Goo–Goo Time

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 107 (November 2000): 9-10.

We are in the heart of an election season, which means we are also deep in goo–goo time.

Goo–goos are people who believe that political process determines political substance. (In the nineteenth century the original goo–goos—the term came from “good government”—persuaded them­ selves that American democracy could be cleansed and redeemed only if civil service reform triumphed over political patronage. Today’s goo–goos believe much the same about campaign finance reform.) Goo–goos then and now are terribly earnest about politics, and their earnestness is never more in evidence than during political campaigns. They actually worry about things—voter apathy, say, or whether the media have given sufficient attention to the difference between Al Gore’s targeted tax cuts and George Bush’s across–the–board rate reductions—that normal people regard with glazed–eye indifference. They are also purveyors of a number of pious myths about American politics.

Chief among those myths is that of the independent voter. Although most goo–goos are in fact themselves liberals, they nonetheless cling to an ideal of political in­ dependence. The independent voters of the goo–goo imagination loathe partisanship. They vote the person and what he stands for, not the party, and if they vote for candidates of the same party more than twice in a row they start to worry about their political virtue. They vastly prefer not to register as either Republicans or Democrats, but if they feel they must, they are, of course, thoughtful Republicans or Democrats, which means that nothing gives them more righteous pleasure than voting against their party’s candidate.

Independent voters never decide their vote until late in the campaign (except, of course, under those rare circumstances when they encounter an in­ dependent candidate). They watch all the debates—keeping throughout, needless to say, an open mind—and they pore over issue papers with relentless determination: independent voters are, above all else, well informed. They pride themselves on paying no attention to the polls, and they regret that so many people get caught up in personalities rather than issues.  They suspect that those who know whom they will vote for from the outset of the campaign, or who, heaven forfend, vote automatically for their party’s candidate, are simply not, well . . . thoughtful.

There’s just one problem with the independent voter. He doesn’t exist. Well, all right, there are 270 million Americans, and no doubt in remote corners of this vast republic you will encounter people who more or less fit the profile sketched above. But if not nonexistent, they are rare—as any informed student of American politics will tell you.

Compared to their partisan fellow citizens, real independents (as opposed to the mythic variety) are ill–informed, indifferent to political discourse, and disinclined to vote. They decide late about voting because they don’t like politics and don’t pay attention to political campaigns. When they decide, if they decide, they tend to do so for vague or frivolous reasons—and those are often personal rather than substantive. (“I just don’t like the way he looks”; “she reminds me of my first wife.”) They are typically skeptical about politics—“politicians are all alike and you can’t trust any of them”—but that skepticism usually is based more in unreflective folk cynicism than in genuine knowledge or experience of the political process.

Goo–goo fantasies to the contrary notwithstanding, the real stalwarts of American politics are those whose partisan loyalties are most deeply engaged. Strong partisans are, politically speaking, good citizens. They know the issues, actively follow campaign devel­opments, and almost always vote. They do not, it is true, maintain “open minds.” They know very early on in any election cycle who they will vote for. A great many of them, indeed, ignore the cardinal rule of goo–goo political virtue and vote unfailingly for the candidate of their party.

They act as they do not because they are not thoughtful, but precisely because they have thought a lot about politics—usually for a long time—and have arrived at a stable set of beliefs. In the overwhelming majority of cases, those belief patterns can be defined, roughly speaking at least, as either liberal or con­servative, which means they fit more comfortably within, respectively, the Democratic or the Republican party. (It is only radicals of right or left who consider Republicans and Democrats as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.)

People who have thought seriously about politics should vote consistently: our political ideas arrange themselves in clusters, not random patterns. Those who distribute their votes more or less equally between Republicans and Democrats are in most cases people for whom politics is a marginal concern. Strong partisans do their political agonizing not in general elections, where the choice for them is normally a no–brainer, but in primary campaigns, where they may have to choose among a variety of candidates who to varying degrees share their political values.

Precisely because they are settled in their own views, partisans do not share the goo–goo preoccupation with “the issues.” They know, in broad outline, where they stand and where the parties stand, and so do not need to read through the fine print in party platforms or candidates’ position papers. They know, in the present instance, that for all their feints to the center, on most issues most of the time Al Gore is reliably liberal and George Bush reliably conservative. Thus they watch the debates not to find out where the candidates stand but to cheer their man on and see how he stands up to his opponent. Similarly, they avidly look to the media not for “in–depth coverage” of competing details on social security reform or how to deal with the surplus but for the latest gossip on who’s ahead and why. They are unashamed in their preoccupation with the horse race.

They also break with goo–goo norms when it comes to political advertising, a subject so awash in hypocrisy it can scarcely be discussed. All parties and all candidates swear never, ever to run negative ads, and they virtually all do so, usually with the excuse that they were forced to the unfortunate deed only in retaliation. The politicians’ hypocrisy follows from the public’s prior hypocrisy. Voters insist that they hate negative ads, and why wouldn’t they? Negative ads are, after all, negative, and it is generally not thought positive to be negative. But most strong partisans will confess, under less than heavy questioning, their secret delight in ads that effectively zing the opposition. My guess is that on this matter, as on so much else, most American voters practice their political faith as partisans even as they profess the goo–goo creed.

The problem with goo–goos, at bottom, is that they want a politics without partisanship, which is to say, in reality, that they do not want politics at all. Come, let us reason together, they say, and all will be well. Would that we were that reasonable, and that the world were so nicely amenable to reason.