Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I, for One, Welcome Our New Ant Overlords

People seem to be talking past each other quite a bit on whether or not, as conventional wisdom would have it, the United States is a "center-right nation." The question is sort of clumsily put, but nonetheless there is a lot of pontification on the subject at the moment and people seem to be drawing contradictory conclusions.

One reason for this confusion is a common but little-known analytic effect that has to do with the coarseness or fineness of one's view of the situation.

It's important, first of all, to make it clear that when I say "coarse" and "fine" I'm speaking in a purely non-pejorative sense. "Coarse" does not mean "crude" here. Here's a broad example:

Imagine you were an alien trying to answer the question "what's Earth like?" The first thing you might do is look at the earth from very far away. This would give you the reasonable, correct impression that the Earth is mostly water, and that in general the Earth is dominated by marine activity - water plants, fish eating water plants, swimming predators, etc.

If you took a closer look and actually came down to Earth, though, you'd find that Earth also includes a vast, technologically developed species that lives entirely on land. You would probably conclude from this that Earth is best described in terms of the activity of human beings, despite the fact that this seems to contradict your previous evaluation.

If you took a still finer view of the situation, you would realize that in fact in terms of the sheer AMOUNT of activity the Earth is dominated by two species - ants on land and krill in the oceans. Of course at a microscopic level all this would be dwarfed by bacteria and protozoans...

Which one of these answers (if any) would be most useful to your imaginary alien species depends largely on the context - that is, WHY you wanted to know what the Earth was like. But regardless of which answer you decided was best, they are not contradictory in any meaningful sense. They are all true.

The same is true of "how conservative is the US electorate?" question. The coarsest possible way of investigating this question is perhaps "if you asked everyone in the US whether they are conservative, moderate, or liberal, how would they answer?" And in that case it's been true for many years that far more people would say they are conservative than would say they are liberal.

At a slightly finer level, you could look at people's voting patterns and assign their electoral choices "Left," "Right" and "Moderate" and see how they voted - that would probably reveal, in a sense by definition, that people are pretty evenly split between liberalism and conservatism.

Or you could go down much finer to an actual policy level and assign various policies a place on the political spectrum and see how much support they got. In this last case you would find that Americans are mostly wooly-headed leftists, because in general popular opinion is very supportive of government spending, non-interventionist foreign policy, and other things that are associated with the political left. Just about the only left/right policy question that consistently comes down on the conservative side is "do you want taxes to be higher?" and even then if you structure the question in a certain way ("do you want other people's taxes to be higher?") you get a "liberal" answer.

The funniest part about all of this is that it reveals perhaps the most mundane conclusion possible - that the most effective way to remain popular as a politician in the US is to be thought of as generally "conservative," be identified with whichever party is popular at the time, and to pursue generally liberal policies while keeping taxes low on the large majority of the population.

George W. Bush governed this way - and it worked in the sense that he got reelected. Unfortunately in the medium-term, all his policies turned out to be giant failures, so now he's really, really unpopular.

So in conclusion, you can see that in America you should get elected when your party is popular, then implement policies that work out well. Not exactly an earth-shattering conclusion.


Uncle Kevin said...

This is akin to the question I've been asking about the current state of the GOP. There is alot of angst out there in republican land about the state of their party. A boat load of questions are being asked about tactics and strategy. The question I don't here them asking is whether it is possible they are just plain wrong. "Conservative Principals" may be a great way to get elected. They make a great basis for winning popularity contests and beauty pagents. But much like the highschool quarterback that graduates and then has to get a "real job", conservative principals may just in fact make a lousy basis for governing. The quarterback may "win the girl", be elected homecoming king, or win the big game. But at the end of the day he's just another kid looking for a job, only he forgot to study because he had a date.

I've lived through several periods when the GOP was supposedly on some major course of transformational change. But the reality has always been that when they actually get in charge, they don't particularly govern conservatively. Oh, they'll cut some income taxes, or pass some abortion restrictions, etc. But they never really "shrink" the size of government. They don't balance budgets. They don't really "secure America" or "create jobs".

When democrats/liberals lose power the usual explanation is excess. Too much spending, too much gun control, to high of taxes, etc. When the conservative/GOP loses power, it is because they "failed". They failed to balance budgets, "shut down" whatever cabinet department was unpopular at the time, shrink the size of government at all, end entitlements, eliminate unions/affirmative action/abortion/bogey man of the moment. And they never have any answers for the perrenial questions of society about Social Security, healthcare, jobs, etc.

You would think that at some point someone would notice that the liberals are guilty of excess and the conservative are guilty of abject failure. There is a difference. One needs moderation, the other needs elimination.

Raul Groom said...

I'm sympathetic to that point of view. With regard to the Republican party in its current incarnation, and to Conservatism as a brand, there is a lot of truth to it.

I would caution that there is a real reason that conservatism (as opposed, for the purposes of this comment, to Conservatism) exists. When solutions are implemented, those solutions invariably have flaws. Those flaws alienate people.

Chuck Klosterman wrote a brilliant article about his quixotic opposition to instant replay review in sports where he says: "And the reason I am willing to overlook what's obvious is because I would rather understand an old problem than feel alienated by a flawed solution. Which, I suppose, is precisely what conservatism is."

That's exactly right, in my view. And there's nothing invalid about the basic sentiment "I realize the old way sucked, but I liked it better." I feel that way about the BCS, for example.

The problem, electorally speaking, for modern Republicans is that at this point there's very little for them to push back against other than extremely ephemeral cultural factors that are only loosely connected to public policy. The main liberal development of the last 30 years is incremental cultural acceptance of same-sex romantic entanglements. Other than that, liberals haven't really accomplished anything significant since the 1960's.

So what Conservatism is left with is a pastiche of unconnected resentments - armchair Cold Warriors still seething over the raw deal Nixon got, aging Wall Street wannabes still bent out of shape over imaginary welfare queens, repressed sex fiends pissed off that Clinton banged a bunch of chicks, etc. There's just no significant constituency anymore for rolling back Great Society programs or busting up the excesses of the New Deal.

I guess what I'm driving at is, we're on the precipice, barring an almost unthinkable catastrophe, of the next great series of liberal policy developments in American society. From those developments will likely spring a new generation of conservatives who didn't much like the way things turned out. That's inevitable, and it's the way things are supposed to work. It's just been so long that what was once honest conservatism has morphed into this ridiculous Conservative homunculus that has no real purpose other than keeping toads like Jim Gilmore in cheap suits.