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Column: Despite faults, elections in U.S. better than alternatives

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The 2012 election is history. At both a national and state level, neither party had a clean sweep.

In Washington, the Democrats retained the White House and expanded their Senate majority but failed to take the House from Republican control. In Indiana, the GOP got the governor’s mansion and a veto-proof House and Senate but lost the superintendent of public instruction office and a U.S. Senate seat.

What can we observe about the campaign preceding the election? What does it tell us about the political process?

First, it was apparent that candidates of both parties “ran to the middle” trying to forestall the charge of “extremism.” There was no Barry Goldwater proclaiming, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” or a George McGovern proposing to give everyone $1,000 (about $5,500 in today’s dollars).

Indeed, most ads were about trying to label the other guy as being at the far end of the political spectrum. The ads were more about scaring the voting public about the other guy’s “radical” agenda rather than offering a positive agenda.

Second, as usual, candidates on both sides were long on rhetoric and short on details. Stump speeches had catchy phrases, but even a superficial analysis usually revealed the rhetoric to be misleading, inconsistent and illogical.

Although partisans will disagree, it seems to me both sides were guilty of the above-mentioned deviations from high standards of “civil discourse.”

So is our democracy failing? I think not. It is doing what it has always done; it is providing incentives for politicians to appeal to the passions, shallow sensibilities and narrow interests of the average vote. The problem is — and always will be — that these passions, sensibilities and interests are not well formed.

A simple principle of modern political economy (aka public choice analysis) is the median voter theorem that states: To win an election the politician must appeal to middle-of-the road preferences.

It is no accident most elections are relatively close: Both Goldwater and McGovern showed what occurs when a candidate strays very far from the middle by losing in landslides. Although the middle is the best place to be politically, it is not at all obvious it is the best place to be from a policy perspective; indeed, as Ambrose Bierce said, the middle-of-the road is where you get run over.

But it gets worse. I know of no race in Indiana in 2012 where the outcome actually hinged on one vote. So despite endless civic admonishments telling us our vote is powerful and that it really, really matters, the simple fact is had you not voted Nov. 6, nothing would be different.

If one’s vote doesn’t really matter, there is little cost in exercising one’s vote without much attention to messy details such as facts or logic. It’s not that the public is stupid. It is, however, “rationally ignorant” in economic language. We should all be well-informed, thoughtful voters, but there is no real payoff for that.

When voting, it is much easier and entertaining to fall back on platitudes, personalities and knee-jerk self-interest. That is exactly why slick slogans, glib phrases and stretching the truth will always be part of electoral politics.

As pessimistic as this seems the alternatives to periodic voting for our leaders are all worse. The nation of Syria is making a political decision in a different and much more costly way than we just have. The billion dollars spent in the United States on insipid political ads are small potatoes by comparison.

We can at least be grateful that we resolve our differences through ballots and not bullets.

Cecil Bohanon is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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