This Way Isn’t Working

I turned 60 years old a few months ago and—like everything else in life—it’s got an upside and a downside. One of the significant benefits is the interesting perspective it brings. It’s like reaching the top of a peak from which you can look back and see a long arc of events over a relatively long period of time. It’s easier to see how things have changed over time (and, sometimes, how they haven’t).

From this vantage point, I’ve noticed one trend that’s played out over the last couple of decades in particularly harmful ways. It’s not unique in our history—we’ve lived through periods like this before—but up until about 25 years ago, we’d mostly moved on. What I’m seeing is a paradigm shift in the way we conduct politics. We’ve moved from an emphasis on getting things done to an emphasis on beating the other party at all costs.

I thought about this while I was listening to an audio clip of Chris Christie announcing his presidential candidacy. Christie is probably not a guy I could ever support but he said something today that made a lot of sense. It struck me as something that we would all do well to remember:

“If Washington and Adams and Jefferson believed that compromise was a dirty word, we’d still be under the crown of England.”

Governor-Chris-Christie12-630x408There was a time not too long ago when this would have been the least controversial statement imaginable. Politics was understood to be “the art of compromise” and it was this widely shared attitude that facilitated one of the nation’s most dynamic eras. It was an era in which we undertook great projects and programs together. We built the Hoover Dam and the Interstate system of highways. We moved to advance civil rights and to solidify voting rights. We went to the moon and built a social safety net that was designed to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens. The common denominator among all of these was that members of both parties were committed to getting something done and were willing to make practical compromises in the service of a greater good.

But thirty years after Ronald Reagan demonstrated the value of compromise, we’ve reached a point in our politics where it’s regarded as a dirty word and politicians who are willing to entertain the idea are often punished at the polls. Consider, for example, what occurred in Ames, IA during a debate in 2011 among Republican presidential candidates. Moderator Byron York asked, “Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? Three to one? Four to one? Or even 10 to one?” Not one of the candidates was willing to entertain the idea of compromising, even in a way that heavily favored GOP orthodoxy.

One of the motivations behind this brand of dysfunctional rigidity is the notion that the other party is the enemy and must be defeated. Tragically, it’s a mindset that works well politically but it’s also one that’s completely incompatible with the ideals we as a nation profess and basically incompatible with our system of government.

George Washington understood the dangers of partisanship and presciently warned against them in his Farewell Address when he left office. He understood that partisan allegiance had the potential to be toxic in precisely the way that it is today. (It’s worth noting that our Constitution doesn’t reference political parties and makes no provision for their participation in government.)

A better, more functional model is to see each other as colleagues who disagree.

Imagine yourself at work, on a committee tasked with reviewing the company’s product line and recommending additions and deletions. Then, imagine that the committee is evenly divided between those who want to maximize profitability from existing products and those who believe that innovative new products are the company’s real future.

It’s not hard to predict that people on each side might dig in and defend their point of view energetically. It’s almost impossible, though, to imagine one side threatening to shut the company down if the committee didn’t go along with its plans. But that’s where we find ourselves today when it comes to our politics.

I’ve written before that even our most cherished beliefs ought to be held with a certain amount of circumspection. In politics no less than any other field of endeavor, intellectual rigidity seldom works in our favor. As one wag put it, “If you haven’t changed your mind about anything lately, how do you know if it’s working?”

I prefer to approach political adversaries with the assumption that they’re acting in good faith and trying to do the right thing. That’s not always true, of course, but neither is it always true of those on my own side of the political divide. Still, it’s a better approach than reflexive opposition. It’s less stressful and who knows? As Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill demonstrated 30 years ago, it just might lead to something getting accomplished.

First the Verdict, Then the Trial.

As evidence of climate change continues to accumulate, the case against taking action becomes increasingly difficult to understand. Consider the fact that when we perceive ourselves to be threatened by foreign aggression—evening cases where the threat is not immediate or existential—we don’t hesitate to react swiftly and decisively. Why does a threat of environmental disaster not produce a similar resolve?

One answer is that the debate is being manipulated by corporations with an enormous financial interest in maintaining the profitability of the fossil fuel industry. Insofar as big oil is the most profitable industry in the history of the world, that explanation certainly satisfies the test of Occam’s Razor. While it’s clearly one of the factors that applies, it’s also clear that it’s not the only one. After all, there are plenty of loud voices opposing action on global warming that have no particular relationship to the oil industry.

Reagan_delivers_inaugural_address_1981I’d like to suggest a complimentary explanation, one that doesn’t get much attention from “serious” pundits even as it amplifies the oil industry’s arguments and simultaneously motivates opposition to action on the climate from people with no particular affinity with big oil. And it all starts with Ronald Reagan and his first inaugural address.

As he was preparing to take the reigns of the government of the United States, Reagan made a pronouncement that was stunning in its recklessness but nevertheless went on to become a rallying cry for America’s right wing:

Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.

Reagan’s condemnation is broad and unequivocal. His formulation doesn’t condemn “intrusive” government or “overreaching” government or even just “big” government. Reagan’s speech condemned government, period. Over the years, the quote has been repeated so often that its familiarity tends to obscure how toxic and irrational the message is if we take it seriously.

Randian fantasies aside, it is only government that stands between us and chaos. It is only government that guarantees our freedoms and secures our rights. Government is the necessary predicate to civilization. And it is the essential foundation for building any sort of  broadly shared prosperity.

Can government overreach? Of course. Can it become corrupt? Obviously. Can it be unresponsive or even hostile to its citizens? No question about it. But it should be obvious that the answer to these problems is not to abandon the idea of government but to improve it.

I’ll come back to these points in future posts but, for now, let’s return to Ronald Reagan. As the focal point of modern conservative ideology, Reagan’s pronouncement became gospel for a generation of right wing pundits and politicians. Railing against the boogeyman of big government is a great deal easier than undertaking the hard and endless work of fixing it.

But what happens when you’re confronted with a problem that is so big and so critical that it requires a concerted effort from a big government in order to fix it? That is the question that clearly confronts us today when it comes to the environment. If the problem really exists as it’s currently perceived by scientists then it’s a problem that demands a big government solution.

But what happens when an ideology and the demands of an emergency are at odds? Well, that’s precisely where we find ourselves today and that, unfortunately, is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post. It is the aversion to government that Ronald Reagan articulated in January of 1981 that is paralyzing us today.

Said differently, today’s conservative movement has adopted a political stance that’s reminiscent of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: “First the verdict, then the trial.” If big government is axiomatically bad then any solution that involves big government must be categorically rejected.

Of course, that stance is a tough sell when the problem that’s approaching is potentially catastrophic. In such a case, a much more promising strategy is to pretend that the problem itself simply doesn’t exist. And that is what today’s right wing has chosen to do.


The Most Meta Tweet Ever?

This tweet from Chuck Woolery, self-described “Hollywood Conservative” and game show host extraordinaire, might be one of the most meta things I’ve ever seen.

Of course, it’s difficult to know exactly what someone means when they’re trying to talk philosophy in 140 characters or less so I don’t want to make any assumptions here. It’s possible that Chuck might have been referring to a classic Bertrand Russell quote (one that I coincidentally posted on Facebook yesterday):

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

That’s a similar sentiment but not exactly the same as what Chuck tweeted. But given Russell’s political outlook, I’m guessing that he is probably not one of Chuck’s intellectual heroes. It’s not unreasonable, then, to consider other possible interpretations.

One plausible option is that Chuck was nodding to the Dunning-Kruger effect, a certain kind of cognitive bias that gets hijacked from time to time into online political discussions.

If that’s the case, then you don’t need any help from me in analyzing this. (though an appreciation of irony would certainly help). The tweet simply speaks for itself.

It’s Complicated

I’ve always felt that one of Facebook’s most significant innovations was including the category of “It’s Complicated” among the options for designating your relationship status.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 9.15.41 AMIn fact, the value of that description extends way beyond relationships. In my experience, life offers few—if any—straightforward narratives. We gravitate towards explanations that are simple and reliable and we reflexively want to categorize the events and people we encounter in ways that are neat and tidy. Reality seldom cooperates but the tendency persists. (Arizona State psychology professor Robert Cialdini offers a pretty good explanation for why we do this in his classic book, Influence, a “must read” on the subject of human behavior.)

One of the smartest things I ever heard on cable news was a comment made by Colonel Jack Jacobs, a military analyst and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. Responding to an interviewer’s question about whether or not changes in warfare were responsible for fewer Medals of Honor being awarded, Jacobs replied, “I’m not a fan of single factor analysis. There are lots of reasons why things occur and that is only one of them.” (Buddhists refer to this as dependent arising or dependent origination.)

Are homeless people lazy? Are conservatives heartless? Are liberals naive? You might think you know the answers to questions like these but the more closely and dispassionately you examine them, the more likely it is that you’ll find the real answers to be… complicated.