Wednesday, November 9, 2011

All Hats, Strange Cattle

Toward a Politics of the Imagination, Part Four

David Remnick’s commentary in this week’s New Yorker, Decline and Fall, suggests that the recent bizarre flame-out by Republican Presidential contenders—mainly Rick Perry’s disjointed New Hampshire speech and Herman Cain’s non-answers to serious allegations—marks a new low in political discourse. He says that “the spectacle of the Republican field is a reflection of the hollowness in the G.O.P. itself.” With more Republican debates impending, expect further meltdowns and evasions in coming days.

Yet I must respectfully refute Remnick’s claim, insofar as he only focuses on the GOP. The problems he describes reflect a political system turned inward upon itself, in which true believers only talk with one another. Recent events like the “Let Him Die” incident at the September 12th debate, or booing a gay soldier on September 22nd, suggest a partisan electorate so invested in a view that alternatives, exceptions, and nuances do not penetrate their thinking.

President Obama is seeking his party’s nomination unopposed, so we have no equivalent anecdotes yet from the Democratic side. But give it time. I attended a town hall meeting by my state’s Democratic Senator prior to the vote on Obamacare. Despite a surprising number of progressives for a historically conservative state, the audience’s extreme polarization, and the unwillingness of either side to let their opponents speak without interruptions or catcalls, was appalling.

When people speak only to peers who already agree on everything, at least in broad strokes, the discussion usually ends with all participants feeling more entrenched, more extreme, and more doctrinaire in their opinions. Anyone who watches The Five on Fox News or ABC’s The View has seen this in action. Psychologists call this “group polarization.” But military jargon has an altogether more apt term for this phenomenon: “incestuous amplification.”

We saw this play out in the 2004 Presidential election, when liberals and conservatives lined up like cattle in a chute behind their respective major party candidates. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky assert in Manufacturing Consent, the media echo chamber managed to drown out the fact that neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry really reflected the views of their respective voters. But that didn’t matter. Both talked the game their media handlers expected, and the vote came down to the narrowest split in history.

Democrats in particular felt blindsided by that result. The accumulation of leftist websites and message boards, talk shows and media outlets, let them avoid seeing the larger, more diverse electorate. Like cattle in a chute, progressives could not look left or right, and could only see the rump of the steer in front.

Adrian Woolridge and John Micklethwait say in The Right Nation that many Europeans thought Kerry would take 2004 handily. That’s because the only Americans most Europeans know live in New York and San Francisco. Limited input created the misperception that progressives dominate the States. But saber-rattling nationalists always get their greatest support close to home. Those same Europeans repeatedly vote to restrict Muslim rights or tighten immigration rules, without apparent awareness of the contradiction.

I could say we need to listen to each other more, and seek dissenting viewpoints, but that’s a bromide, not a solution. The leaders who currently split the electorate have done so by ginning up anger that we can only resolve by turning authority over to a perceived leader. That anger will not go away easily, even if centrist voters, who make all the difference, find such demagoguery off-putting.

Instead, perhaps we should change our voting rules. As governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger impressed me seldom, but one (failed) proposal garnered my support. By requiring Congressional, Senate, and State Assembly candidates run in non-partisan primaries, and the top two candidates regardless of party face each other in the general election, he the system could discourage actively pandering to the extremes. This would engage independents, centrists, and single-issue voters in a way they aren’t now.

While such a simple change may seem facile, and would unfairly disadvantage third parties, it at least represents a vision. It suggests that the great mass of Americans, not just party loyalists, deserves a voice in the discussion. And by incorporating all voters at all stages, it emphasizes that we are citizens with rights, not cattle to be herded.

America’s great principles remain worth our loyalty. But “divide and conquer” politics has turned important decisions over to morally vacuous tubthumpers. If we believe that a free and sovereign people controls its own destiny, then it’s time to take those decisions back.

Part One: Toward a Politics of Imagination
Part Two: Democracy, the Heart, and All Things Healing
Part Three: The Christian in the Free World—A Survey

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