Four years ago, I became completely obsessed with the 2008 election. I found the clash of personalities and visions completely enthralling. I started reading the New York Times politics section daily, which, if I recall, was A18-21, and when that wasn't enough, I started going through as much of Realclearpolitics as I could (a slow summer and semester abroad helped). It was all well and good at first. But a few negative things came out of it.
First, the whole thing was anxiety-provoking. I was looking for some signifier or clue to how the election would turn out, and pundits were happy to provide one, or a million. And everyone seemed to think McCain was going to win it; the idea of a black man winning was too strange. Each new article made me a little more nervous.
Second, it was all nonsense. I remember words like "Lizard Brain" being cited as the surefire reason McCain was going to win, or the many possibilities for impact of Lehman's fall, or how the two candidates' dueling positions on the 2008 Georgia-Russia crisis would surely decide the day. Perhaps some of that mattered, or none of it; we have no idea! The following year, I read up a bit on the political science literature of election outcomes and voter knowledge. There I learned two critical things: 1) voters are hilariously ignorant of political minutiae and 2) our best efforts at predicting elections are still unbelievably imprecise. And yet pundits keep punditing, conjecturing wildly about what will matter and what voters will care about with only the scantest of evidence. Including us.
Yes, I too at PolicyMic have written an article about a current event and possible implications for the election. Now, 10 months later, Libya has completely fallen out of the conversation. Here and there, I see articles cropping up around the web about the election implications of the DREAM Act or the president's position on gay marriage. More and more I wonder if we're not indulging a bad habit by creating and reading this content.
Would it instead be a healthier mindset to accept a high degree of randomness in political events? Should we ask ourselves – candidly – if we don't become deeply informed about politics not for tangible gains but to be able to self-define as "someone who pays attention to politics" and then to feel superiority and dismay towards people who don't, two of liberals' favorite sensations? Should we instead willingly cut off from political discussions and then check back in October to see where things are, and what's still an enduring part of the conversation?
Honestly, I'm leaning towards yes on all these questions. I don't think we gain as much as we think we do from obsessive information gathering and analysis; I think most of that amounts to self-indulgence and the search for the illusion of control. We would instead do well to have a healthy skepticism about the power of our own analysis, and to remember that time learning about issues we can exercise essentially zero influence on takes away from our energy for everything else.