By: Samuel Gelman (Houston, Texas)  | 

Learn How To Vote

While sitting in class one afternoon, waiting for the professor to arrive, I overheard a conversation between two of my peers. They were discussing American politics and the election. One topic led to another, until they arrived at President Donald Trump. Like many Americans, they could not understand how he pulled off his victory. “I just don’t get it,” student #1 said. “Same,” student #2 replied. “This would have never happened if Obama ran for a third term.” Confused, student #1 looked at his friend. “I’m almost positive the president can only serve two terms.” Now also confused, student #2 replied: “I’m pretty sure he can serve for as many as he wants. Look it up.”

With this conversation the two students answered their own question. The reason Donald Trump is sitting in the White House is because the average American voter is an ignorant and irrational voter. They don’t know basic information about their country or government and don’t base their vote on policy, instead allowing their emotions to get the best of them. And to all the Democrats smirking right now, I include us in this category as well. Who were the two people that we put all of our support behind? A scandal ridden Hillary Clinton, whose policies would have kept us in the same divided and lost state we are in now, and a “revolutionary” senator from Vermont, with little foreign policy experience and an economic policy that would have been disastrous for the country.

In order to place a competent President into office Americans must first understand what they are voting for. Sadly, we as a nation do not know much about our government. Many of us have seen those Youtube videos where a guy goes on the street and asks random people basic questions about American history and government, only to have them all give ridiculously incorrect answers. That is not staged or edited. This is a real problem in America. According to a poll taken by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind program, 66% of Americans can’t name the three branches of government, 31% can’t name the party that controls Congress, and 79% can’t name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. But wait, there’s more. A national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that 28% of Americans think that a 5-4 ruling is sent back to Congress and 12% think that the right to have a pet is stated in the Bill of Rights.

With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that Donald Trump is going by the title of President. If Americans can’t understand the basics of our government, then there is no way they will understand the complex issues facing our nation, including race relations, immigration, the South China Sea, or military reform. This allows candidates like Sanders and Trump to strip the issues of all their substance and presents the voters with a skeleton explanation of the problems facing our nation. Yes, the rich have played a large role in our economic problems, and yes immigration hurts American workers, but it is not only the rich that are to blame and immigration also helps our country grow. Presidential candidates know that Americans don’t understand the full issues so they present us with easy explanations, tricking us into voting on a misinformed and ignorant basis.

Due to the fact that many voters don’t know much about their country or its political issues, they end up basing their votes on other, less important factors. Some voters will ignore policy altogether, instead focusing on the candidate’s personality. A great example comes from the election of 2004. During the campaign, a majority of voters stated that they felt that President Bush had mishandled the economy and the war in Iraq, and that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Despite this, 70% said that they would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry and that they trusted Bush to walk their dog more than they did Kerry. It did not matter what policies Kerry advocated. He did not have the right personality to win.

President Trump’s victory similarly shows how personality affects votes. Part of President Trump’s appeal was that he was blunt and “honest.” He said what was on his mind, ignoring political correctness and any other social norm that got in his way. It did not matter that what he was saying was hurtful to the social fabric of the country or just plain false. The fact that he was willing to say it was enough to grab the attention of many voters and helped establish him as a serious candidate. In a way, he truly did have the “best words.”

Studies show that looks also play a part in American voting. A study by Alex Todorov and a team of psychologists found, after looking at photographs of various candidates, those who were rated as “competent” were more likely to win elections for the House, Senate, and state governor. Not surprisingly, a follow up study showed that looks played a larger role with voters that were less informed on the issues (bringing us back to my earlier point about education on the issues). A study conducted by MIT found similar results and even attributed Senator John Thune’s 2004 Senate victory over then Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to Thune’s good looks.

Another aspect that the American voter will base their vote on is the brand that the candidate presents. This election especially saw the defeat of ideology at the hands of brand. Both Senator Sanders and President trump took full advantage of the brands they represented. Sanders positioned himself as the clean and no nonsense Senator who would come to Washington to remove the oligarchy and restore American democracy, while Trump used his name and business (successes?) to paint himself as the only one who could bring America back to its glory days. Both campaigns were highly reliant on slogans, imagery, and the way the candidates played their respective characters. They were not bound to policies or ideas, which is why Sanders did not have to present a viable economic plan and why Trump was able to switch from a Democrat to a Republican. People loved them for what they represented and the way they made them feel, not for what they would actually accomplish.

Despite all of this, the question of why we remain so uneducated about our political system remains. Some blame the education system and the lack of classes on government in current curricula. Others say that pop culture and social media have turned the population into an uneducated mass that thrives on instant gratification and, therefore, can’t handle a complicated political system like that of the United States. While these may play some role in the epidemic of ignorance, the true answer lies in how our political system is set up. The American electoral system and the winner take all rule that most states use makes many individual votes irrelevant, as it is easy to predict which way certain states will vote as a whole. New York will remain a Democratic stronghold for years to come, and Texas will always vote Republican. Since their individual votes don’t seem to really matter, there is no incentive for Americans to invest in the political system and the issues. If Americans don’t view their individual votes as significant, they will treat them as a joke, which turns our political system into a joke and allows unqualified candidates to win elections. The individual cost of investing in our political system exceed the individual gains, and until that changes nothing will change.

If Americans want to continue to govern themselves, they must show that they care and that they take voting seriously. Until we can find a way to educate the general populace, we will continue to see more candidates like Sanders and more wins like that of President Trump. Winston Churchill said that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Let’s prove him wrong.