Now is the time for all good citizens to come to the aid of their country: A time to study the candidates, hear them out on the issues, then cast wise votes for the future of our democracy.
Easier said than done, of course, for along the way to Nov. 8 are a number of voting pitfalls that can trip us up and land the wrong people in office.Though there is obviously no fully objective way to select good leaders, social scientists have identified certain common errors that can subvert our best intentions if we don't watch out.
UBBER STAMP VOTERS
"Others do vote but don't take the trouble to become well-informed," adds Lewis. "They say to themselves: `I'll let the New York Times or the Cleveland Plain Dealer decide who the better candidates are. I'll follow their recommendations.' Many don't even watch the debates.
"But if voters don't study the issues themselves and make up their own minds, they're in effect abdicating their vote to somebody else or acting as the media's proxy."
Another TV spinoff is the pictorial sales pitch:
You're watching eye-catching images of beautiful women and handsome men admiring a shiny new car. Then the car, looking sleek and splendid, whisks along an open road amid spacious fields against a backdrop of breathtaking mountains, all to the accompaniment of symphonic music.
And, says Aronson, this type of car commercial is not unlike today's political commercials in which candidates say little but are pictured surrounded by flags, children and old folks in small-town settings, with patriotic music in the background.
Studies show that this sort of visual and emotional sugar-coating can become "transferred" in our minds to the candidate, bypassing logic, arguments or supportive evidence, Aronson says.
A similar phenomenon comes into play when candidates go stumping for votes via the photo opportunity - reciting the pledge of allegiance, riding in a tank or touring a flag factory.
"It's all part of a growing trend of imagery triumphing over substance in elections," maintains Dr. Ronald J. Busch, associate professor of political science at Cleveland State University, who feels the media have done a "less than laudable" job of getting at the real issues this time around.
NECDOTAL EVIDENCE AND STORYTELLING
You're considering buying a new Volvo because the reports on the car are good, but then a friend who works in a gas station says he has seen a couple of Volvos in for repeated repairs. Now do you dismiss your friend's personal testimony and go with the published statistics, or do you play it safe and pick another car?
"Often, it's virtually impossible to set aside personal accounts or anecdotes we hear, even if they may be unrepresentative of the overall picture," says Dr. David G. Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College. "Studies show, too, that vivid incidents in the news such as airplane crashes, sex scandals or hostagetakings stick in our minds better than cold facts or statistics, and are more easily recalled when we're making decisions."
In an age of television, this puts a premium on the politician who can dramatize a situation or tell a good story, even a tall tale. The danger is that emphasis on vivid cases or anecdotal evidence can lead to public policy based on trivial or atypical information, Myers warns.
HOSE ELECTION IS IT, ANYHOW?
What's the most important issue before the nation this year? Drugs? Defense spending? The economy?
Chances are, surveys reveal, you'll answer according to what the media have decided to give the most extensive coverage over recent months.
Researcher G.R. Funkhouser cautioned that by focusing on "newsworthy" events such as hostage-takings or drug wars while ignoring longstanding conditions such as unemployment or racism, the media can "set the agenda" for political discussion and give a distorted sense of the nation's priorities.
ROJAN HORSE PROPAGANDA
Suppose you're watching a TV talk show when a welfare rights advocate comes on. You're against welfare generally, but some of the points made by the guest seem persuasive to you. So you find yourself trying to generate counterarguments, and growing a bit agitated. If you're like many of us, you may soon "tune out" the program in your mind or even switch channels to stop the flow of disconcerting "propaganda."
Yet because political propagandists know we're apt to resist their messages in this way, says Hope College's David G. Myers, they may try to sneak arguments past our "censor." By using captivating images or catchy background music, they distract our counterarguing mechanisms so that the content of the message can slip on through. Even jokes, good food (watch out for those dinner-time TV political ads) or good-looking candidates may have this distracting or dulling effect on our resistance, Myers cautions.