We can't help ourselves, can we? With the turn of a new year, irresistible feelings of optimism emerge. Rational or not, we boldly resolve to shed the bad news and bad habits of the past year and do better in the new one.
Having been through the ritual a few times, we know full well that things don't usually turn out as peachy as our New Year's visions. Yet we cling to our hopes anyway, at least for a while.
In honor of this early January giddiness, I offer a wish for 2008: The American people will treat this year's elections with the same careful analysis they employ when buying a car or a flat-screen TV.
Modern consumers are savvy, right? When making a big purchase, such as a motor vehicle, they do the research. They compare prices, features, reliability, performance. They drive various makes and models to test how they accelerate, how they handle a sharp turn, how the stereo sounds. They select the vehicle that meets their specific needs and desires.
Unfortunately, few voters undertake this rigorous process in deciding who to vote for. In the presidential race, they absorb a few fleeting television slogans and news tidbits and make a choice for "the lesser of two evils," not really understanding why one may be more evil than the other.
In local races, they often know even less about the candidates, so they either ignore certain races altogether or vote based on a frivolous factor such as male-female, Republican-Democrat or good hair-bad hair.
It's no wonder we find so many Pintos and Gremlins in public office these days. We have only ourselves to blame for electing scum bags and fools.
It's not guaranteed, of course, but perhaps if we took a little more time researching who's running for office and making more informed choices, we'd have more good people running things -- and therefore things would run better. Maybe.
It's certainly worth a try, and there's no better time than 2008. Besides the all-important presidential race, there's a vast array of local and state campaigns and ballot questions to deal with this year. For even the most conscientious citizen, it'll be a big job to make informed choices.
If you're ready to become an informed voter, I suggest starting by figuring out where you stand on the big questions. It's amazing how many people these days don't really know who they are politically.
It'll take some work, but improving your civic literacy is crucial. You'll need to read some books, examine serious Web sites, talk to politically aware friends. With a little effort, it's possible to develop your world view -- where you generally fall within the political spectrum.
It doesn't matter to me where you end up falling on that spectrum. The important thing is that you spend time really thinking it through. If you believe, for example, that Americans should have the right to own guns, that's fine. But it doesn't automatically follow that you believe in other "conservative" causes. It may turn out that your world view is both pro-gun and pro-universal health care.
In fact, it's likely that where you stand in the spectrum will depend on the issue. Few of us today are ideologues who toe the party line on each and every subject. And that's OK. It's better than OK, it's healthy.
Once you have a world view under construction, it's time to start looking at the candidates' positions. This cannot be done by simply watching the evening news or listening to AM talk radio. The evening news offers snippets from the campaign trail -- not enough information. Most talk radio and talk TV is not intended to inform but to entertain.
The information you want about the candidates can be obtained from the candidates themselves via their campaign headquarters or Web sites. Newspapers and magazines also are essential, as they examine the rhetoric of the candidates and raise important questions you may not have considered. They also provide the historical and personal context often needed to understand why, for instance, one candidate supports abortion or coal power plants while another does not.
People say they are turned off by politics, and considering all the shenanigans pulled by candidates and advocacy groups, I can understand why. But at the same time, all you have to do is look at the chaos in places like Pakistan and Kenya to realize how precious our democratic system is -- and how important it is that we do our part to ensure its survival.
Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not exceptional. We are vulnerable to the many and varied pressures placed on democracy. Consider the 2000 presidential election. The close finish and controversial vote-counting methods exposed our fragility and threatened to plunge the nation into crisis. Whether you agreed with how things turned out, you had to be relieved the conflict did not result in a fracturing of our system of governance.
Taking democracy for granted is a dangerous business. It's a risk few of us would take in choosing a good day-care center for our children, so why would choosing people to run our country be less important?
Of course, I'm being a bit of a Pollyanna. Interest in politics has given way to the Wii, mixed martial arts and the latest gossip about Paris and Britney. I hate to think this is so, but deep down I know it's true. Still, I can't help feeling hopeful this time of year.
Geoff Schumacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.