Are the facts enough? Our mission at Vote Smart comes down to two words: facts matter. Facts don’t speak for themselves, facts aren’t created and tested without us, and facts certainly aren’t valued by anyone other than human beings.
In an article nearly ten years ago, surgeon and public health advocate Atul Gawande asked a simple question: Why are some public health reforms quickly adopted while others are adopted more slowly, even if they were really good ideas? Gawande’s answer—that the reforms more quickly adopted benefited the people doing the work of reform—can tell us something about the ways we might improve our politics today. Most importantly, Gawande found the harder (slower) public health reforms tended to be those that required person-to-person support over time, an investment in people. Facts alone weren’t enough.
Rereading Gawande after the worst of the COVID pandemic is (hopefully) behind us, his study seems only more relevant today. Technological solutions alone are great for fast ideas, but insufficient for the slower reforms, again if regular support and check-ins with another person are absent. If we look at the COVID pandemic, we had many technological solutions, like Zoom, to help us quickly solve some immediate problems. Medical researchers created multiple vaccines at incredible speed. However, other responses—masking, social distancing, and vaccine adoption—required far more than the solutions themselves. They required thicker social and cultural ties between people and communities. Ultimately, people matter.
In writing the Federalist Papers over two hundred years ago, James Madison used health and disease metaphors for describing threats to good government. He spoke of “mortal diseases,” “remedies,” and the short lives and violent deaths of a pure democracy. Only through electing representatives to make policies for us, and by having a large country with many diverse communities, do we hope to find “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”
And yet, Madison’s solutions—separate powers, federalism, a geographically large and socially diverse country—feel today like additional diseases rather than healing treatments. We are more connected and yet more distant from each other. The unity paired with our pluralism (e pluribus unum) appears sorely outmatched as we grapple with the legacies of racism and other inequality. Madison’s technical solutions feel insufficient in much the same way that creating COVID vaccines was only half the journey toward getting enough people to show up for a shot.
True, Madison’s solutions are unlikely to leave us anytime soon. We’ll continue to elect representatives to make important decisions for us. Our country continues to become more diverse, by nearly every measure. The physical size of our country isn’t likely to shrink anytime soon. The technical solutions are here.
What we continue to need is the daily, regular practices of small democracy. To quote Gawande, “human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change” in order to see a good reform over the many hurdles before it. Smart ideas matter, but without people doing the right thing, they won’t work.
Our democracy needs us all to embrace the idea of human interactions, human celebrations, and human duties to each other—hallmarks of all great communities.
Volunteers write handwritten postcards to perfect strangers advocating for an issue or a candidate. A new generation of poll workers steps up to serve.
Vote Smart does both the technical solution and at a human scale. Yes, we have built the richest database online for nonpartisan factual information for the last 30 years. Millions of pieces of research reveal biographical data, voting records, campaign finance information, public statements, and issue group ratings. Complex code, linked servers, and a lot of research support this. It is a fantastic technical solution.
However, we would fail tomorrow if we lost the personal commitment of thousands of ordinary Americans that support us each year. Our databases would stop in their tracks if the teams of young staff and interns stopped their work. Votesmart.org is a stellar technological solution, but is a solution that ultimately depends on people serving a greater good. People are making sure that facts and people matter.
As we build more impressive technical solutions to our problems, let’s not forget the power of ordinary human connection. Everyday citizens helping one another—to register, to research issues and candidates, and eventually to vote—are the critical but largely invisible practices for our political health, just as hand-washing and mask-wearing helped blunt the worst impacts of COVID. As we move toward Election Day, let’s all find those same practices in our political lives to help our fellow Americans and to move toward a healthier democracy together.