Sunday, August 17, 2008

Why We Need To Talk About Politics

We are advised that in polite company we should refrain from talking about politics. We are warned not to talk about politics at family gatherings and we are informed that company policy does not permit conversations about politics at work. The campaign against political discourse is a result of our post-modern, non-offensive American culture. Whatever you do, don’t offend somebody.

This strikes me as dangerous. We live in a Constitutional Republic that depends on an informed and active electorate to send qualified and trustworthy politicians to the State Capitols and to Washington to represent us. If we do not talk about politics with our friends and family, if we don’t share our opinions with co-workers, then our votes will be cast without honing our ideas on the whetstone of give and take conversation. If we don’t talk about our opinions, especially with people we do not agree with, then we really won’t understand what we think.

It is not possible to know your position if you have not practiced how to defend it in a logical and amicable debate. In all probability you will simply be repeating something from the TV or a newspaper, or worse, repeating the talking points of a polished campaign speech. The fact that you cannot logically defend the idea means that you don’t understand it. You will cast your vote as one of the millions of lazy Americans who does not accept the responsibility of suffrage seriously.

Normally the average voter is trained by the mainstream media to scoff at any idea or set of opinions that does not mesh more or less perfectly with the ideas grouped into incoherent bundles by the Democratic and Republican parties. The voter that is informed exclusively by the big six media companies is taught that politics in Americas is and always should be a dualistic system where you are either a Republican “conservative” or a Democrat “liberal”. The only option to those two choices is to position yourself between them as an Independent. The implication is that all the serious solutions to the issues that need attention fall on the scale below. If an idea cannot be located on this scale then it is understood to be crazy and dangerous.

There are hundreds of topic areas in our politics that range from defense planning to the proper role of the Federal government in education to whether we should involve ourselves in all the regional conflicts around the world to whether government should support the price of certain agricultural commodities, etcetera ad infinitum. There are thousands of crucial decisions to be made, but most Americans passively accept that there are only two ways that the myriad issues can be bundled and dealt with.

There is a Democrat bundle and there is a Republican bundle. These bundles are really quite arbitrary and often leave the thinking man or woman with no good choice. For example, a Catholic Christian is taught that he must defend life before any other political considerations. What policies threaten human life?
• Legal executions
• Abortion
• Euthanasia
• War – in particular unjust war
Two of these positions generally fall in the Democrat bundle and the other two generally fall in the Republican bundle. We are led to believe that there is some sense in this distribution, but there certainly isn’t to someone who’s values and sensitivities are not aligned upon the American “liberal” – “conservative” axis. So, in this example the Catholic is forced to do a macabre mental calculation; which kills more, war or abortion? There are many obvious examples of people that do not identify with either of the bundles. Libertarians and others that are interested in individual liberties, but definitely are against the redistribution of resources are forced to make a bad decision if they vote along the Democrat-Republican axis.

There are very good ideas that do not fall on the linear axis of mainstream American politics. The linear axis is the American status quo and all of the power elites like our national discussion to stay on that line. The bankers and stock brokers, the bureaucrats and reporters and corporate executives and marketing professionals and the two big political parties want things to stay just as they are because they are all doing just fine. Either of the two bundles is fine with the ruling elites, either of the political parties are on the same program. No mainstream Democrats or Republicans are going to advocate that we close the Federal Reserve Bank or that we legalize marijuana and other drugs. The mainstream Dems and Republicans know that they have to stick to the script if they want committee positions and lobbyist money to finance their re-elections.

But, there are other political parties. Three have survived marginalization: the Libertarians, the Green Party and the Constitution Party. These parties don’t bundle different policies and ideas like the two mainstream policies. They are located off the linear axis and therefore expand our options exponentially. But if we do not talk about politics we will not hear about the ideas that threaten the status quo. They will be feared or scoffed at by the average American because when the big six media conglomerates mention the smaller parties there are trivialized or made to look dangerous. It is only by conversation that the ideas of the real left and the ideas of the greens and the ideas of the libertarians will propagate from the Internet into the mainstream culture. The people who take the time to learn from alternative sources should talk about it.

How different are the positions of the Republicans and the Democrats? They both supported the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They both supported FISA and the Patriot Act. They both pass legislation allowing the deficit to grow to unpayable amounts. They both support Federal oversight of education. They both believe in income tax and they both want to run the economy, the world and your life. The linear axis of American political dialogue is like reducing the scope of music to one piano that is limited to the scale of C major from middle to high C. No sharps or flats, no high notes, no low notes. No other instruments. It doesn’t matter who plays the piano, its range is so limited that it will always come out about the same. If we want a vibrant government that gives us real options, then we need to get the whole orchestra to play. Lets hear all the instruments, lets thrill to high notes and new sounds.


In order to debate politics we need to learn how to do so in a positive and amicable manner. I am a libertarian; many of my friends are socialists and Greens. We disagree about much more than the Democrats and Republicans disagree about, but we have enlightening, lively and friendly debates. I learn much from them and have changed a number of my opinions after these talks.

But as Americans we are taught that we must always win at any cost. That leads us to view a political discussion as a competition in which we exert ourselves to “win” against our “opponent”. We want the other guy to back down and concede that his argument has been overwhelmed. We all want the confused sot that disagrees with us to learn that he is wrong, but we certainly do not enter into a debate in order to learn something from that fellow. Political discussions start and end as competitions, and that is why most people fervently avoid them. Many discussions descend into shouting and name-calling, or worse. This happens when we feel that our argument is taking on water and we may end up “losing” or looking stupid. So we just raise the volume and try to win the debate by virtue of more decibels.

That is not the way to discuss politics and we’ll never extricate the national debate from the quicksand of the linear scale of ideas if we don’t learn to speak about politics often and to do so with intelligence, patience and humility. So I suggest that to talk politics to an American, do so with as much peace and restraint as you can muster. When he shouts you down, just wait till he runs out of steam. Try to find something worthwhile in his bluster and start again from there. Reason will convince in the end if you have patience and humility. It is also important not to make people feel stupid, even if it is sometimes hard to avoid.

Try to get people to see that there are valid ideas that are not on the D-R Linear Scale. Try to get them to see that the arbitrary bundling of ideas by the two parties forces us all into bad choices. Try to show them how to easily and quickly access alternative news sources. Don’t be too radical or too intense. Let them see that there really are other ideas that are accepted around the world; like that the Palestinians are actually human beings. Show them how to find news on digg and reddit, give them a link to the Guardian and Antiwar and Haaretz and the BBC and Firedoglake and And tell them to talk about politics and help more people get unhooked from the D-R Linear Scale.

No comments: