I was reading an article in today's NYT about undecided voters. As a political junkie, I've always been baffled by them -- particularly in years like this one, where there are such sharp contrasts between the candidates, and when the party in power has made such a patently spectacular mess of things.
Before reading the article, I rather tongue-in-cheekishly characterized the thought process of the undecideds this way: either they had no guiding principles regarding the proper role and responsibilities of government, or they were incapable of ascertaining which party (hence which candidate) best matches those principles. Hence they were forced into overreliance on the meaningless, contradictory sturm und drang of the political ads and TV pundits.
This year, I thought, it could be boiled down even further: either they have been unconscious for the entirety of the current Administration, or they are incapable of recognizing the flamingly obvious: that it is the Republicans who have screwed things up so badly, and therefore it would be a very bad idea to put them in charge again.
But after reading the article, I think the problem is as much a symptom of the present tendency in the culture to overpersonalize and overpsychologize. Call it the cult of celebrity, or the Oprahtization of the culture, or classic American hyperindividualism. Whatever it is, people tend to forget that a president is enmeshed in, and exercises power within, a system -- that, to achieve his or her goals, the executive must work with allies in Congress and elsewhere. In practice, this means that party principles and priorities tend to be as or more determinative than the individual leader's personality and preferences -- the very characteristics around which many voters' choices pivot (and, after all, that leader chose his party for a reason; the choice is a telling one).
This doesn't mean one ought to be an unthinking straight-ticket voter. But it does mean that party, and the bigger picture, count for more than many people -- particularly the undecideds -- tend to recognize.