Monday, February 11, 2008

Passionately Moderate

- by J.M.

"Pick a side!"

So we've been told by politicians, pundits, editorialists, and others who seek our allegiance by stripping complex issues of all nuance in order to shove them into a simplistic "us vs. them" formula. Republicans have shunned McCain because he dared to challenge the party-line on tax-cuts for the wealthy, among other excesses. (Need I point out here that there is currently a war that is contributing to the national debt at a rate of approximately $ 275 million to $ 300 million per day? No? Okay, then, let's move on.) NOW-New York's president Marcia Pappas recently criticized Sen. Edward Kennedy of betraying women with his endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama. (Aside from the obvious fact that both Sens. Clinton and Obama represent a radical departure from the typical white male candidate - and who's to say that combating sexism is more or less important than combating racism - I didn't realize that Sen. Kennedy had permanently alleged his allegiance to Sen. Clinton as the representative of women everywhere. My mistake . . . I guess.) The Bush administration has repeatedly (and outrageously) claimed that anyone who disagrees with its policies is an agent of terror. President Bush has literally stated, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" - a sentiment echoed by Mitt Romney last week as he withdrew from the race, implying that a vote for the democrats would be a surrender to terror.

I understand the pragmatism inherent in the "if you're not with us, you're against it" attitude. For one thing, it gets results. Especially in times of crisis, people respond to these ultimatums, fearing that the worst possible outcome is a probable alternative to that proposed by a trusted leader (whether or not said leader has actually earned that trust, and whether or not available intelligence, statistics, etc. actually support that conclusion). Moreover, it's simple: it reduces complicated issues that require extensive research (or, at the very least, a lengthy article) to comprehend into an easy-to-understand choice between right and wrong. The human brain is, in fact, predisposed to categorize information into readily accessed prototypes and heuristics. (See, e.g., David G. Myers, Psychology, 6th ed. Worth Publishers, pp. 358-64, 2001). The problem, of course, is that despite the appeal and ease of such an approach, the most pressing issues facing the U.S. in the coming years - national security, religious extremism, the economy, education, etc. - are much too complicated to be reduced to two diametrically-opposed sides.

Let's examine the war in Iraq, for example. Sen. Obama's supporters frequently stress that he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, an argument they feel gives him an advantage over Sen. Clinton in the upcoming campaign against the Republican nominee. The argument becomes "voted against war" versus "voted for war." However, this conflict is one with little relevance to the present situation in Iraq, nearly five years into the war, where the issue is not whether or not to enter a war, but how best to extricate the U.S. from its entanglement in the Middle East. In fact, one of the reasons Sen. Obama opposed the war was that he recognized it would become an occupation without end. Thus, no matter the reasons for Sens. Clinton's and Obama's positions on the war in 2002 when confronted with false statements from the Bush administration and faulty intelligence, the public and the media should logically focus on which candidate has a better strategy for ending the conflict in Iraq. The answer to this question requires careful examination of numerous factors, among them, the safety of U.S. troops, the stability of the region, and the likelihood of success of any plan in the Congress.

Meanwhile, Sen. McCain has steadfastly supported the war in Iraq: in fact, "the surge" was largely his idea. Over the past year, numerous sources have indicated that the surge is working (see, e.g., New York Post, Reuters, Time Magazine). But in recent days, just as many sources indicate that surge gains will dissolve as the U.S. withdraws troops (as it will have to, given the cost). Again, who supported the surge is not as important a question as "what do we do now?"

"Us vs. them" does not allow for the sort of nuanced approach necessary to examine the current position of the U.S. in Iraq, the capacity of Iraqi forces to manage their own security concerns, the cost of maintaining troop levels, and the availability of quality care and support as weary soldiers return home. "Us vs. them" is similarly ill-equipped to handle questions of how to respect religious diversity while condemning crimes committed in the name of religion, and how best to stimulate the economy.

In law school, my Constitutional Law professor repeatedly stressed that democracy is hard work: it requires constant study, frequent meetings, and vigorous debate. At this juncture - with an almost-five-year war in Iraq, an ambivalent threat from Iran, a looming recession, a national debt in the trillions - we cannot afford to decrease our vigilance and allow our leaders, potential leaders, and media to divide the issues along meaningless lines, setting up dichotomies where none exist, pitting us against each other. We need to examine the practical ramifications of each strategy proposed, looking beyond the hyperbole and soundbites typically offered during primary season. While I firmly believe we should carefully consider a candidate's character rather than just his or her stance on specific issues, the only tool we have available to us in order to judge such character is each candidate's record of performance and behavior. We do the candidates and our nation's future a disservice if we fail to examine these records. Moreover, we need to look beyond whether specific initiatives and strategies were ultimately successful, and examine whether they were well-thought-out, constructed in cooperation with allies and adversaries alike, and advocated effectively. Only then can we be assured we are making informed decision, and not led astray by the power of emotion, media spin, and often unrecognized prejudice.

Democracy deserves nothing less.


Talyesen said...

First comment! I can't say that I agree with all the opinions expressed, but that is never going to be the case when you get two thinking people in the same room together, which I believe is one of your points. I also tend to get annoyed with people who try to make politics black and white, when in reality everything is shades of gray.

I think everyone should look beyond the simple slogans both parties tend to spew out. Following anyone blindly can only lead to problems. I have often wished we didn't have our two-party system. As much as I wish a vote for a candidate other than a Democrat or Republican would do some good, in reality it is almost always a wasted vote. I don't see that changing anytime soon. I think it will take some major political upheaval to change things. Instead of being able to vote my conciensce, I feel like I have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

The best we can do is to continue to educate people to look beneath the surface, educate themselves on the isssues and candidates, and make informed decisions. Until we can do away with the "badwagon mentality" nothing will change.

Schna said...

I wholeheartedly agree with the problems of an "us or them" philosophy - it's the very premise of every form of discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance. yay America! Sorry - couldn't help it.

I also agree with talyesen that a two party system sucks (sorry for the somewhat crude paraphrase). Especially where in recent years (in my lifetime, really), it seems that the parties have moved closer together, while somehow also moving further and further to the right. When was the last time we had a truly liberal democrat on the ballot?
Now, the democratic candidates are arguing the same values-driven issues that the republican candidates are arguing and OFTEN COMING TO THE SAME CONCLUSION. this is frightening.

I think that JM made a good point about the issues that are important and pressing NOW. But the issues seem to come down to:
War: good or bad?
Abortion: good or bad?
Gay Marriage: good or bad?
Any non-Christian religion: good or bad?

This hasn't gotten us anywhere in the past 8 (at least) years. Most of these are personal issues that each person should decide for himself - leave it out of legislation.

Someone else can use my soap box now....

Mike said...

i think you & the others have raised a very good point. as you have all said the reduction of very important complex issues to simple a vs b, good vs evil, black vs white discussions create a HUGE problem.

the problem, as i hear you guys stating it, is that when this approach is taken people tend to make uninformed decisions on important issues.

the larger issue, as i see it (and i would love to be wrong) is that that is what people want... and not just a little, that is what people desperately want. this allows the average person to reduce the political thought process to:

oh that candidate is

[for | against]

[the war | abortion | gay rights | blah blah blah]

well then i


now i can get back to

[buying shit i dont need | not thinking | talking about how much i love ah-mur-uh-ka]

a minimum of thought and effort and the maximum comfort. i wonder how to (and fear we cant) combat this issue. how do we make people care? is there a way to motivate the majority of the voting public to force honest political discussion out of our politicians? i dont see it happening until things go even further into the crapper...

love the blog btw.