Facts and Fictions, Part I

About a month ago I wrote a post that started with this quote:

Win or lose, the GOP talks about three core principles: less government, lower taxes, and a strong military. It doesn’t matter that, when in charge, Republican politicians have been known to grow government, raise taxes, and stretch the military too thin. Party leaders have decided that less government, lower taxes, and a strong military is what they stand for and what they run on. That’s their story and they’re sticking with it for good reason — because more often that not, it has helped them win. [Bill Scher, Wait! Don’t Move to Canada! (Rodale, 2006), p. 13.]

I asked if we might come up with our own short list of “ideas” to run on. I see that LeonJohn Podesta asked a similar question:

“The question I’m asked most often is, When are we getting our eight words?” Podesta said. Conservatives, he went on, “have their eight words in a bumper sticker: Less government. Lower taxes. Less welfare. And so on. Where’s our eight-word bumper sticker?”

My post generated some rich discussion, but no “eight words in a bumper sticker.” I’ve been thinking about this since, and realized that everything I come up with is much less specific than what the Right runs on. For example, where the Right always runs on cutting taxes, I would run on responsible taxes. Whether taxes should be raised or lowered, IMO, depends on a whole lot of factors that are always changing. Factors to consider include what people need from their government and what’s good for the economic health of the nation, both short and long term. There is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. And there’s a time to lower taxes, and a time to raise them. But the phrase “responsible taxes” doesn’t mean anything unless I explain what I mean, so we’re already over the eight words.

Of course, I always want to pin conservatives down on what they mean by “less” government, since many of them seem OK with big, strong, intrusive government in matters of sex and death. If you think about it, they seem to want government to go away only where money is involved. And I’m all for a “strong” military, but by that I don’t mean keeping the military-industrial complex gorged on no-bid contracts and sweetheart deals. I mean a military strong enough to defend the nation.

Leon Podesta said that coming up with eight words in a bumper sticker is harder for liberals, “because we believe in a lot more things.” I don’t think that’s true; righties certainly seem to have beliefs up the wazoo. Liberals get slammed because we don’t have beliefs. For example, check out what what Sebastian Mallaby wrote in the Washington Post awhile back:

After years of single-party government, the prospect of a Democratic majority in the House ought to feel refreshing. But even with Republicans collapsing in a pile of sexual sleaze, I just can’t get excited. Most Democrats in Congress seem bereft of ideas or the courage to stand up for them. They clearly want power, but they have no principles to guide their use of it.

In fact, Dems are brimming over with ideas; just check out Podesta’s think tank if you want some examples. Do the Dems as a party have clearly articulated principles to guide their use of power? That’s a harder question to answer. But do Republicans? Not that I’ve seen. Republicans have rhetoric; they have talking points; they have campaign slogans. Principles, not so much. But Republicans get a pass on the principle thing. In the same way, the Democratic Party is perpetually being challenged to come up with a plan for Iraq; individual Dems have come up with a number of plans, but since the party hasn’t rallied around any one plan, this doesn’t count. But Republicans as a party have no discernible “plan,” either, other than “stay the course.” And now some of them are disowning even that.

But as I’ve been combing through commentary this morning I’m struck by the fact that many commenters (like Mallaby) use words like idea, principle, and belief loosely and interchangeably as if they were synonyms, and of course they are not. Fuzzy use of language usually connotes fuzzy thinking. Why is it that Republicans get credit for having ideas even though they haven’t had a genuinely new idea since the McKinley Administration? Why is it Republicans get credit for having principles even though their words and deeds rarely meet up in the same ball park?

Many liberals argue that righties have us beat in the language and framing departments, and I think that’s part of it, but I say there’s a more fundamental reason: righties have a strong ideology, and lefties don’t.

I just stumbled upon this very lovely quote —

    “The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.” -Bertrand Russell

Contrast this to our current crop of American conservatives, who remain steadfastly loyal to their ideas even after trial and empirical evidence reveal they don’t work. Supply side economics comes to mind.

I’m not saying ideologies are better than no-ideology; just the opposite. I am leery of ideology. The dictionary defines ideology thus —

1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. 2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

— But I think ideology is better understood as an interface to reality. An ideology makes interacting with reality easier, because it eliminates much of the detail and limits one’s choices.

For example, if a non-ideological person wants to understand why there is so much poverty in New Orleans, he has to piece together myriad historical, cultural, political, and economic factors, some of which may be unique to New Orleans. But an ideologue can click on the drop-down menu for social problems, then choose poverty, and get a simple answer. Easy as pie.

Simple answers have the advantage of being easier to explain and to understand than complicated answers. This gives politicians with simple answers a strong advantage over those whose answers require some explaining. A person with simple answers also can seem more certain about what he says than someone who understands all the ambiguities and complications and mitigating factors.

And, my dears, there are always ambiguities and complications and mitigating factors. Pretending they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away.

Put another way, instead of learning more about a issue to understand it, ideologues eliminate factors until the issue becomes easily understandable. The fact that the “understanding” may have little to do with reality is of no consequence. You see this phenomenon in righties’ quest for “moral clarity.” The way one achieves “moral clarity” is not through deep thinking or thorough study; it is through reducing complex issues to a simple “good versus evil” equation. And this equation is created by eliminating any factors that don’t return the desired answer.

For example, “moral clarity” on the abortion issue usually means designating the embryo as “good” and the woman who wants to abort as “bad.” In order to be “clear” the ideologue sees the embryo as innocent and blameless, but the “bad” woman is narcissistic and immoral. Crushing personal circumstances or genetic anomalies are dismissed as “inconveniences” that virtuous women would accept without complaint. Factors that don’t fit into the equation are dismissed as unimportant, in other words.

To be fair, there are lefties who dismiss the embryo as a “growth” or a “parasite,” which is another easy way to achieve “clarity” on the issue. To my mind, these people are playing the same mental games righties are playing. It’s not an honest way to look at the issue.

Ideologies can be found all along the political spectrum. But neither conservatism nor liberalism are in themselves ideologies. In some people, conservatism or liberalism are no more than inclinations or attitudes that cause them to sympathize with one set of values more than another. If you look at political conservatism around the globe and over time, you find all manner of competing and contradictory ideas attached to it. And many Americans have called themselves conservative without having to believe that taxes must always be cut or that abortions must be stopped at all cost.

But right now, in the U.S., most of the Right is strongly ideological, but most of the Left isn’t. Most of us who call ourselves “liberals” or “progressives” or “Democrats” these days do not have simple doctrines and beliefs and dogmas that tell us whether taxes should go up or down, for example. Instead, we’ve got policy wonks studying trends and crunching numbers. Most of us in favor of reproduction rights are concerned about the impact of abortion and birth control bans on the lives and health of women, and our concerns are based on real-world experience. We think government ought to be responsive to the needs and desires of citizens, but we don’t assume what those needs and desires are always going to be.

Thus, we have “nuances.” We lack “clarity.” We aren’t always sure we are right. We can’t reduce our ideas into simple slogans and equations. The Right can do these things, however. While the Left consults maps and debates diverse routes, the Right knows exactly which way to march.

But then, so do lemmings.

See also: The Anonymous Liberal, “Straw Man Politics and The Great Rhetorical Divide“; Robert Parry, “Whose Moral Clarity?