T he Daily Show With Jon Stewart can offer sophisticated commentary on American elections, even while using words like "douchenoggles." Sure, the commentary is blunt and vulgar, but that doesn't mean it isn't nuanced. In a segment aired October 8, Daily Show Correspondent John Oliver delivered a report on the Stupid vote, which comprises 45 percent of the 8 percent of voters who are still undecided about who they want to be president this January. When Stewart commented that there was a pretty high margin of error in a Stupid voter poll, Oliver replied: "What do you expect, Jon? These people are idiots. You can't trust a word they say. And on November the fourth, the election will be in their hands."
Obviously, many decidedly frustrated Americans feel this way about citizens who claim indecision and who, consequently, have been the focus of campaign and news media attention in the months--now days--before Election Day. As Tuesday approaches, people at the campaign headquarters for both major parties and other political groups like Rhode Island's Progressive Leadership fund are focusing their efforts almost exclusively on undecided voters in swing states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Montana.
The Daily Show mocks undecided voters because at this point in this election, they deserve it for not being able to pick one of the major party candidates--arguably so different--to be the next US president. In this interpretation, the joke is on the undecideds: How could they not know? Jon Stewart and his writers have aligned themselves with the vehemently decided. They have resorted to name calling, casting undecided voters as "paste eaters, numbskulls, nitwits, fucktards, people who lose arguments to babies, douchenoggles, shaved gorillas" and so on.
But why should indecision warrant such derisive incredulity? Oliver, in his pompous media seat, discusses a series of ever more ridiculous pie charts in his effort to dissect the Stupid vote. He is a caricature of the media's obsession with playing psychic with electoral numbers (see Sandra Allen's piece on page 7) an obsession that diverts its attention--one might argue--from covering 'the issues'. Other Daily Show segments from October hint not-so-subtly at the cynical messages coming from the candidates' campaigns: "So, Joe the Plumber, for or against?" demands correspondent Samantha Bee of her focus group. She is impatient and oversimplifying, and this time the joke is on the decided. Voter indecision might not be stupidity at all, but a resistance to buying into the constructed differences between two politically moderate choices.
In last week's New Yorker, David Sedaris posed the following situation. "I think of being on an airplane," he writes. "The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. 'Can I interest you in the chicken?' she asks. 'Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?' To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked."
The point is taken. But if for only a moment we distance ourselves from the Obama and McCain platforms and this particular presidential election, and think about the American political charade as a whole, is indecision so hard to respect? Might it even be patriotic?
George Orwell wrote in 1946 about political rhetoric in "Politics and the English Language." One of the most outstanding images from the essay is of a politician with gleaming spectacles "which seem to have no eyes behind them." Both major party candidates' platforms are accessible on their websites, but rather than citizen-initiated research, it is political rhetoric and persona (inflated and distorted through media repetition) that holds the most power for voters. No wonder, then, that so many people can't decide who to trust.
Skeptical observers will rightly be alarmed by the flattened dead rhetorical language of McCain's "my friend" and "Joe the Plumber." New York Times "On Language" columnist William Safire pointed out Obama's verbal tic "distraction," and Biden's "literally." Tina Fey has captured Palin's tics enough that they need not be repeated here. Contradicting news analyses and blog posts can't get outside the political-media engine for long. The more we know the candidates, the more we know how much we don't know. Five days away from voting, Americans shouldn't be more certain at all of who they're voting for. We've been in a spin room for twenty months. We've been played.
Amid all this pageantry, indecision begins to look responsible. Given the benefit of the doubt, undecided voters might be skeptics with open minds. John Krumboltz wrote in his paper "The Wisdom of Indecision" (published in 1992 in the Journal of Vocational Behavior) that "being undecided might mean that one has adopted a profound philosophical perspective that desire itself is the source of human unhappiness. Open mindedness can be viewed as a greater virtue than decisiveness." Philosophy aside, this raises the question: How should American voters approach their decisions? Most undecided voters have unconsciously 'decided' who to vote for without being fully cognizant of their choice, according to a study in the August 22 Science. It's not that they aren't thinking, but that they have not actively donned any hats--yet.
In this interpretation indecision is not truth, nor is it stupidity. In fact, for all the evidence suggesting that you rationally should know who to vote for in November, decided voters could be considered prejudiced and closed-minded, irresponsible citizens who have pre-committed even while new information is surfacing every day. After all, anything could happen between now and November 4. Anything could, in theory, be revealed to totally overturn a voter's confidence in his or her chosen candidate. Still, the open mind never acts, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, and so the mind should close before the polling centers do.
By now, barring a Nixonian revelation, it is highly unlikely that either McCain or Obama could do anything to completely transform themselves as candidates before one of them is elected. As one scarcely-reading president exits stage right, another possibly-could-be-president-one-day VP candidate (You Betcha) is unable to tell us where she reads her news. It could well be that Americans are simply not doing their democratic duty: election research, Google, Salon chats. If so, it really is frightening that the last partisan to call on Election Eve could tip the scales, rather than a solid weighing of options. Still, there is wisdom in indecision in the face of madness. And in this crazy season, voter indecision might point more to the tactics used in presidential campaigns and their coverage than to the low IQ of your average douchenoggle.
Be that as it may,
KATIE Hussein OKAMOTO B'09