I’ve tried really hard to avoid this brouhaha over Conor Friedersdorf’s article on why he refuses to vote for Barack Obama. It’s probably generated far more discussion than it merited, since it amounted to an unsurprising statement of support for a libertarian candidate from a right-leaning civil libertarian. That liberals pounced on it as an example of Naderite perfidy, though the circumstances are quite different, is something that I found revealing of liberals, and this post can stand in for my thoughts there.

But I did take to Twitter to make a tangential argument that I think is worth teasing out. I said that, if the Presidential election actually mattered in more than 9 states in America, I would be able to get more worked up in this passionate arguments about whether one should support the candidate that most closely mirrors their beliefs or the most viable one that does so. Conor Friedersdorf’s vote, by the design of the federal government’s electoral system, already doesn’t matter as far as the Presidential election goes. He lives in California. No matter who he votes for, we know who will win the election here. His vote has already been disenfranchised by the world’s worst electoral system. And that’s true of around 80% of the population. Why are we fighting about Presidential choices amidst this travesty of American democracy?

One response I got to this was incredibly revealing and I thought spot-on. “But if we got rid of the electoral college elections would be way less fun to model,” said Patrick Maloney. And that’s absolutely right. There is no conception of talking about a Presidential race without talking about swing states, and voters in some corner of Ohio, and how local issues take on outsized significance. That this disenfranchises 80% of America doesn’t come into play.

The fact that there’s an election in swing states that looks nothing like the rest of the country, which has led to different responses on the Presidential question, should be alarming rather than a quirky sidelight. But the media wouldn’t know intuitively how to cover an election based on the national popular vote. Therefore they resist it.

And it’s more than that. The electoral college, with the fun map that you can click on to model different outcomes, with the polling experts slicing and dicing the polls, is a signpost of democracy. It’s a comfortable old sweater, a way that the public is inculcated with how to learn about what democracy is supposed to mean. In fact, it’s held up as the way you participate in democracy, even though there are dozens of other more powerful ways that have nothing to do with these quadrennial rituals.

That’s why, despite the fact that no actual work gets done at political conventions anymore, we will always have political conventions. We will always have the spectacle of people in funny-looking hats dancing, and top politicians making speeches, and always at the same time every four years. The same announcers even introduce the politicians when they come on stage. It’s a theatrical production. It’s meant to signal the coming of “campaign season.”

We have the first Presidential debate coming up on Wednesday. This is another signpost of democracy. Since 1988, the Presidential debates have been held on precisely the same set. There have been practically no changes to it. It has a blue background with some red trim, and an large eagle in the center holding a banner in its teeth. It’s comforting. It tells you that Important Things are Happening in Your Democracy, and that Attention Must Be Paid. That same set gets used in the inevitable Saturday Night Live parody. Just as there’s a set in the back room in Studio 8H in 30 Rockefeller Center, there’s some backdrop, and that eagle, in storage somewhere, which the Commission on Presidential Debates drags out every year to tell the public that this is how democracy works.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, by the way, is run by members of the Republican and Democratic parties, for the benefit of their candidates. Since 1988 there has been one debate with a third-party representative, and if they have their way that will never happen again. The Commission on Presidential Debates exists to create a set of choices around democracy in America that is inherently limiting. It’s probably stupid to pre-announce that your candidate will fire off scripted “zingers” in the debate, but I hope nobody believes that debates of this type are really an unscripted process. Practically everything about them is tightly circumscribed, right down to the set.

This is also how an Electoral College which makes 80% of the nation irrelevant functions in modern America. It exists so you can put red or blue lights on a big map on election night, and deliver in bite-sized chunks who will win. It also limits choice, but it tells a story about what purports to call itself democracy. People learn through pattern recognition. The recurrence of the same signposts every four years, in ritualistic, regularized fashion, teaches people that this is what democracy looks like. It’s not in any way true. Democracy is about what happens after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But that’s not the product the powers that be want to sell.

This all serves to channel political engagement toward this artificial set of constructs, rather than through the organizing that can actually make a difference.

Photo by KTPupp under Creative Commons License