I enjoy America’s partisan politics. I like it when my fellow citizens have strong opinions which they feel free to express and debate openly. That is healthy.
James Madison said it best in Federalist #10: “faction is sown in the heart of man” and the difference between a barbaric society and a free society is that a barbaric society turns to violence to resolve disputes between factions, whereas a free society turns to public discourse and agreed upon power-sharing through a constitutional structure, such as our elections this November.
In election season, you’ll inevitably hear some calls for balance, for the sake of balance. You’ll hear a few of your friends say things like, ‘the best answer lies somewhere in the middle’. They blame polarization on the politicians, and on the political process.
I disagree with that view. I do not like moderates, independents, or centrists, who are moderate, independent, or centrist, because on principle they believe in moderation, non-affiliation, and centrism. At least the Left and the Right have ideological roots. The Center is derivative, reactive, and constantly evolving. That is a position to take if you have no principles of your own, and your best guess is to solve every equation by taking an average. That’s not doing math. That’s cheating on the test! You’re looking at the answers from the student to your left and to your right, then whenever they are different, adding their figures and dividing by two. Good luck passing the test that way…
I would rather have a fellow citizen whom I strongly disagree with, but who knows what they believe and why, than one who voted with me sometimes, but didn’t have any original beliefs of his own.
No, partisanship is not the villain. While at times you may feel disenfranchised by your party, or wish it fielded a better candidate, or frustrated by its incompetence, etc., or even leave it, parties are still a good thing. While you may have achieved the panacea of ideological purity, not everyone agrees with you, and to get things done, to win elections in a body politic, you’ve got to band together with other citizens who share a few of your core beliefs about the role of government and about the right way to lead the nation.
No, the real villain – the thing that I find most disturbing and dangerous for the long-term health of our American body politic – is that there are so few individuals left who really know why they believe what they believe.
Socrates, if he were alive, would wander the streets of San Francisco, my city, and ask us questions. Questions like:
Who are you voting for? Why? … Oh, I see. But what about this? … Interesting. But have you thought of that? … Okay, but what would you say to this counter-argument? … Hang on a second, that’s not consistent with this fact … While that sounds nice, doesn’t it contradict x? Drill, drill, drill!
I would happily subject my opinions to such rigorous interrogation and logic. I see that sort of attention, from any sharp mind, as a gift and a compliment. It would be like having a personal trainer for my political philosophy. Who knows? Maybe my thinking would unravel, even though I’d like to think that it is fairly consistent. There’s definitely white space left on the intellectual map for me to keep exploring and questions to iron out.
But I’m far more worried about my peers. They represent, I think, the best of my generation and are largely well-educated, tech-savvy, upwardly mobile, and entrepreneurial. But their political views would fall apart under such questioning. This includes those friends that vote as I do. Most of them couldn’t stay in the ring with Socrates for 15 minutes. I’ve observed this in San Diego, New York, and London. Even, or rather shockingly, especially at Cornell and Oxford. Everywhere I’ve been, most people just want to be cool. They’ll retweet what’s trending. They’ll chime in with a line here and there, to sound educated. But real beliefs? Just not interested.
Socrates called it philosophy for a reason.
That process, systematically asking questions that subject your beliefs to the rigorous scrutiny of logic, is how you obtain philosophy. Most people don’t have a philosophy any-more. They have beliefs, sure. But not a set of beliefs that they’ve arrived at on their own, by doing the hard work of asking and answering hard questions, and demanding logical consistency of themselves and their peers. A coherent, consistent, set of beliefs - that is a philosophy.
What we need in this electorate is more philosophy.
Imagine, for a moment, how different politics, both during and after elections, would be in this country, if every individual started with a political philosophy first and only then made their decision to get involved with a party and vote for its candidate. Parties and candidates would still be as important as they are today, but what would change is that we wouldn’t be borrowing all our beliefs from them. It would be the other way around. We would have beliefs and then make the sort of trade-offs and bargains that independently-thinking voters in a free-society make.
Instead, there are too many followers in our midst. They’re following us, their peers, especially those of us who speak out. They’re following their parties and their party leaders, half-blindly. If political messaging connects with enough cobbled together feelings and half-connected beliefs, it will sway votes.
This has led, in my opinion, to a culture in America in which, ironically, politics is not politically correct, and therefore, not as widely discussed as it should be. It’s a subject we’d rather avoid in all settings where the persuasions of those we find ourselves with are unknown. Or, when they are known, but we know we disagree, we stay quiet. We’re not comfortable talking about it unless we’re safely surrounded by those who already agree with us.
No doubt, politics makes for flammable conversation. These issues affect all of us. They can be emotionally charged. When we try to persuade each other, egos can block reason.
Most of us are mature enough to be civil. It’s easy enough to understand these issues and be sensitive to them. But politeness does not mean holding back. Politeness does not mean shutting up. Politeness does not mean engaging your colleagues and friends in real discussion and debate.
So there’s no real reason to be so hush-hush about it. After all, we talk about sex openly all the time! What’s so different about politics?
Maybe the reason we’re so quiet about politics is that, as individuals, we don’t really have much to say. Nothing original, that is. We’re just mish-mash and hodge-podge; a little this and a little that.
Maybe the reason that we’re so emotional about politics is that we’ve begun to substitute thinking with feeling in our decision-making. When you have a philosophy that you’ve assembled carefully and tested rigorously, you don’t feel threatened, because you’ve already thought through all the arguments and counter-arguments. You know what you believe and why. But when you’re just voting from one election to the next, based on which candidate aligns most closely with your feelings about what should be done and what is right, then of course, you’re going to feel very defensive about and threatened by the conflicting opinions of others.
In this election, I strongly oppose one candidate, and I strongly support the other. But neither candidate is campaigning on the platform that I wish the country embrace. I have my own philosophy. I know where I differ from my candidate. I am okay with those differences, because I still believe he will move the country close to where I want it to go.
Over the last couple months, I have slowly become more vocal about my political opinions, but by and large, over the last four years, I have been silent. I have been silent, not because I didn’t have a philosophy, but because I was afraid of others disagreeing with me. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to have everyone agree with me.
This election, though, I think that the stakes are high, and that I have a duty, as a citizen of this great country, to engage in the process.
So in my next blog post, I am going to publish some of my political philosophy. I’m going to lay out the principles on which I believe this country should be governed, describe what they might look like in practice, and talk a little bit about why I believe they are right.
Sunday, October 6
After writing this post, I read the following in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, that I feel captures the thrust of this post better than my words. I’m sharing it here as a last affirmation:
There are two sides to every issue: one is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube.