Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Great Convinced: Voting From The Middle

I suppose having been a youngish 25 years old at the time offers some excuse for political delusion, but my vote for Nader was ill-conceived. Although living in Portland, OR I didn’t really effect the actual election much.  Gore won by a considerable margin.

Today I see too many people suffer the same misunderstanding of politics. The Democrats are only as liberal as their most conservative members. This has proven true on health care, and will continue to dog them as long as there remains a large portion of Americans who don’t understand political philosophy well enough to not be caught in an endless sway between the rhetorical legerdemain of focus group-tested messaging and Pavlovian talking points.

The American middle is a morass of ignorant nonchalance, dragging us all down to its common denominator of political and social stagnation.  The right and left may be just as delusional or misinformed, but at least they are trying to take a stand for something.  How many among us seem as though they could easily vote Democratic or Republican if someone just spent enough time convincing them. 

The Great Convinced just want to get along.  Which is fine if you're deciding on party decorations, or where to grab a bite.  But shouldn't a basic duty of every citizen in a democracy be to take responsibility for their privileged membership of a free society and at least try to do a little research on why one might think what they think. 

That is if they plan on voting.  And they do.  But they swing wildly from one party to another.  Is the candidate handsome?  Does she read the right books?  Does she seem like a nice person?  Does he drive a truck?  One gets the feeling that American democracy is little more than a glorified student election, in which whoever can come up with the nicest font or funniest joke wins the prize.

There are tremendous differences between the two major parties.  And while I'm sure there are many individuals for whom single issues like abortion or gay rights pull them in opposing internal directions.  But I think the majority of independent-minded voters aren't actually very :"minded" at all, basing their vote instead on superficial impressions of a candidate's personality or fancy sloganeering.

So all of this seems rather cynical.  And it is.  But the practical take-away in all of this may be that if we want America to be the vibrant electorate that it deserves, we need to continue to encourage our friends and neighbors into actively reflecting on their lives, whether by direct conversation or simply through the slow and steady emphasis on thoughtfulness in daily life - the books we read, the movies we watch, the ways in which we choose to engage ourselves.


  1. If I may make a few points:

    1. Many (if not most) of those who are firmly on the Right or Left can be just as ignorant and ill-informed as those in the middle. The difference is that those on either side hold vociferously to beliefs for which they have no intellectual basis. I would argue that this is, in fact, worse than the attitude of those in the middle, who would at least allow themselves to be persuaded by non-ideological factors, such as competence or leadership ability.

    2. You give rather short shrift to the idea that one can have views which might not fit into one ideological camp. Using myself as an example – I am an atheist and a social liberal, but am rather hawkish on foreign policy, detest the Left’s tendency for moral relativism and appeasement of militant Islam, and I believe in free trade.

    Let me ask, if I were American (as it happens I’m English) for which party should I have voted? For the Republicans? - led by someone with whom I agreed on foreign policy, but whose running mate was, well, come on, and whose party base push for intelligent design in schools and the torture of detainees. Or perhaps for the Democrats? – with whom I agree on many of their domestic policies (healthcare for example), but who campaigned on an anti-war platform (alongside the ridiculous crowd) and have a dangerous protectionist streak.

    3. While there are huge differences in rhetoric between the two parties, the differences when each party is actually in government narrows considerably. George W Bush, for example, can hardly be considered as a fiscal conservative given his 8 year spending binge. Similarly, despite all the lofty talk, Barack Obama has continued Bush’s policies of detainment, rendition and wiretapping (Glenn Greenwald has done a great job chronicling this).

    Where this phenomenon occurs (which it now has in Britain, for example), it is to the advantage of those in the middle, as they are often the only ones who recognise that it is a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. Their vote can then be based (going back to point 1) on factors such as competence, expertise, or, most importantly, circumstances – the right man at the right time etc.

    If all you’re asking is that people should become better informed, then you’re pushing at an open door with me. Where I differ is your implication that anyone who isn’t entrenched on one side or another of the political spectrum must be a vacuous and credulous ignoramus.


    James Campbell (London, UK)

  2. Hi James. You make some very good points. I am reminded to be more cognizant of the fact that we all come to political discourse for different reasons. It is unfair for those of us who naturally have an affinity for abstract political philosophizing to pat ourselves on the back for being more informed citizens, when our reasons for being so might have ultimately been just as arbitrary as others decision to be inclined to apolitical interests. That said, there is value in being an informed citizen, and those who vote from ignorance can be quite dangerous. In my conclusion I floated some possible prescriptions for raising the overall level of intellectual engagement, although admittedly they felt rather lame. In the end, the piece was intended simply to point out this problem in the American politic.

    I think you are correct that I gave short shrift to those with quite valid reasons for remaining independent. However, to the extent that I emphasized those for whom being neither Democrat nor Republican represents less principled philosophical agreement and more abject ignorance, I am basing my assumptions on both personal experience and evidence from polling that suggests this group is a good portion of the electorate.

    Yet you rightly point out that there are possibly as many on both the right and left who, although familiar with the rhetoric and talking points of their ideological leaders, don't have a serious grasp of the political or social context in which their perspective exists. Their embrace of a political position has less to do with a reasoned analysis of both sides of the issue and more a sort of group-think, via family or clique. However, as a group these folks do at least seem to be considerably more informed. I think we all want to feel as though our positions are correct, and partisanship can be an ugly reinforcement of egoism.

    I disagree that there is much reason for one to remain neither Republican nor Democrat, especially as the Republican party has swung so far to the right in recent times. Your example presents an interesting case. But the current political climate would seem to tilt you greatly towards the Democratic side; Obama has largely continued Bush's hawkish foreign policy (despite the fervent rhetoric from the hard left). But health care is an excellent example of the incoherence of current Republican philosophy.

    Modern democratic states are essentially Democratic Socialist. They vary on their embrace of just how much government spending is appropriate, but for the most part advocate a robust free market economy. They are committed to public schooling, basic levels of social welfare & services, the idea of regulation and the public commons. Yet the Republican party, in their rhetoric (and votes) have pushed at these ideas at every turn. Now, their current obstructionism may be a cynical political tactic, but it at least in principle agrees entirely with their libertarian rhetoric. In my mind, this puts those who would support a Republican over a Democrat in a position that very practically puts them not just outside the Democratic camp but over the mountains, down the valley and across the sea!

    Again, however, your point is well taken that in theory, according to what the two parties have tended to stand for for half a century, there are very principled positions that can certainly straddle one between the two. I would love to hear more individuals from the "middle" (I only use quotes to denote the variance in meaning of the word) who are able to express their principles as eloquently. My lament is that the great majority of them don't really understand the issues, or the underlying philosophical premises, well enough to justify their ambivalence.

  3. “The American middle is a morass of ignorant nonchalance, dragging us all down to its common denominator of political and social stagnation.”

    One of the purposes The Founders envisoned was a system that was hard to change.

    Two, the rise of the tea party movement is proof when government steps on individual choice you get an immediate reaction.

    Look at Sarah Palin, her popularity on the right is due to her rugged depended on the self-reliance of our citizens. The statue of Liberty says “give me your tired your poor…” and we’ll make a great nation with it!

    As far as your age, if you didn’t think your fellow man owes something to another you would not be properly educated. As you age you find out that if you give without strings people take without regard to cost. They will also take and be enslaved by that largess.

  4. "If you give without strings people take without regard to cost. They will also take and be enslaved by that largess."

    That's certainly sometimes true. But I'd argue its just as often the opposite case. It really depends on the situation and policy.

    So, if you give people endless cash payments every month (the old welfare model), that certainly lowers productivity. People are sitting around collecting checks.

    But giving people free health care doesn't necessarily lower productivity. In fact, it may raise it. You could have cases where people are inclined to risk making bold steps to increase their productivity if they know they won't lose their insurance.

    And for K-12 education, kids are getting it for free, but no one argues they would be better off without it. Their free/reduced lunches are designed to help them be more productive in class.

    There are plenty of examples of social spending that, if done effectively produce net gains in productivity. This is the old carrot vs. stick liberal/conservative divide. Social research comes down on both, really. Rewards and punishments are great motivators. But they can also be incredibly inefficient, and in many cases actually decrease productivity (paying for people to sit for years in prison comes to mind).

  5. “That's certainly sometimes true.”

    I’d say if it’s free that 9 maybe 10 out of 10 will help themselves to it.

    Our education system teaches conformity to the state religion of being subservient and status quo. So even if it is free it isn’t education’s goal of critical thinking it teaches.

    Our friend from the UK is a god knowing there is no god (atheist.) How could you know that without being a god yourself? I guess your could say the world and our existence is an illusion.

  6. “There are plenty of examples of social spending that, if done effectively produce net gains in productivity.”

    Social spending means you must take away from someone else. You can do that voluntarily or you can force them. Mostly force is used to extract the social spending that some see as necessary. A right-winger’s lament is that the left feels proper social spending is funding abortions in minority/poor neighborhoods.

    Look up “negro-project” and Planned Parenthood for Sanger’s attempt at “more from the fit and less from the unfit.”

  7. Randy - Tempted as I am to claim God-like status, being an atheist does not mean that I "know" that there is no God.

    Having considered the arguments in either direction, I am more persuaded by those who argue that there probably is no God. That is sufficient to call myself an atheist. I don't need to "know" that he doesn't exist, just in the same way that a theist does not have to "know" he does exist in order to be so labeled.

    Vidoqo - thanks for your response. I suppose what moved me to post in the first place was the fact that I am very conscious of occupying the middle ground (if you can call it that) given the current circumstances in Britain, where, with an election due to be held in the next couple of months, I am in a position where I wish every party could lose!

    I think this universal disdain for all political parties in a particular system is a major factor in driving people to taking an "independent" line, and such a position is often arrived at by those who have given full and informed consideration of the issues.

    Thanks again


  8. Then instead of not knowing you simply lack knowledge of a god. If that is the fac. In your case that isn't. The definition of an atheist. But it is the definition of agnostic.

    Atheist have to know or they are not without god or "a theist. "

    Words have meanings and atheist is not exempt from a dictionary constraint.

  9. Randy -

    "A right-winger’s lament is that the left feels proper social spending is funding abortions in minority/poor neighborhoods. "

    That is a mischaracterization of the right's problem with the left & social spending. It is a deliberate use of the most controversial (among the right, and frankly wrong) aspect of leftist social spending in order to dismiss the much larger right-wing problem with leftist spending, which is generally not controversial at all. The right is almost uniformly opposed to more funding for things like after-school programs, health care services, mental health treatment programs, drug abuse and prevention programs, and generally anything that is defined as state-sponsored programs designed to reduce generational poverty or lessen the burdens of the lower class.

    This is a principled stance, if it stems from a belief that the poor cause their own problems and are not society's concern, or if all government programs are thought of as ineffective. I disagree on both counts, but am willing to acknowledge principled disagreement. But insinuating that the right's concern with the left is its immoral attempt to abort minority children is either intellectually dishonest or just plain ignorant.

    As for atheism, the word has different meanings. Even the most ardent dictionary nazi will have trouble proving that there is only one true interpretation. Regardless, words are only as useful as what they are intended to mean.

    Personally, I refer to myself as an atheist because agnostic generally connotes a fair possibility that God exists. Yet I have no reason to believe that there is anything more than an absurdly infinitesimal chance that something we might call "God" exists, and therefore live my life as if nothing of the sort does or ever will be shown to.

    Philosophically, I have many reasons for believing that it might not even be impossible for God to exist. But I realize that is a far cry from irrefutable proof that he does not. So in the meantime, I'm stuck with either agnostic or atheist, and feel atheist is a much better description of my (lack of) belief.

    (As an aside, the word atheist has more political "punch" to it. Considering that among other cultural groups, Americans have about the least respect for atheists, I feel a sense of pride and solidarity with other members of a class of people who are subject to such ignorant and repugnant hostility.)

  10. Randy - You won't find any dictionary definition which requires "knowledge" of the non-existence of God as a pre-requisite for atheism. If knowledge is required, either in respect of atheism or theism, then everyone would have to be considered agnostic, since it is impossible to know either way.

    I am an atheist because I do not have a belief in God. Simple as that really.

  11. If you have “no belief in god” why label yourself? I think you want to ridicule those that do believe. Since I’m colorblind and literally can see no color but black and white, I’d never tell someone I’m “acolorless” sighted person. I consider it a handicap that has some advantages like exceptional night vision. In other words, I acknowledge the possibility that others may see colors. Did you ever study the philosophies of reality? You should look them up. Most that don’t have a deity are things like living on a turtle’s back or everything is an illusion. Only three of the philosophies of reality that don’t seem absurd deal with a deity as a beginning premise.

    Also abortion of minorities is heinous enough but if we look at the hopelessness of enslaving people to government programs you begin to see the insidious nature of forced compassion of leftist policies.

    Read Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion.

  12. Your "colour-blind" analogy looks like a re-framing of the "argument from religious experience", which you appear to feel is unimpeachable, i.e. that non-believers should just take at face value (without corroborating scientific evidence, unlike in the case of colour) the validity of the experiences of believers. Not only that, but that they should infer from these experiences that there exists an omnipresent, omniscient creator being who watches over us.

    The argument from religious experience has been picked apart for years, on the basis, for example, that such experiences are illusions, or evolutionary mis-firings, or religiously and culturally specific (and therefore globally inconsistent) etc.

    How my rejection of that argument should mean that I am not entitled to label myself an atheist or how my so labeling is intended only to ridicule believers, I have no idea.

    Your other point appears just to assert that the intellectual arguments for God are stronger than those against him, and, in fact, that the latter are "absurd" (who is ridiculing whom now?). Fine. I happen to find the counter arguments more intellectually appealing.

    Anyway, I feel guilty that we have somewhat hijacked this thread for an off-topic debate, so I'll leave it there!

    Thanks for the discussion


  13. Mr. Campbell I’m happy to announce we have agreement on an issue! I feel like you we did highjack this blog.

    As far as having to have “scientific proof” to make you aware of something, I have to chuckle. Well no not chuckle but a massive belly laugh at what you totally dismiss because science doesn’t prove something to you.

    For instance the AGW or manmade global warming hoax has its “science” crumbling around it so I expect a mass exodus of atheists that believe man is destroying the planet to get off AGW's dead horse.

    Also, science is made up of things not proven such as matter and energy unless you have a unified field theory ready to trot out?

    We also have ourselves that prove “science” isn’t necessary to prove something. For instance many give that we have mind, body, and spirit. Science can prove the first two but spirit is another matter.

    Imagine life without a soul or spirit. You could not be angry, because that isn’t scientific, you could not love, as that would be unscientific, heck you would be no different than a animal that seeks to spread its DNA, eat, and survive. Sad to say for you that isn’t funny but it is atheism.

    My cousin is a “scientific Marxist, atheist” and he says he’s wishes (another concept not rooted in science) that he could find the “love of his life.” I spoiled his party I’m sad to report. So he still clings to his religion even though he claims it’s never been tried and tries to convince others of his pov here: