One of the enduring fixtures of American politics is that elections are largely decided by a relatively small group of “independent” voters in the centre. Or at least that’s where we think they are. One of the great principles that such voters will enunciate is that they “vote for the man (and when called upon the woman) and not the party.”
On paper, this is admirable. The personal qualities of an individual in public office are crucial to their success. Some of these transcend party and ideology, although many do not. But this thinking in practice has too many pitfalls to be relied on for superior results in government.
To start with, most independent voters rely on the media for their ideas more heavily than, say, those ideologues on the left or right. This is scary in and of itself. No matter what you think of the bias of the media, the basic problem is that more often than not the mass media frequently does not understand what it is looking at when analysing a given situation, let alone a candidate for office. We discussed this problem in the aftermath of the Israel-Hezbollah war earlier this year and it applies to just about everything the media touches.
Beyond this, however, it assumes that everything in government happens because of the direct orders of the elected officials. If we don’t like what our government is doing, we change its officials and they will in turn change the government to do things the way we like it. That’s the idea behind representative democracy, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, things in reality are a little more complicated than that.
To start with, our legislatures–state and federal–are divided along partisan lines. It isn’t the belief of the senators and representatives that gives control of the agenda to a certain leadership, but party affiliation. A good example of how an entire group of people can be sidelined by their party’s position is that of pro-life Democrats. They can be pro-life all they want but their party has hung its fate on abortion and they have no effective voice as a result, either in their party’s internal system or in the legislatures they control.
Beyond that, we have the spectacle of congressional staffers, who control a lot more of the course of legislators than the legislators care to admit. If the staffers are drawn from the pool of party activists who helped get the legislator elected–or somewhere else–the legislator’s votes will be affected by those staffers, because no legislator is able to understand each and every vote that he or she makes.
Finally we must turn to the most important group of the unelected–the myriads of appointments to federal and state positions. In addition to having a larger than average number of elected officials vs. appointed ones, American government has a large number of appointed positions which are filled at the will of the ruling party. Most of these are filled either because the person is a reliable activist or more commonly for patronage reasons. This insures that people appointed tend to reflect the controlling ideology of the party rather than the diversity of opinions that might exist amongst the majority legislators. This is especially true in the Baby Boomer era, with its deadly combination of political polarisation and control freak methodologies.
The blunt truth is that we don’t vote for just people: we vote for all of the officials that they can appoint. And those appointments are generally reflective of the ideological bent of their party.
Today many conservatives are disheartened by what the Republicans have been doing the last twelve years. Liberals are energised by that prospect. But it’s one thing to have a party that suffers from patronage issues; it’s quite another to have a party that not only lives for them but wants to expand the role of government (and thus the patronage) to more and more aspects of human life. That’s one thing to remember as we go to the polls not only to elect our executives and legislators, but all of the unelected people that go with them. Your vote counts a lot more than you think; use it wisely.