Friday, September 16, 2016

Thinking Critically About the Election, by Tyler Watson

Introduction by Robin Hartman, Director of Library Services
Developing lifelong learners is central to the mission of higher education institutions. By ensuring that individuals have the intellectual abilities of reasoning and critical thinking, and by helping them construct a framework for learning how to learn, colleges and universities provide the foundation for continued growth throughout their careers, as well as in their roles as informed citizens and members of communities. (Association of College and Research Libraries. Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education)
With possibly the most incendiary election in U.S. history quickly approaching, we invited HIU alumnus, Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science, and Senior Deputy Attorney General with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, Tyler Watson, to help us to think critically about the American election process today. 

Thinking Critically About the Election, by Tyler Watson

On November 8, 2016, we will elect the 45th President of the United States. As many pundits lament that this election marks the arrival of a “post-truth” era of politics and Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump represent the two least popular presidential candidates in America’s history, it is tempting to become jaded and simply tune-out this election season. Don’t! As the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” If you want a strong democracy that reflects your opinions and passions, you need to vote. If you want to avoid a democracy that is responsive only to corporate interests and mega-donors, you must participate.

Despite all the negative emotions associated with this election, the result matters and our actions, or lack thereof, will make a real impact on our country and the world. First, your participation matters because the two presidential candidates, though flawed and disliked, represent widely divergent visions for America’s future – the winner’s agenda and persona, for better or worse, will shape our government and society. Though I am trying to avoid “taking a side” in this blog post, it is difficult to ignore that Mr. Trump’s caustic, often vitriolic, tone has done serious damage to our ability to have a nuanced policy discussion. So, your choice matters.

Second, the winner in this election will determine the balance of power in the Supreme Court, which will reach far beyond the next four to eight years. In fact, appointing a Supreme Court justice is the most lasting and impactful part of a president’s legacy. Don’t believe me? Think about this: Justice Anthony Kennedy, the “swing” or deciding vote on the Supreme Court, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 – more than a quarter century ago. Since 2010, Kennedy has been a part of the majority opinion (meaning he is on the winning side) 84% of the time, while the rest of the justices have been in the majority opinion somewhere slightly above or below 50% of the time. This means that as goes Kennedy, so goes the Supreme Court (and the rest of the country for that matter). A Supreme Court appointment reaches far beyond a president’s years in office and often beyond his or her own life. And by way of reminder, due to the current vacancy on the Supreme Court, our next president will appoint the new deciding vote for years to come.

Third, this election will decide more than the presidential race. In addition to one third of the U.S. Senate and the entire House of Representatives being up for election, numerous state and local races will determine the balance of power where you live. All over the country we will elect judges, governors, law enforcement officials, and state legislators. This election will impact national and local issues alike.

Unfortunately, as a voter in this election, you must overcome more than apathy. You also face the daunting challenge of becoming well informed before you vote. This is no small task. As a voter you are inundated with (mis)information and opinion. Determining what is true and what is not, and what is relevant and what is not, is difficult even if you have been paying close attention for a long time. So, here are my four suggestions on how to become a reasonably educated voter before you step into that voting booth come November.

Step one: watch the candidates. To the chagrin of many, there simply is no substitute for investing time into this process. While it would be nice if sound bites and headlines were enough, they are not. Clips and snippets are misleading and reductionist. They leave you with impressions and feelings instead of facts. Just like studying the Bible, context matters. So, to get a real feel for who the candidates are, you must actually listen to them speak. Feel free to shudder or cringe at the thought if you must. Once you compose yourself, resolve to watch each candidate’s major policy speeches (assuming Mr. Trump ever gives one) and the three scheduled presidential debates (September 26, 2016, October 9, 2016 and October 19, 2016). Also, the vice presidential debate in on October 4, 2016 (watch this one to determine who is best to step in when and if the next president suffers from an unexpected bout of “heat exhaustion”).

Step two: find reliable news sources. As consumers of news media, you have to be aware of potential outlet/report bias, be able to distinguish fact from opinion, and resist the temptation to dismiss information just because you do not agree with it. That last one is tough! Knowing where to find reliable news is undoubtedly a challenge. So, here are some resources to help you navigate these murky political waters. As you read my suggestions, please note that I am not claiming these are perfect news sources (as no such thing exists), but they are far better than most.

I suggest you adopt BBC News, PBS News Hour, and NPR as your news outlet staples. These outlets provide mostly fair coverage and avoid wasting time on superfluous, incendiary garbage that many other outlets rely upon to lure viewers. Also, if you want to fact check something that a candidate has said, go to where candidate statements are rated from “true” all the way down to “pants on fire” (you might be surprised to find out which candidate is the most trustworthy). Next, avoid “junk” news that focuses on advancing a political agenda. I know this will upset some people, but Drudge Report, Fox News, MSNBC and the Huffington Post are not useful for anything other than slowly turning you into a misinformed ideologue. Further, these outlets exist to make money, not to give you newsworthy information. Their goal is to tell you what you want to hear to get you to tune in or log on.

On the local level, I suggest closely reviewing any voting packet provided by your state election commission. This will usually give you a fair overview of your local candidates as well as a quick synopsis of arguments for or against any ballot initiatives. In addition, it is useful to look at your local paper’s endorsements, but know that these endorsements have limited value, as local papers are likely to have a partisan bias. For example, I live in Las Vegas, Nevada where the largest local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal, is owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who personally spent $100 million in a failed effort to get Republican Mitt Romney elected president in the 2012 election. Mr. Adelson’s political agenda has a real impact on the Review Journal’s reporting. Being aware of these types of biases allow you to process the information in context.

Step three: do not put too much stock into any single poll. If you have been reading headlines over the last two months, you have undoubtedly seen proclamations that Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump has a large and surprising lead in some swing-state. Ignore these articles and ignore these polls. They are meaningless. I repeat, meaningless! Reporting the results of a “shock poll” is just click bait. If you really want to know how each candidate is doing, look at the aggregate polling sites. An aggregate poll considers the results of several recent and reputable polls and averages them. The best aggregate polling sites are and These sites currently have Mrs. Clinton up by 2.3% and 2.8% respectively. This should tell you that the race is close with Mrs. Clinton holding a moderate lead over Mr. Trump.

Step four: engage in informed and constructive political discourse. Caution: I am not advocating that you get into an argument over gun rights or a flat tax with your crazy, drunk uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table. That won’t help anyone (and your mother will be quite displeased). But, you should talk to smart people who disagree with you. Ask them questions with the goal of seeking understanding. Consider the possibility that you do not have all the answers. While you might not change your mind on a particular topic, you should acknowledge and embrace the fact that people have unique experiences and considerations that inform their perspectives and opinions. Learning another person’s point of view is how you develop empathy and compassion, which should be your goal as a Christ follower and voter. This outlook is not just good for your mind and spirit, it is also good for the health of our democracy.


Tyler Watson is a Senior Deputy Attorney General with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, a Hope International University graduate and Adjunct Associate Professor of Political Science. Prior to beginning his legal career, Tyler spent a semester in Washington D.C. working for the Democratic Policy Committee where he focused on governmental waste, fraud and abuse oversight. Tyler has a JD from the University of Nevada Las Vegas Boyd School of Law. In 2004, Tyler married his high school sweetheart, Kristee, who also graduated from HIU. Together they have two adorable and precocious kids: a daughter named Harper (age 5) and a son named Henry (age 3). As a family they are rooting for the Chicago Cubs to end a 108-year-old curse this fall. Go Cubbies!

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hugh and Hazel Darling Library, Hope International University, or its constituents.

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