For years I have been baffled by this question. Well, not necessarily baffled, because I think that I know the answer, but I just don’t like it. The answer is highly complex but generally boils down to:
1. We are highly susceptible to manipulation, particularly through subtle messaging in the media and how our news is presented to us.
2. The Republicans have been much better at forging a cohesive message (even if divorced from reality) and delivering that message to the public.
3. Most of our media is controlled by a select few companies who desire specific outcomes from government policy that generally favor their interests over the general public.
4. People are stupid. Now this one is hard for me to deal with. I really don’t think (or don’t want to think) that people are stupid. I believe that when you talk to almost any individual, they can be compassionate and thoughtful, but I have also seen very intelligent people refuse to even consider a thought process that breaks from orthodoxy, whether right or left. Mostly, I think people are busy and living challenging lives in which they focus more on important things such as families, paychecks, and survival. Our lives leave little time to really analyze the political discourse and issues, making many individuals more vulnerable to the manipulation of perspective discussed in points 1, 2, & 3.
Or people are just stupid, but that’s disheartening.
Throughout this blog, I have continued to advocate for rational dialogue on the numerous issues we face as individuals and a society, as opposed to adherence to political doctrine and party lines.
Nonetheless, some folks reading this are probably more annoyed with me because I started the discussion with a question based on an assumption: We are not a Center-Right nation, but people think we are one.
Now, while this sounds like an assumption, it is actually something that has been fairly well proven by extensive polling and research. The real assumption that is commonly made is that we are a center-right nation, and the commonality of this assumption is easily understood, because most Americans self-identify as leaning more politically conservative. However, countless studies and polls have shown that on specific issues, Americans are, generally speaking, much more liberal, or at least advocate policies that are traditionally associated with liberalism. This puts much of what we commonly assume about American political ideology into question. We have created another societal myth, like the Liberal Media (It does not exist. I am sorry if you disagree, but I have read into this in detail: actual studies and examinations of media, and there is no liberal media bias, but we can have that dialogue some other time. For an interesting read, check out What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman). Also, to be clear, I don’t mean to single out conservative ideology as more divorced from reality. There are plenty of liberals who are just as unwilling to confront issues rationally.
But lets talk about the assumption in my question. The odd dichotomy between individual self-identification with political ideology and opinion on specific issues can be seen throughout our society. Numerous news articles and studies have pointed to the fact that many voters support political parties that promote policies that specifically do not help them and often harm them, such as lower and middle class workers that support Republicans, who often advocate tax cuts for the rich, but not the poor. Or Warren Buffet arguing for increased taxes on his income bracket.
Part of this may be the fact that Americans also tend to think they are in a higher class than they are (working class thinking they are middle class; middle class thinking they are upper class, etc). I remember reading about this in detail during the Bush years with regards to tax cuts, where many folks felt that his tax cuts applied to them as being in the upper class, when in actuality, their incomes were nowhere near the applicable levels. Yet they supported the cuts and felt that they were advocating for themselves, when in actuality they did not see direct benefits. In some ways, this is an admirable trait of Americans, that we aspire to being greater (wealth-wise at least) than ourselves and are constantly striving to move ‘upwards’ in society (although one can have an entirely different dialogue on what makes us actually happy and the merits of the American Dream).
This all relates to a serious disconnect between which political party Americans think creates policies in their favor and how people actually want the government to act. I was first made aware of this gap while reading a great book by Robert Reich, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. Now, the title obviously sounds biased, but here’s the thing: he DOES use reason, a.k.a logic, a.k.a evidence, a.k.a facts, to demonstrate pretty effectively that Americans are much more ‘liberal’ than they consider themselves.
Reich, who was Secretary of Labor under Clinton and is a brilliant critic of both parties, first begins by defining liberalism. Actual political liberalism. For the past 40 years, conservatives have worked tirelessly to brand liberalism as something of the 1960s. Liberal = flower power, free love, drugs, welfare, and war protests. The neoconservative reaction to the 1960s has been condemnation, and they have been very successful in tying the concept of a liberal and liberal politics with this era, even though political liberalism has almost nothing to do with the hippies and has a long and equally valid political, academic, and theoretical history as conservatism. We just don’t talk about it properly anymore. The dialogue has shifted to the Center-Right/Far Right, but unfortunately we are still the same people, and we aren’t necessarily Right or Left.
Despite widespread self-identification as conservative or Center-Right, Reich uses numerous polls and studies to demonstrate that these same Americans demonstrate repeatedly that they support traditionally ‘liberal’ policies. On questions regarding helping the poor, protecting the environment, government oversight of business, and many more, Americans overwhelmingly reveal a strong liberal streak. Nonetheless, the rhetoric continues to be dominated by fears of Big Government, Over Regulation, and the Welfare State.
All of this came up while reading a great article by Bob Cesca this morning, in which he brings up many of these issues, but specifically centered on the current debate regarding deficit reduction. He addresses how when asked, a majority of Americans want to cut spending (in general), but when asked about specific programs, Americans are universally unwilling to cut spending. He goes into a lot of these issues more eloquently than I can after writing this much, so just read his article. But it made me ask myself the question in the title of this post. Why do we do ourselves so much apparent harm?
I like to think that in the past we had a more pragmatic dialogue concerning the problems we face and that we might have one again. But I wasn’t alive in the era of FDR or Teddy Roosevelt or Thomas Jefferson, so I can’t really say, and in all likelihood there was as much manipulation and confusion as we have today. Only with hindsight does it gain some clarity.
My interpretation of all this discussion regarding the deficit and spending and big government is not that our government is either good or bad. More appropriately perhaps, I’m not saying that our policies are all effective or ineffective, but they each need to be addressed on an individual basis and we as Americans must decide what to prioritize, and this is not accomplished by advocating carte blanche broad, undefined concepts such as ‘spending cuts’ or ‘deregulation.’
Nonetheless, there is clearly a disconnect between what Americans purportedly advocate and what they actually desire; so something is wrong. My solution, however, as I have discussed before on this blog is a move towards effective policy making, and the best way to get there is through more rational, empirical, and civil dialogue focused on addressing these realities, not sticking to political ideologies and possibly incorrect assumptions about ourselves.
But can we make those changes considering points 1, 2, 3, & 4 in the beginning of this post? The forecast is cloudy.
“Put on the glasses!”
-Rowdy Roddy Piper as George Nada in They Live