Undecided Voter

by: Chris Anderson / Indiana University

Squirrel hunting once was a lovely way for a man to pass an autumn afternoon. Solitude discovered in a lonely glen. Falling leaves gently cradled by golden sunlight. The stillness of a warm breeze broken only by the report of a gun, echoed and reechoed through the valley. On such a day a man could get lost, gloriously lost, in nature’s autumnal embrace, the travails of daily life forgotten for a few enchanted hours. It was on such a day long ago that a man, his thirst quenched by more than one draught of ale, his senses overpowered by the beauty of his surroundings, fell into a deep sleep … and slumbered peacefully for twenty-odd years.

Upon awakening, that man, Rip Van Winkle, had become America’s first undecided voter.

Yes, the legend of Rip Van Winkle — a tale told to generations of American children over the past two hundred years — is a story about the making of the latest American archetype: the undecided voter. Or at least that’s how I’ve come to read the legend in the unsettled autumn of ’04, as I struggle to comprehend the mystifying breed of American who hasn’t yet decided between John Kerry and George Bush.

When Rip Van Winkle roused himself from slumber and walked back into town, he discovered that a revolution had taken place without his notice. The townspeople had been royal subjects when he entered the woods with his squirrel gun, but they now were in the midst of an election, and he found himself engulfed by an unfamiliar, roiling crowd. In author Washington Irving’s description of the town, “the very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.”

As Paul Starr notes in his recent book, The Creation of Media, poor Rip had stumbled into a second revolution — a revolution in communication — that accompanied the political revolution of 1776. Printing presses unleashed a flood of pamphlets, handbills, sermons, sheet music, books, and, most importantly, newspapers into American society, helping to circulate information, to democratize knowledge, to produce a new type of American, a democratic citizen. The democratization of knowledge was essential to the project of making citizens who were capable of participating in a democracy and governing themselves.

But the tale of Rip Van Winkle reminds us just how difficult it can be to stay afloat in the flood of information that pours forth in a democratic society — even in the current produced by the first of the republic’s “new media.” Plunged unwittingly into the 18th-century media revolution, Citizen Rip listened in amazement as “a lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens — election — members of Congress — liberty — Bunker’s Hill — heroes of ’76 — and other words, that were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.” And then the crowd’s attention turned to Rip, the disheveled newcomer in their midst. “They crowded around him, eying him from head to foot, with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and drawing him partly aside, inquired ‘on which side he voted?’ Rip stared in vacant stupidity.”

With that, Washington Irving introduced the first -– and quintessential — undecided voter. A man who had fallen off the path of history. A man uncontaminated by the media of his day. A man for whom all political discourse was gibberish. Of course, he had an excuse. He’d been in a drunken coma for twenty years.

It’s a sign of my own shortcomings, I suppose, but in this particular autumn, when the choices are stark and the tone disputatious, I’ve had very uncharitable thoughts about undecided voters. If these people haven’t been asleep in the woods for twenty years, why must the media offer them to us as paragons of civic virtue?

Why are they given security clearance, allowed to attend a presidential debate and to question the candidates? Why must I watch as they, gathered together by reporters, view the debates on television so that we, ignored by those same reporters, have the privilege of witnessing their excruciating indecision? And why must I listen as they struggle mightily, under the reporter’s reassuring gaze, to explain why they — after watching three debates, hundreds of news reports, thousands of commercials, and HAVING LIVED IN THIS COUNTRY FOR THE LAST FOUR YEARS! -– are still seeking some elusive piece of the puzzle before discharging their solemn duty as citizens. I’ve had a nervous breakdown just trying to decide between American Idol contestants, but these people are hopeless. They don’t need a public forum; they need medical care.

And yet….

There are times when I feel like Rip Van Winkle. In place of Irving’s “lean and bilious-looking” fellows, we have our plump and -– come to think of it — bilious-looking pundits. Their pockets may not be full of handbills, but their blogs are loaded with hyperlinks. Their jargon, if not Babylonish, is still bewildering. The flood of information may be greater than in Rip Van Winkle’s day, but the effect is still the same: the consequential tangled in the trivial, the truth entwined with lies, and the torrent never ceases. I’ve made my own decision, but I’m certainly not wise. I have my beliefs — essentially moral sentiments about social equality or the use of military force or whether a man of presidential bearing ought to snigger like Beavis and Butthead during debates (“heh…heh…heh”) — but I can’t begin to explain how one might set about fixing the health care system or Social Security. I could live a thousand years, and I’d get no closer to understanding these issues by watching television. More often than I’d like to admit, I stare at the screen, like Citizen Rip, in vacant stupidity.

And there are times when I wish that I were as fortunate as Rip Van Winkle. Not even my friends at PETA could stop me from shooting at squirrels if I had the faintest hope of falling asleep and missing this benighted political season. The fantasy of being lost, well and truly lost — cut off from all communication, fallen off the path of history — is more powerful in our hyper-networked age than it was in the days of Dafoe, or Golding, or Gilligan. But that’s a topic for another day. Today looks like the perfect autumn afternoon for a ramble in the woods. And I’ll get to it in a minute. But a guy on CNN just said something about the Bill O’Reilly sex scandal. Could this be another of Karl Rove’s devious schemes to distract voters? I wonder what Fox News has to say…. Now where did I leave the remote control?

Links of interest:

1. Rip Van Winkle

2. American Research Group: Political Polls

3. “Undecided Voter? Try This Quiz”

4. This Modern World: The Undecided Voter

Please feel free to comment.


  • This is the day to consider the topic that was reserved for another day: becoming “well and truly lost.” For me, the key would be to find an alternate way to conceive of “the flood of information” coming from the screen. Maybe it is not information, but an artistic expression of the deepest longing of a commercial medium: continued viewing. Perhaps the discursive terms framing each so-called event act to constitute the coverage of that moment as crucial to the viewer. I watch baseball on television. These guys play at least 162 games a year and Joe Buck will swear that each moment has the potential to drastically change the entire season. “Tying run at bat.” Come on.

  • Mocking the undecided voter

    This piece made me laugh out loud. More than once. But then, I felt guilty. While I empathize with Anderson’s pain at watching “undecideds” attempt to decide, I also have some sense of why these folks are being valorized. There is something to be said for being concerned about issues and policies and not just whether a president sniggers. I agree that a viewer is probably not going to learn much about issues and policies by watching TV, but somewhere within that flood of information there are kernels of truth. The other thing I have been appreciating about the “undecided” is their desire to talk to others about their questions. I had a great discussion in a bar while standing in line for the bathroom that involved a Kerry supporter, a Bush supporter, and an “undecided,” and the whole thing made me feel like this is how democracy is supposed to work. We’re supposed to talk to each other and help each other sort through all the BS. I think the “undecideds,” however impossible their indecision may seem, are helping us all to enact democracy in our day to day lives, not just with our ballots.

  • TV’s didactic ritual

    Extending Leslie’s point, if we accept the notion that the deluge of information is bound by a thread of self-constitution, what better a way to strengthen that thread than by lingering on undecided voters? “They are undecided, but not for long,” TV tells us. What will cure their indecision? Television itself. In case we forget this, an anchor will sit in a room of undecideds, watch the debate with them, and then ask them what they have learned from TV. Here, as always, television re-stages its own position as educator, something that can bring us a “real political debate” and represent for us — over and over again — the world.

    But I don’t know if I buy it. Are there, as Marnie suggests, “kernels of truth”? Or are channels just illusions, the remote a mirage?

  • Kymberly Hernandez

    The undecided voter

    Just the other day, in one of my classes, we had a discussion about undecided voters. Why were they undecided? Why did they not understand each candidate’s issues? Why did watching the debates not help them at all? We came to the conclusion that it is because media does not give citizens a clear picture of the important issues. Anderson states that “after watching three debates” and “having lived in this country for the last four years,” these undecided voters still could not decide who to vote for. Isn’t this sad? In our class discussion some people, including myself, even wondered if the decided voters really knew exactly what they were voting for. Were Kerry supporters voting for him simply to get “anyone but Bush” in the White House without having the full knowledge of what Bush has done for our country (both bad and good)? Were Bush supporters voting for him simply because he is already the President and Kerry is wishy-washy on all the issues? We weren’t even clear on that, so why is it surprising that there are so many “undecideds?” I think Anderson would probably agree with our class, judging by the humoristic tone of the article; and unfortunately, television does not have all the answers we are looking for.

  • last word

    So, if voting is the second most powerless act one can perform in a democracy, after answering an opinion poll, then battling for the very top, way on up there, must be lecturing the media oligarchs. It is, literally, talking back to your TV set; something your parents pointed out long ago had no effect. Understand the nature of the medium, then tailor your response. Just turn it off. There now; the undecided voter just went away.

  • Undecided voter as icon

    I think that the “undecided voter” we see on TV is no more or no less a manufactured image than anything else we see. There really are undecided voters, but the pupose of putting them on tv is to make them a consumable image, not to represent them or understand them or give them any real significance. We need to ask what makes the undecided voter a salable product. The undecided voter makes for a watchable icon because it captures a nostalgic, romantic version of what voting is supposed to be: a carefully measured, deliberate, thought-out rational process in which informed citizens pore over positions and decide which candidate can better lead the nation. Most representations of the undecided voter is not unlike what Marnie talks about: people engaging in careful balanced thought and discussion. The process of deciding who to vote for was probably never that in reality, but with the advent of media saturation coverage of everything, indistinguishable in large part from the political advertisements that pay for a lot of it, you have to be brain dead not to sense the disconnect between thoughtful reflective decision making and the kind of decision-making process that attack ads and sound bites on NPR would have us make, essentially the same one we use to decide what kind of toothpaste to buy, impulsive, unreflective, and easily manipulated.The celebration of the “undecided voter” is probably a hopeful thing, in that its success probably indicates that we harbor a wish for a decision making process that really was worthy of all this attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *