I hate partisan politics; and never more than partisan politics as it is played now. The wild-eyed brinksmanship. The cynical twisting of “gotcha” quotes. The schoolyard taunts like “Teabaggers” and “New York Slimes.” It’s so damned mediocre and tedious.
And, most wearisome of all, it’s unnecessary. Almost every one of the hot-button issues that divide us have principled and logical answers. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater’s far-too-candid appeal to our moral compass: In our hearts, we know what’s right.
Here’s a good experiment. It’s presidential convention season. The parties will go easy on specifics, and instead will tout their principles and values. And, when they do, the parties will sound curiously similar: Fiscal moderation, personal responsibility, patriotism, individual liberty, and compassion for others will surely be among them. Throw in Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair, and Joe Biden introducing Barack Obama as articulate, clean, and having a big stick, and you pretty much already know what’s coming.
These same upstanding and selfless principles and values have been flogged in conventions, stump speeches, baby-kissing orgies, and Jimmy Stewart movies for generations. Heck, just watch any Aaron Sorkin drama: Every one of his left-wing heroes from Jed Bartlett to Will McAvoy drips responsibility, generosity, compassion, and courage. Those are the values that resonate with every one of us.
(Unfortunately, the women of “Newsroom” mostly drip with the values of ditsy hysteria and man-induced Dependent Personality Disorder).
So if, in our hearts we know what’s right, why are we so completely at odds when it comes to how to run our country?
One problem is, we’ve all made up our minds. Only three percent of Americans say they are undecided about their votes for President, which means that the conventioneers are largely preaching to their own choirs. The Republican speakers skipped over policy or ideas, and instead treated the convention as a big pep rally for the Elephant team. Clint Eastwood talked to a chair. Chris Christie talked about himself. Paul Ryan told the sort of fish tales that a fella tells only to his buddies who know full well that they’re hearing a pack of lies, but love to hear them anyway. No doubt, we’ll get something very similar at next weekend’s convention….and on AM talk radio…and on the partisan bickering that dominates cable news programs.
As Thomas Paine put it,”no man is prejudiced in favor of a thing, knowing it to be wrong. He is attached to it on the belief of its being right.” We’ve made up our minds, and we just want to hear what we think we already know.
The second problem is, even if all of us have roughly the same moral compass, almost none of our political decisions seems to be motivated by principle. Not to point fingers only one way, but what moral compass would ever point in the direction of cheering for your own country’s economic failure just so the current administration will fail? Or, pretending man-made global warming doesn’t exist because carbon limits would hurt corporate profits? Or, basing the theme of an entire political convention on a knowing misquote of a President’s speech?
Sure, there are some conflicts that can’t be solved by either logic or principle. This is either because they involve rights that are insolubly in conflict, such as abortion rights, or because they come down to fiscal priorities. But, most of the issues that we believe divide us are false, often because they are cynically manufactured by one partisan group or another.
Here, then: Three false debates that can be easily resolved by our gut values.
The First False Debate: Individual liberty. The premise of this false debate seems to be that our Founding Principles include the right to do whatever the hell we want. Drive naked at 100 miles per hour through a bob of baby seals in a 2mpg SUV while blasting Bette Midler loud enough to make the dead rise up and do the Spanish Hustle? Sure!
But, that’s silly. We know by logic that freedom is limited by our obligations to the next guy (or, the next baby seal); and we feel better when we “do the right thing” for that next guy, or our neighborhood, or the planet. Per T. Paine, “When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity.”
Yes, some “individual liberty” “nanny-state” banner-wavers will feel a rush of adolescent bravado by claiming that we all should have complete freedom “to live our lives without interference.” But, in fact, we don’t want that sort of freedom for ourselves, or for the communities we live in. We want regulation when regulation makes sense to protect the rights of others, and we want to behave in a way that protects those rights. We don’t want to be “that guy.”
The false debate about individual liberty is usually a shill for those partisan interests that want to relieve businesses of the cost of protecting the public. But, this false debate can be resolved easily based on our moral compass. We all feel better when we help, or at least do no harm to, others. (And, we feel even better than that when no one does any harm to us). That means we feel better when we have effective workplace regulation, environmental protections, oversight of the powerful, and protection of equal rights. We resent regulation that protects us only from ourselves. As Tom Paine would surely say, go on and buy that 400-ounce Big Gulp; just don’t throw the empty cup onto the sidewalk.
The Second False Debate: Personal responsibility.
“Personal responsibility” sounds like a solid sort of value. When we think of being personally responsible, we think of paying our share, fixing what we’ve broken, taking the blame when we’re at fault, and stepping forward when we’re needed.
Unfortunately, “personal responsibility” has taken on a very different meaning. In this false debate, “personal responsibility” has come to be used as an argument against giving help to those who need it.
57 percent of Republicans say that people are poor because they don’t work hard. In keeping with this logic, 60 percent of them say they do not believe that it is the government’s role to care for the less fortunate. The poor who are receive public assistance are demonized as slovenly freeloaders who would rather take a handout than work. As Mitt Romney’s puts it in his bloodlessly patrician way, “welfare without work creates negative incentives that lead to permanent poverty.”
So, “personal responsibility,” in this false debate, has come to mean “responsibility for no one but myself.” Again, it is hard to believe that anyone really believes this bombast. Sure, the selfish rich get a charge out of blaming the poor for their own poverty. It’s like Grover Norquist, having a bit of frolic by telling reporters that he wants to “reduce government to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” or that Democrats are like farm animals that must be “fixed, and then they’ll be happy and sedate.”
Nonsense. Just as with individual rights, our own internal compass tells us the truth about personal responsibility. That same instinct — the one that makes us feel good about being accountable for ourselves — also makes us feel good about being compassionate, generous, and responsive to the needs of others. We love stories of self-sacrifice, even if it’s Mitt Romney’s odd and awkward story of transporting all 200 employees of Bain Capital to the streets of New York to find one of those employees’ runaway teen daughter. We want to help those who need help.
If this moral compass were used to make public policy, we would help those who truly need help. There would be no talk about balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. We’d all pay our fair share. And, we would be ashamed of anyone who tried to protect his own pockets by arguing that “personal responsibility” means that the lazy, shiftless poor should just work harder.
The Third False Debate: Fiscal Responsibility
When some lucky bastard wins the lottery, he can be certain that the first question he’ll be asked is how he plans to spend the money. The answer is almost always the same. As most of 250 high school students said when they responded to that question from the New York Times , the lottery winners all say they plan to give some or all of their winnings to charity. Now, this may say something very nice about lottery winners (many of whom in fact donate parts of their winnings). But, it mostly says something about all of us: We feel it’s selfish to hoard money, and we feel good about being moderate in our spending. We like to believe that we spend money only when we have to, take only our share, and are sober and modest stewards of our pocketbooks.
Here, also, some wags get a boastful rush from claiming that they are damned well entitled to what’s theirs, and to hell with anyone else. As for lottery winners, there’s a satiric fake Romney quote going around the Internet now, in which Mitt supposedly says that a lottery winner “doesn’t need to give a single penny to charity, she doesn’t need to share it, she doesn’t need to send her kids to college. If she wants to spend all of that money on cassette tapes, or Jolt soda pop, or whatever it is young people do with money these days, it’s her God-given American right.”
But, we don’t believe that. We cheer those who help others, and we have no truck with people who spend their money installing car elevators into their homes (sorry, Mitt), getting $1250 haircuts (now the least of John Edwards’ problems), or paying off their huge lines of credit at Tiffanys (got that, Newt?).
When it comes to governing, whether a small town, a corporation, or a country, there are constant decisions to be made about how to allocate resources. Is buying up shares of General Motors or AIG, with the hope that they will use the cash infusion to regain their footing and repay the money, worth the cost? Will cutting taxes now cause a trickle down of spending and capital investment, creating general prosperity and revenue? Can we afford to be world peacekeepers or regime changers? Some of these questions are simple economics. Some are matters of competing priorities.
What is clear, however, is that some economic plans feel wrong. If “fiscal responsibility” requires selfless sacrifice on all our parts, any plan that unfairly adds to the burdens of the workaday many, while relieving the burdens of the privileged few, feels wrong. For example, our trash-talking governor Chris Christie had no trouble cutting state spending, mostly at the expense of public welfare programs and the jobs of public employees; but he refused to sign any bill that would raise taxes on the wealthy. “Fiscal responsibility,” that ain’t.
The Funny Thing
Here’s what’s most curious.
Republicans paint themselves as the custodians of old-fashioned values: An Eisenhower-era world in which we all do our part, help our neighbors, watch our spending, and are mostly left alone to pursue our happiness. And yet, these are exactly the values that are being used now to justify a platform of protecting the rich, denying the poor, and in many ways holding all of us to the meanest interpretations of Christian rules of conduct. On that, we can only hearken to the words of that good old Episcopalian Jew, Barry Goldwater: In our hearts, we know that it’s not right.