Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend who wishes she were more informed about the upcoming election, and asked me if I could recommend any reading material. My first instinct was to suggest both a left-leaning and a right-leaning source, in order to try to hear different perspectives, but in all honesty it seems to me that, at least within the United States, that's a bit of a problem. Frankly, I could not think of a right-leaning source I felt in the least bit comfortable recommending, because the once respectable GOP conservatism of Eisenhower and Arnold Vinick seems to have imploded into a seething morass of irrationality, anger and hatred, and explicitly right-leaning press is what dragged it there. But of course, I also couldn't in good conscience recommend just following the explicitly left-leaning press.
Nor, however, could I recommend even the most steadfastly nonpartisan press. It isn't that they don't make an effort to give voice to both sides. Indeed, that in itself is sometimes a dangerously misleading tendency; by being impartial between any two opposed positions, you may give undeserved credibility to the flaky crackpot view that probably ought to be ignored. ("Is the Earth toroidal? Most scientists say of course it isn't you idiot, but here's someone with a revolutionary new theory that we're standing on the inside of a big donut. Let's hear both sides.")
No, the real problem with election coverage is that the attempt to cover it impartially inevitably reduces to horserace analysis: who's ahead in the polls, how people are reacting to this or that speech, what strategies the candidates will use to win this or that demographic, who "won" the debate, how many electoral votes this state is worth, and so on. And none of this is in the least bit helpful to the voter who is trying to decide whom to vote for.
I confess, I follow that stuff, too. I do, after all, care passionately about the outcome of each election, and it's hard to resist any information that may shed light on what's going to happen. But from the perspective of someone wanting to figure out whom to support, it's worse than useless. So I was at a bit of a loss for how to answer my friend's question: what could she read, in order to become better informed when the time comes to cast her ballot?
So here's what I ended up suggesting: don't pay too much attention to the election coverage, at least until you've got some idea which way you lean. Instead, remember what's important about elections: whoever gets elected is going to be making policy decisions about important issues, and this is really what matters. You may not know or care about every issue, but there are many that will affect you personally, and many more that you probably ought at least to be aware of.
Ask yourself, then, what it's important to you that government deal with. Are you worried about the economy? About terrorism? Crime? Climate change? Good. Pick one or two issues, and read up on them. Newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, videos, everything. Become known to your friends as someone who's very interested in a particular subject, and they'll often send you links or refer you to people with similar interests. Talk. Listen. Think. Get to know enough about a subject that you feel astonished at how much more there is to learn. Be able to fairly represent at least two contrary opinions held on the subject.
Bear in mind that each and every author or source you consider has its own biases and agenda, and take that into account. Read and research with the understanding that nobody is going to give you The Answer, though most of them will try; you're going to have to formulate your own opinion by synthesizing everything. While there's a good chance you'll find some expert in an area with whom you agree on an awful lot, realize that there's no escaping responsibility for forming your own opinion; even the decision to defer to an expert is a decision to choose that expert to defer to.
You don't need to become an expert, of course. The goal here is really just to become an educated lay-person, so that you know enough about the vocabulary and concepts to be able to understand the gist of what the experts are talking about. And once you've reached that point, then you might want to go and hear what the candidates in the election campaign (remember the election?) have to say about it. Because then you will be able to listen to their ideas, and get some sense of whether or not they actually have any understanding of the issue, and whether or not their policy proposals make sense. Only then should you start to make up your mind as to which candidate you support.
If you start at the other end, choosing a party or a candidate, and then forming your policy opinions to follow, well, you're kinda shirking your democratic responsibilities. It's all very well and good to look to your leader for leadership, and defer to him or her on those areas you don't know enough about to form your own opinion, but before they're elected they've no claim to your deference. Their authority as a leader is something that you choose to give them, and you ought to think carefully about whom you entrust with it.
Once you have decided who you're going to vote for, of course, it's going to be very hard to resist the temptation to follow the horserace. So go ahead. Watch the pundits, read the polls, get frustrated and irate or thrilled and elated. More likely both. You'll want to know who wins, because you'll have a good reason to care, and that is actually a good thing.