There is no "ballot question"

The other day on the At Issue panel the question was “what’s the ballot question,” and wanting to be helpful, I volunteered something or other intended to sound insightful: “strength versus trust,” I think it was. On reflection, I shouldn’t have answered: the question is absurd, and not only that, but profoundly anti-democratic.

The correct answer, of course, is “nobody knows.” That’s the correct answer to most questions about the future, but in this case it’s not just the correct answer, it’s the only one that respects the voters. The choice that each citizen makes in the privacy of the polling booth may potentially involve all sorts of factors: the leader, the front bench, the local candidate, the parties’ stands on any number of issues, the movements of the planets, whatever — and for every voter the relative importance of these to his final choice will be unique. To reduce all this to a single, easily formulated, standard-issue pollster question — who shares my values? who cares about people like me? what’s the price of milk? — is the height of presumption.

I know why the parties do it — that’s the game they’re in: force voters in target demographics down the cattle chute they have prepared for them (“strong leadership! who do you trust!”). I just don’t know why we in the media are so eager to help them out. Or rather, I know why we do it: because we love simple explanations, strong narratives, turning points. And, most of all, we love pretending we’re players, as knowledgeable about the dark arts of politics as the professionals, whose very language we adopt as a sign of our veneration.

To hell with it. There is no ballot question. There are millions.

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