debt. He also wants to scare me, tossing out the one-liner that the Ryan Medicare plan will "end Medicare as we know it." Something has to end Medicare as we know it since its current fiscal trajectory is unsustainable. And, by the way, the Affordable Care Act was designed to end health care as we know it, and the president doesn't see anything wrong with that.
For his part, Governor Romney wants me to believe that drilling for more oil, cutting taxes on everyone, and cutting back regulations will solve the debt problem, along with some 'to be named later' adjustments to tax subsidies and loopholes. His running mate, Paul Ryan, wants me to feel scorn for President Obama's failure to adopt the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, without bothering to add that he, Ryan, voted against those recommendations as a member of the commission.
OK, so both parties' candidates think I'm too dumb to see through all this. They are also pinning their real hopes on the fact that they can keep me, and others like me, from voting for the other guy and in so doing assure their victory.
Again, let me explain. I am an "independent" voter who lives in Virginia, a "swing state." For months, I have been bombarded by political ads attacking the opposing candidate. I can give you twenty reasons NOT to vote for Obama or Romney, but I'd struggle to name three reasons to vote for either one since they so rarely tell me, with any specificity, what they propose to do if elected The chief function of attack ads is to create a negative impression of the attackee. The goal seems to be, if I am not for the candidate who endorsed the ad, to get me to be so disgusted with the other choice that I stay home on election day. They want their partisans to vote and they want to make sure that if they can't move me into their camp that I just don't vote. I never thought I would see an America where both parties are interested in me not exercising the franchise for which hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans have died, but there it is.
This has been carried even further by Republican governors and legislatures in many states with new voter ID laws, whose stated purpose is to prevent voter fraud. Since no one can find more than a fraction of a fraction of one percent of votes that has ever been cast fraudulently, we can assume that the chief purpose of such legislation is to keep a bunch of people without the means to get voter IDs from voting. The Republicans assume, perhaps correctly, that they will thus suppress more Democratic than Republican votes.
Having insulted my intelligence and my patriotism, both candidates in the end also insult my belief that my vote actually means something. Some years ago, Sissela Bok wrote a book titled Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. In it, she told the story of the 1964 presidential campaign in which Lyndon Johnson ran as the "peace candidate," claiming that Barry Goldwater would lead us into war. We found out, well after the election, that all during the campaign Johnson was planning to escalate the war in Vietnam. Bok suggested that, in this way, Johnson disenfranchised voters. When you think you are voting for one stated end (peace) and you are actually voting for just the opposite (war), your vote is rendered meaningless and without effect.
When, on the night of November 6th, either Obama or Romney stands in the warming glow of victory lights, he will claim a mandate from the people. A victory is not a mandate. Achieved in the wrong way, a victory is hollow and wounds the faith in our system of government so essential to our civic life. It discourages civic engagement, and diminishes the agency of voters that is so essential to political progress. When the next president gets there by damaging the very democracy I hold dear, that is perhaps the biggest insult of all.