The Politics of American Perceptions

While sitting at a Paul Ryan speech at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, I finally began to understand why so few people vote or even engage in politics at all despite it being in their best interest to do so: it’s boring as hell.

Listening to Representative Ryan blather on about his Herbert Hoover inspired budget proposals, and listening to him extol Ronald Reagan as a latter-day saint, it was hard to believe that we were indeed living in the 21st century. I had to remind myself that Google was testing a self-driving car and that a private company had successfully launched a rocket to the international space station.

During the speech, Ryan repeatedly recalled Abraham Lincoln as if he and Abe were regulars at their neighborhood Starbucks, to the point that even the stalwart Republicans in the audience ceased applauding when he would invoke Lincoln’s name. Ryan then went on to claim that Ronald Reagan stood for tax cutting and deficit reduction, when it is common knowledge that Reagan routinely raised taxes during his presidency, and by the end of his final term had nearly tripled the federal deficit.

More importantly, during his speech Ryan made it seem like a life or death choice between President Obama and Mitt Romney. If Barack Obama were to be reelected, Ryan intoned, the United States as we know it “would be changed forever.” He then trotted out the typical Tea Party tropes: millions of illegal immigrants would freely walk across the border (Obama has cracked down on illegal immigration more than any other recent President), our grandparents would be quickly euthanized because of Obamacare (no such thing exists in the law), and the national debt would skyrocket (Obama has actually increased the deficit less than any president in decades).

We’re obviously not supposed to believe the things that politicians like Ryan say, are we? But both Democrats and Republicans have decided it takes talking in extremes to motivate the electorate, and where extremes aren’t available they aren’t beyond inventing them.

Besides wondering how politicians like Ryan can sleep at night after telling such outrageous lies, it’s important to remember that Democrats and Republicans — the only two political parties that are currently relevant — are not representative of America’s people. No person is purely one or the other. Ultimately, people are motivated by their beliefs, and after tallying up the sum of those beliefs they either put on the Democrat or the Republican badge. The political parties take full advantage by turning those beliefs into party affiliation, and ultimately votes.

But identifying and articulating those individual beliefs can be difficult. The process requires conversation and debate with other people who don’t agree with you. This allows you to combine vague emotions and hearsay into a realistic, applicable belief system. One which can intersect the spiritual, intellectual and practical areas of a person’s life.

This process has nearly become extinct, due in large part to the ability to select partisan news and information sources that only support one viewpoint, whichever it is. This relieves us of having to endure the cognitive dissonance of conflicting information, even if it’s the truth. The source may not be above bending the truth to suit its viewership, either. Among other things, this situation results in a population which possesses a very narrow political viewpoint, a viewpoint which is typically not capable of compromise.

In turn, because of the basic factual errors that are believed by both sides, there is very little general truth to be agreed upon. If, for example, you tell me Obama has spent the US into bankruptcy and I tell you he’s actually increased the federal debt by less than any president in the last several decades, it doesn’t leave much room for compromise. One of us is left with having to admit to being completely wrong, which is a tough proposition for anyone. Therefore, for politeness’ sake, politics doesn’t get talked about much.

Some may wake up one day and say to themselves, “This can’t be all there is. Every issue cannot be an impending crisis. It can’t be about guns, or about abortion, or about the debt.” They may then start to think about what’s important to them and might think something like, “I want to feel that I am a citizen of my country, that it’s intelligently working for me and for everyone around me, including those less fortunate, and that I believe in what my country stands for. For that comfort of living in a community of shared concern I am willing to pay my taxes gladly and participate in my civic duties when called upon.”

This is a statement that I believe most types of Conservatives and Liberals can agree upon, because it’s a general idea of what it means to live in a community. It’s something all of us have in common, and can be a basis to realize our shared interests. But it does have an uncomfortable aspect to it: it requires listening to all sides of an issue openly and fairly, even while disagreeing. Most importantly, and perhaps most painfully, as in science it requires being willing to change one’s mind when presented with better information.

It’s only through that process that finding solutions that work for most people is possible. If this is the ideal, it would seem obvious that the last four years have proved everyone in the US — those in and out of politics — need resources for making intellectually honest, and intelligently critical sense of their arguments.

“Political conflicts exist when people disagree about what the state should do or permit,” is how distinguished philosophy professor Peter Wenz defines what it means to disagree about politics. His book, Beyond Red and Blue should be considered a primary resource towards taking your seat as an informed citizen. Published by MIT Press, Wenz’s is the rare book that logically, and gracefully, helps you see the legitimacy of the other side of your sacred political beliefs. By sympathetically covering virtually every possible viewpoint for 14 of the nation’s most severe political fights, he helps each side find humility on issues that are so polarizing that honest debate seems to have become impossible. Wenz writes:

“The major difficulty in political philosophy, as I see it, is not people applying one philosophy in one situation and another in a different situation, but just the opposite — people thinking they have a political philosophy that solves all problems. I hope to show that all the philosophies we use are good and helpful in some situations, but that none is helpful in all situations to which it might be applied.”

But how do you really know what part of the political spectrum you represent? Wenz identifies 12 different political philosophies, or viewpoints, that we all use when reacting to controversial political issues. Which philosophies you resonate with might surprise you. Most people are far from the simplified extremes that cable news channels and the two political parties depict. Wentz writes, “A major reason we all use more than one political philosophy is that none gives answers we find acceptable to all the issues we face.” In reality we are a complex combination of conservative and liberal, dogmatic and open-minded viewpoints.

Beyond Red and Blue allows the reader to safely ask questions of, and argue with, those viewpoints that they are most opposed to. For example, a pro-choice advocate can get into the mind of an anti-abortion activist without having to endure an actual confrontation. The person might come out of it being able to agree that some limits on abortion are a good thing. Without having to capitulate, each side can nevertheless see why the other would hold a view on the issue in the way that it does.

Likewise, without having their character attacked, an evangelical Christian can hear about statistical information that shows why legalizing physician assisted suicide (PAS) actually lowers the rate of terminally ill patients killing themselves to escape their illnesses. This is because many times terminally ill people will commit suicide out of a feeling of, “If I don’t do it now while I have the energy to do it, I won’t be able to later when I’m too weak.” In turn the advocates of PAS can see how morality affects opinion on the opposite side. Wenz says that morality is seen by social conservatives as a slippery slope that will negatively affect countless other issues and eventually society as a whole. They feel that these negative effects outweigh curtailing individual’s rights to make their own decisions.

Of course, I am being intentionally naïve. No one so vehemently entrenched in their opinion will read such a book, let alone let it affect their viewpoint. But what if the case could be made that by reading Wenz’s book it could help them find strategies that would actually further their cause, whatever it may be? Perhaps such an appeal to one’s self-interest would be effective.

Conservatives and liberals in the same camp? Power in a democracy doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum game. If you can get enough of your ideals into one piece of legislation or platform while leaving enough room for compromise, and then create a coalition which allows you to win that vote or election, then you have won more than you would have otherwise. The compromise allowed you to get most of what you want. Wenz shows how these coalitions between conservatives and liberals, environmentalists and evangelicals, and even more unlikely partners like dyed-in-the-wool republicans and drug legalization advocates have come together to shape issues that they cared deeply about.

Ultimately, Wenz’s book helps us find patterns in our political logic, which helps point to our individual beliefs about what humans should and shouldn’t do. Out of the 12 political philosophies that he outlines, they all more or less begin to coalesce around two distinct viewpoints: control vs. freedom. Surprisingly, depending on the issue most Americans might find themselves on the side of control more than freedom. This is where ideals and reality begin to come together.

While reading Beyond Red and Blue it begins to emerge that the continuum of political thought seems to be forever shifting between those two poles of control and freedom. At the core of any given issue we seem to generally believe that other people are either completely capable of making intelligent moral decisions, or completely incapable. In other words, morality is inherent in us or it is not, in which case we need laws to govern people’s behaviour. Perhaps this reveals why, in a society marked by a disintegration of social bonds, we turn increasingly to laws to give us the one thing we can’t live without: faith.

Where does this fear in America’s heart come from? The fear that we will slide inexorably into chaos and worse if we don’t practice strict control over ourselves, this heart of darkness we are so sure is at the core of every American’s soul? Does it come from our history of slavery? From the fear of the strange natives who greeted the settlers as they came ashore? Or is it the nagging concern that greed is the ultimate American value?

Without answering such questions, arguments against issues like physician assisted suicide and even drug legalization look silly. These practices work in our country and abroad, respectively, and it’s proven that they drive down rates of suicide and drug addiction (PAS has decreased suicide rates in Oregon and the Netherlands, and teen drug use in the Netherlands in significantly lower than the US). Why wouldn’t they work here? Is it because many Americans fear that at the core of man is a beast instead of an angel — we are here to kill instead of love — and it is only by coercion that we will keep the wolf from eventually scratching down the door?

The conclusion then becomes counter-intuitive, especially in the age of instantaneously available information in which we live. More information doesn’t seem to be helping. Based on the ever widening gap between political views in the US, it might be that we need to base our arguments less on information and what may feel to us like inarguable truths, and focus more on having conversations about common priorities. Or, in other words, we need to talk about values.

If you asked young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, what was ultimately important to them they would probably answer: to have a safe, loving world for their children where a chance at success was available for anyone who wanted to work for it, where life was not just about survival but contained meaning, and where old age meant dignity and security, not shame and anxiety. All but the most jaded of us can agree on these core values. The question is, why don’t we start demanding our society be shaped around them?