Monday, April 18, 2011

The Politics of Left and Right

The current political climate in the United States could probably best be described as caustic. In my life, which accounts for only about 15% of the country's history (less than half that if you count only politically conscious years), I have never seen things so polarized.

It's more than polarization, though. There seems to be a "Go, team go!" attitude usually associated with athletic teams when it comes to political parties or persuasions. That is, people seem more concerned with winning the argument than with being correct. With athletic teams, obviously, there is no "correct". Athletic teams are artificial constructs, not based on any ideology. Our decision to support a particular team is rather arbitrary, based on such factors as geographical location and our parents. I'm not a Mets fan because I support the idea of the Mets or because they represent anything more than themselves. I suppose one could say that it's because I am a masochist. But really, it's because my father is one, and I'm from New York, and there's little else to it.

With a political party or group however, the basis of the group is usually a common ideology. Republicans aren't just a team. They are meant to be a group that has come together based on similar ideas about how the country should operate. Ditto for Democrats, Greens, and the vast number of other parties that make up our country. Ideally, a party attracts a person who has similar ideas - ideas he or she has come to independently. Ideally, we don't so much think of ourselves as belonging to a party but as affiliating with one. This doesn't just apply to political parties, either, but to all kinds of groups.

Needless to say, this idea world is not the one in which we live.

Right now, if I were to declare myself a "liberal" or a "conservative", I would immediately bias you, dear reader, to either agree or disagree with me. If you think otherwise, you should probably do some self-reflection. We are all guilty of this. When we agree with someone about one thing, we are more likely to agree with them in other areas, even unrelated ones. If I say, "I think trickle-down economics is a good idea," and then I tell you that I support the invasion of Libya, your support for the invasion of Libya will increase or decrease, at least momentarily, based upon your feelings about trickle-down economics. This is just how humans work. We form patterns, and those patterns can be highly irrational. Rationalization comes after the fact. We can support our positions with reason, but our conclusions tend to come first, before the reasoning.

We can work against this nature if we try, but it takes a lot of effort, even for seemingly rational people. We all have our biases, likes, and dislikes, that have irrational effects on our acceptance of ideas. By examining what we believe and trying to determine why we believe it, we can, in fact, convince ourselves to shed or accept some ideas based upon individual merits of the ideas rather than our associations of those ideas with particular groups or people.

However, what I've seen happening in the United States in recent years is the increased use of what I would call irrational methods to spread ideas based on agendas. Various groups have become quite adept at using memes to spread ideas of questionable rational merit in order to further their own interests. The biggest culprit in this regard - and my saying this will likely bias you one way or the other about everything else I say here - is Fox News. Let me explain...

There is a basic formula for getting people to join your cause, regardless of its merit and regardless of their own values and needs:
  • You begin by presenting yourself as being part of the same group, sharing the same values and customs as your targets. You must especially sympathize with their common plight - all groups see themselves as having some common plight. You must feel the oppression that they feel, even if no real oppression exists.
  • Next, you must cultivate the myth of the other. It helps to have a particular group or groups upon which you can pin all or some of the ills of society, as Hitler most famously did with the Jews. However, you can create phantom groups if no obvious ones exist. It only matters that the targets are able to see them as existing. Welfare moms would be an example of this, and there are probably numerous better ones.
  • The next step is crucial and must be done carefully. You need to associate your own goals with the goals of the targets. Let's say, for instance, you want to create a government program that directly benefits you in some way, and you need the support of people who would have no vested interest in it - or maybe even a vested interest in not seeing it come to fruition - in order to make it work. You can appeal to your common struggle in some way, where appropriate. Put it in a bill called "American Pride" so that anyone voting against it is voting against American pride. Also, it helps if you can somehow convince people that it does benefit them in some way, perhaps by doing something about that "other" group you previously worked on, or perhaps through some indirect mechanism that sounds rational.
There are plenty of variations and complexities that can be layered on top of this, but that's the basic idea. You have to win people over from within their group, not by convincing them that your group is better than theirs. I mean, you can do that, but it's less effective in most cases.

Fox News has made an art form of this. A huge segment of the population believes in a left-wing media with a liberal agenda in which Fox News is the beacon of centrist truth, that Fox News is more patriotic, that they are "fair and balanced" and so forth. It doesn't matter whether any of this is true. It matters that they have managed to convince so many people that it is, not through some rational means, but in ingenious ways such as with the "War on Christmas" they use to keep their Christian targets in the fold and other irrational emotional appeals.

I say this about Fox not because I am a liberal, though, in fairness, I think most people would say I at least lean that way (I don't like to self-identify for reasons closely related to those being discussed in this post). I say it because it's what I've observed about them. Don't get me wrong - CNN and especially MSNBC try the same thing. They're just not nearly as good at it.

So, getting back to my main point a bit, we're now stuck with teams fighting for control of the ball. They care about winning the game. This has always been true of the players, but now the crowd has become just as partisan. Republican fans and Democratic fans care more about seeing their respective teams win than they do about making the country work right. But this is not an athletic competition.

Is there any way out of this situation?

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