How to Pick a Candidate: When Ignorance is Bliss

clinton-shortsWith the election less than a week away, it’s time to talk about the most important thing any of us will do in the near future: pick a candidate, not just for president, but for the state, local, and Congressional offices on every ballot.

I won’t presume to tell you who to vote for, especially between our two embarrassing presidential candidates, but I can tell how to vote. I can let you in on the secret to picking a good candidate that I learned while spending five years of my life surrounded by Congressmen, Senators, and their entourages in Washington, D.C. It’s really quite easy: Be superficial.

Let’s unpack that.

The last thing you should care about is where a candidate stands on “The Issues.” That’s because The Issues, as they are, are held hostage by two much larger forces: Politics and Procedure.

Politics is the reality of electoral math, or in this game, survival. Right or wrong, elected officials operate by the same principles as any other employee: Their two main priorities are moving up and not getting fired.

Politicians avoid getting fired by pleasing their voters, which often means voting against their conscience to appease the masses. Meanwhile, they can move up by ingratiating themselves with their party masters, which often means sitting down, shutting up, and doing whatever they’re told. Neither of these impulses grows from a deep well of integrity to The Issues, but they are necessary for survival. And survival always has been and always will be the prime motivator in American democracy.

A politician’s second master is Procedure, or The Rules of the Game. The Founding Fathers saw to it that our government was divided at every level, not just between branches but within them, too. This is especially true in Congress, where authority is broken up between many committees and subcommittees and refereed by byzantine parliamentary rules. By stashing power in rivaling bureaucracies and assigning maddening procedures to govern when, how, and who can change the law, our Founding Fathers wisely installed a series of hurdles that make it almost impossible for any one person to accomplish anything.

Which brings us to the least important thing in politics: Ideas or The Issues. By the time a politician takes out a pen and paper and gets down to the meat and potatoes of lawmaking, the table is already set. How is that? Because political reality (the number of votes available) and procedural hurdles (the number of Gates of Doom that idea must pass through) have already drawn the shape of the end product. The ideas that become law are really just the mushy filler that gets squeezed in between.

That’s why it’s ok to be superficial when you choose your candidates. Because look, if we’re being honest, it doesn’t really matter what any individual politician thinks, because even a President can’t do much alone.

Try this exercise. Who is your favorite president? Not in history but in your lifetime. Ask yourself why, and I’ll bet you can’t give a real answer, or at least nothing beyond the logline of a Wikipedia entry. You connected with that president for a superficial reason. You liked his style. You trusted his character. He handled himself with poise. And even though you don’t know much about the sausage-making he oversaw from the Oval Office, you’re inclined to believe he did it for the betterment of mankind.

So as you consider voting this Tuesday, let that free you as you choose among imperfect candidates.

Good candidates aren’t the ones who stand on their principles and say they know everything or can do everything. That’s not how democracies work. Good candidates are the ones who understand their role in the system. They know when and how to act to empower their constituents. They also know when to sit back let some one else take the lead.

Good candidates know that they’re replaceable organs in institutions that existed long before them and will exist long after. Good candidates prioritize the health of democracy over their own career. Most important, good candidates are people who have the character to make hard decisions based on imperfect information day after day, because that’s what governing is really about.

So when you go to the polls, don’t stress over The Issues. Worry about Character.

Pick the person who makes you feel good, who is self-assured, confident, and as often as possible, humble, too. The specifics of his or her tax plan don’t really matter, since it’ll be sliced and diced by 535 Congressmen and Senators, one President, 50 states, and a fiercely independent Judiciary anyway.

What matters is the quality of that one person standing alone inside the colossus of American Government, a bureaucratic leviathan that tames an empire of 300 million people, an economy worth $18 trillion annually, and a military arsenal large enough to annihilate the whole world once for every day ending in y.

So pick the person and not the issue. That’s the smartest thing I ever learned in politics.


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