I just read a piece in the November 2010 issue of Communications of the ACM about protecting elections from sub-optimal results. In the process, I had an idea: what about turning political elections into an American Idol-style showdown? It may sound crazy at first, but hear me out.
Voting on the Issues
Americans seem to have stopped voting on the issues and seem to be getting increasingly partisan in their opinions. I think a lot of this has to do with laziness; it takes a lot of work to thoroughly understand many of the major issues facing our country, and politicians seem to have stopped speaking in terms of rational arguments in favor of substance-diluted eight-second sound bytes. On American Idol, candidates are given the opportunity to focus on one specific reason why we should vote for them (how well they can sing a song); they know no one will interrupt them and about one tenth of the US population is paying avid attention to what’s coming out of their mouth. Afterward, their performance is analyzed by a panel of experts, with widely varying backgrounds and opinions, in terms virtually anyone can understand. Next, America votes based on how well the candidates performed that night.
The iterative nature of the election process eliminates the need for party primaries. The reason we need primary elections in our current system is because, if there are ten Republicans and one Democrat on the ballot, people who hold Republican values will split their votes among those ten Republican candidates, likely making the Democrat the winner. On the other hand, with an iterative election process, eliminating one candidate at a time, there’s no need for that; if there are ten Republicans and one Democrat, chances are, one of the Republicans will be eliminated, but only because they’re the weakest of eleven candidates. In the current primary system, candidates are have an incentive to aim for a strong base within their party so they can compete against the other candidates on their primary ballot; in the iterative (American Idol) system, they have an incentive to appeal to as many Americans as possible.
Easily one of the most irritating aspects of the American political landscape these days is how little attention people are willing to devote to our government. This wasn’t always the case; back in the olden days, everyday people used to have long, drawn-out arguments about political issues. It was a dinnertime/saloon/barbershop discussion topic. Rationalization mattered. Facts were undisputed, even when they made a position more difficult to defend.
These days, people have moved on. They’ve decided to devote their time to television. Yet, television doesn’t serve us rational political arguments any more than context-free eight-second sound bytes are able. And the people do who choose to follow the ‘news’ have surrounded themselves with sources of information that don’t challenge their viewpoints, which only reinforces this unintelligent rhetorical style.
If, then, we can create a show as engaging as American Idol, fill the panel with people who will consistently point out irresponsible rhetorical tactics, and impose a system of voting that is representative of voters’ voices without arbitrarily limiting their choices, I believe we might truly run the risk of having an informed populace, represented by true representatives.