Why I like elections

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(Host) As the current political campaign reaches it’s noisy crescendo, commentator David Moats has a confession to make.

(Moats) I like elections. Not for the textbook reasons about our civic duty and our great democracy, though I think those reasons are all true enough.

I like elections for all the wrong reasons. I like the ads, even the attack ads. I like the road signs. I like the debates, especially when they get nasty. I like the slogans. I like the fact that Mike Bertrand, a candidate this year, has buttons that say “I like Mike.” I had buttons years ago that said “I like Ike.” I liked Howard Dean’s slogan a few years ago: Howard Dean: I just like him.

I like polls that tell us a few weeks before the election what we would do if the election were held today. I like to view the election as a horse race, who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s fading in the home stretch and who’s coming on strong. And I like the numbers at the end.

I also like to think about the issues. Sometimes the issues are so big they infuse the election with passion. The slogans become angry epithets or proclamations of hope. I remember George McGovern pleading in the middle of the night, “Come home, America.” I remember Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”

I like all this stuff because it’s good theater. Theater, after all, is about illusion – the lighting, the sets, the costumes, the actors acting the parts of fictional characters. But the illusion of theater is designed to convey a truth, or at least to tell a story. The illusions of politics are also designed to tell a story. And just as theater critics become adept at seeing through the techniques of theater to understand the truth of the story, citizens must learn how to interpret a candidate’s character and views through the signals and portents contained in what he says and does.

So a television viewer might have seen Jim Douglas’s ad in which he accused Doug Racine of flip-flopping on the issues. The ad was grim and accusatory, and it suggested Douglas was trying to get tough. It was followed a few minutes later by an ad from Racine asking voters why Douglas was running negative ads? Who outsmarted whom in that exchange? It’s an interesting bit of drama being played out in the final days of a campaign.

As a newspaper writer, I devote a lot of time to writing about taxes and health care and the other big issues of the day. This is the civic duty part of politics, important for journalists and citizens alike. We need to understand that stuff if we’re going to hold our politicians accountable.

But as a citizen, I get caught up in the theater of politics, too. Which is to say, I understand that politics is about people, caught up in the crazy ordeal we put them through to test them at election time. Some of them are hard to take, but in Vermont they’re mostly good people trying to do a good job. I like them. I like democracy, which is as silly and serious as human beings are. That’s why I like elections.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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