People usually vote based on what they consider to be their best self-interest. There's nothing surprising about this. While looking out for No. 1 may not be the loftiest approach to political science, it is still a potent motivator. Voting, for all its shortcomings, remains one way we have of trying to make our lives better.
But the surprise this year is that so many people seem ready to cast their ballots with little or no regard for themselves.
If the small mountain of indisputable evidence speaking to George Bush's blunders is not enough for you to fire this guy ... well, I just hope your boss will be as charitable to you.
As the recent series of presidential debates made clear, this country is faced with an extraordinary array of critical issues. There's a war in Iraq, which may or may not be part of a larger war on terror. In any event, our military forces have been spread thin, placing a greater stress on our reservists and National Guardsmen than was ever expected.
This state of on-going emergency, coupled with the current administration's radical belief that the country can sustain a war footing while enacting sweeping tax cuts has created a budget deficit that could easily hamstring the economic opportunities available to the next one or two generations.
These tax cuts have been accompanied by major cuts in federal support to state and local governments. What the Bush Administration has done is drive the costs of job training, education, housing and environmental protection downstream. In Indiana, which now groans under an $800 million deficit of its own, this means the next governor, whoever that may be, will almost certainly have to enact tax increases to keep the state from going bankrupt.
Then there's the mounting crisis in our health care system. At the same time that we trumpet our technological advances in treatments and drugs, the United States has slipped in life expectancy relative to other First World nations. Millions of us are uninsured and millions more are paying more than ever for insurance coverage. Many of us are so insecure, we cling to jobs we've outgrown just to keep the health benefits. And these are the lucky ones among us.
But maybe you had a job with decent benefits - and that job's been sent overseas where the labor is cheaper. More jobs have been lost in the past four years than at any time since the Hoover Administration, which ushered in the Great Depression. You keep hearing about job training programs, but the fact is that less money is now being spent on job training than 25 years ago.
Meanwhile, clean air standards for aging power plants have been relaxed, meaning the dirtiest plants now pollute with impunity. Protections on public lands have been lowered so that irreplaceable natural resources can be turned into private profit centers. Loopholes have been allowed to stand in USDA inspection protocols, increasing the chances of infected beef and poultry reaching your dinner table.
If Americans were really voting their self-interest, you would think that next week's election would be easy for John Kerry. But all accounts suggest that this election will be incredibly close. That many, if not most, voters will demand more of the same we've gotten from President Bush.
That's what makes this election so important. It has become commonplace for people, when talking about the coming vote, to say that more is at stake this year than at any time in memory. For once, this is not an overstatement. Forget about conspiracy theories and the moral implications of whether or not government should be run for society's winners at the cost of everyone else. If the small mountain of indisputable evidence speaking to George Bush's blunders - from going to war over weapons that did not exist to miscalculating the cost of Medicare by $1 billion - is not enough for you to fire this guy ... well, I just hope your boss will be as charitable when your next performance review rolls around.
As American Conservative magazine, in last week's reluctant endorsement of John Kerry, put it: "Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations. The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S., the doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation's children, the ceaseless drive to cut taxes for those outside the middle class and working poor: it is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing cliche about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy."
President Bush likes to say that he should be re-elected because it's important for America to stay the course. But that's like being led to the edge of a cliff and being asked to jump. Surely Americans know better than that.
It's said we get the government we deserve. For 25 years, politicians like George Bush Jr. have made a nice living by saying that government does nothing right and then grabbing all the power government provides. American voters, thinking they'd be better off putting their lives in private rather than public hands, bought this line and the result is that most of us look forward to leaving our kids less than our parents left us. What we didn't get was that, when it comes to government, public interest and self-interest are the same. If we can't see that this time around, this country may be about to change more than any of us are able to imagine.