Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Myth of Equivalence

There's been a lot of lively conversation about the election on my website discussion board, some of which caused me to write the following post on the reflexive notion of political equivalence.

I have as little patience with people who suggest there's no big difference between the parties as I do with people who see their side as perfect and the other as the personification of evil. These stances seem dramatically different, but I would argue they're equally facile.

Part of what makes politics suck so much is that you have to get over the fact that neither side is doing, nor will ever do, what you think the country really needs (at least that's how it is for me). And then, within that disappointment, you have to decide which one is less worse, hold your nose, and vote.

But there's no logical reason to believe one side can't be *a lot* less worse. For reasons I've gone into at length elsewhere, at this point it's clear to me that the Republican party has been absorbed by people who make the Democrats seem a lot less worse.

Today I watched a video of Joe the Plumber trying to argue why a vote for Obama was the same as a vote for death to Israel. The guy who criticized Obama for tap dancing better than Sammy Davis Jr. was himself tap dancing like a madly inept politician. I couldn't help laughing at his hypocrisy... and then my laughter died away, because I thought, "Why the hell do I have to listen to this third-rate demagogue? Why do I have to engage his millimeter-deep opinions? Here's why: because the Republicans would rather scare people with this kind of crap than have a substantive conversation about which of our adversaries in the world we should talk to, and when, whether and how. The Joe the Plumber approach -- the "Appeasement!" "White flag of surrender!" "Death to Israel!" approach -- precludes that conversation, and we lose a lot because of it. When thoughtlessness drowns out thought, it's bad for America. And if there's one thing Republicans don't want you to do, it's think. That's why they try so hard to make you afraid.

I could go on. Okay, I will: there's no such thing as a completely socialist country, and no such thing as a completely capitalist one. But instead of having a real conversation about best practices -- that is, how much government involvement makes sense, where, why, and how -- the debate is stifled by this juvenile Republican horseshit of suggesting a 35% top marginal bracket is triple-distilled American capitalism and a 38% is the resurrection of Karl Marx. All at the very moment the government is buying up $250 billion worth of banks and getting set to operate them. We need a serious conversation on this and a dozen other subjects, and the reason the conversation can't happen is because Republicans insist on name-calling and fear-mongering instead.

As long as these tactics continue to work for Republicans, they'll keep using them, no matter how much damage they do to America in the process. This is why I think it's so critical that the Republicans be decisively turned out of power on November 4. There's no other way they'll abandon their current tactics, and return to their small government, fiscal responsibility, realistic foreign policy, respect-for-privacy principles. If they return to those principles, and make an honest, non-demagogic case for them, they'll have my vote again. Not before.

P.S. Scott​ Horto​n of Harpe​r'​s is one of the best blogg​ers,​ and best think​ers,​ aroun​d.​ Today​ he had two parti​cular​ly excel​lent piece​s on relat​ed subje​cts:​ "The New McCar​thyis​m," on the conti​nued degen​erati​on of the polit​ical right​;​ and "Best of the '08 Campa​ign V: North​ern Expos​ure," on Sarah​ Palin​'​s far-​out relig​ious belie​fs and radic​al polit​ical assoc​iatio​ns.​ The links​ on Palin​ are parti​cular​ly damni​ng,​ parti​cular​ly in light​ of her refus​al to answe​r quest​ions at even a singl​e press​ confe​rence​.​ Anyon​e inter​ested​ in facts​,​ trans​paren​cy,​ and indep​enden​t inqui​ry will enjoy​ these​ artic​les.​ If you feel you alrea​dy know Palin​ despi​te her newne​ss,​ her refus​al to relea​se her medic​al recor​ds,​ and her refus​al to answe​r quest​ions at even a singl​e press​ confe​rence​.​.​.​ well,​ facts​,​ trans​paren​cy,​ and indep​enden​t inqui​ry proba​bly aren'​t your bag anywa​y.



Joshua James said...

Crikey Barry, you're on a rampage as of late and I'm loving every minute of it.

Linking right now.

JA Konrath said...

You're my favorite pundit, Barry. Great seeing you in Baltimore.

Semi-unreleated, but I just saw a documentary that really bothered me. It's called "Uncounted" and is about the voting problems in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

Like most documentaries, it has a biased agenda, but if only a tiny fraction of what it shows is true, we're living in a scarier country than I thought.

On a more related level, I agree with voting for whoever stinks less, but there's something I like about Obama that goes beyond politics. I look at him and see a leader, not a politician, and I believe that's more appealing than any of the specific issues he stands for.

In this election, the public is demanding change. Both candidates have platforms that they claim will bring change. But it's less a question of which plan is better, and more a question of who will actually be able to stand behind their plan and see it through.

Remember "read my lips, no new taxes"? How many weeks into office before Bush ate his words?

For whatever reason, Obama doesn't strike me as that type of politician. In fact, he's the only politician I've ever seen with this vibe.

But why Americans vote has a lot less to do with the actual issues, and a lot more to do with things like bias, habit, and feelings. All the debates int he world aren't going to sway the person who always votes a straight democratic ticket, or the one who goes into a voting booth and decides solely on the fact that "Obama" sounds foreign and "McCain" sounds familiar. Race, age, and sex also play a part. Some won't vote for a black guy. Some won't vote for a 72 year old. Some will vote for a woman VP, some won't, and it has nothing to do with who is red and who is blue.

But watch "Uncounted" and tell me voting matters at all...

Unknown said...

Good post Barry. This "Joe the plumber guy is a Joke". He didn't even give one reason good or bad that supported his claim. I honestly belive if you dig down to the root reason of why he made that comment then you would find that there is some racism there. I am still amazed at how so many people think Obama is muslim. I hope that some day people will attempt getting there info from sources other than just network TV.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

In a world where diversity is an important word of the day, it's difficult for me to understand how all the multiple voices that comprise humanity for this nation can possibly be deconstructed into an either/or choice for the Presidency. Nobody "wins" when our choices are BAD or LESS BAD.

I look at the Republicans and agree with your comments about their POV, while lamenting that a fair number of everyday folks--including, it seems--many Democrats in Congress have allowed our loss of civil liberties to go largely unchallenged. Real or imagined terrorism, for both parties, seems to be sufficient excuse for the re-definition of the words "probable cause."

We know, from history, that both major parties lament the excesses of the other, but that when new regimes come into power, the resulting system never becomes smaller than it was.

As a Libertarian considering the fact that Obama may well be our next President and may well have a chance to undo some of the very bad decisions made during the part eight years, I'm wondering if his version of more government will really fix the problems. Or, will we end up with a Pandora's box of more tangled issues.

Whatever brand of cake he brings to the table, I hope the rest of us--and I mean everyone--will refrain from icing it with more shrill and polarised attitudes.


Tia Hu said...

Barry, everything you talk about in this particular blog is exactly why I already voted for Obama and Biden.

And as I have already stated in another blog here, I do not have unwavering faith in any of the candidates, or even the U.S. political system at this point.

So why do I vote at all? Because I refuse to give up 'hope' for a better future. And based on carefully observing the campaigns of all the candidates, and the followers of the candidates; I then arrived at my own opinion that Obama and Biden have a better chance of at least opening that all important door to changes we need in domestic and foreign policies and programs. I'm not happy with all of it, not by a long shot. But we are at a crossroads in history, and we need to rise to that occasion with a new vision for the U.S., and a new vision for how our our country interacts with this world.

As Ret. Gen. Colin Powell put it; he sees Obama as a tranformational figure in our history. And I genuinely believe that is what we need right now. We are going through a very difficult transformation regardless of who gets elected. So I voted for the man and the team which seems to be more in touch with the issues involved in that transformation.

To me, voting for McCain and Palin just means more of the same road we are already on with even further degradation, no matter how much they try to paint themselves as progressive mavericks.

I explored the 3rd Pary candidates, and didn't find anything there that would provide the leadership and changes we really need either.

So I held my nose, as Barry put it, and voted for Obama and Biden, lol.

Quotes of President John F. Kennedy: (And yes, some of us remember him when he was alive.)

"We face . . . a moral crisis as a country and as a people. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution . . . peaceful and constructive for all."

"Democracy is a difficult kind of government. It requires the highest qualities of self-discipline, restraint, a willingness to make commitments and sacrifices for the general interest, and it also requires knowledge."

"No amount of arms and armies can help stabilize those governments which are unable or unwilling to achieve social and economic reform and development. Military pacts cannot help nations whose social injustice and economic chaos invite insurgency and penetration and subversion."

The changes faced in Kennedy's day were daunting; but not as all encompassing as those we face now. Our country, and our whole world, is going through profound transformation at every level. Choices we make now, and in the next 4 years, will echo widely and powerfully throughout generations to come.

We have a personal and citizen obligation to choose as wisely as possible, and then act with true conscience and integrity.


~Tia Hu

Anonymous said...

I am mostly in agreement with your analysis of the current state of Republican Party, and will not vote for it. However I am mystified by refusal of Americans to consider voting for alternative parties. The usual argument is that the third party vote is wasted. It seem to me the argument against voting one's conscience leads to pragmatism that weakens democracy. What are your thoughts on that argument?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Barry, I appreciate your level view and approach to this election. Considering the length of the campaign and how dirty it's gotten, it's been easy for tempers to flare, to take cheap shots, and get sidetracked by all the wrong things.

The other day, I was driving home and the vehicle in front of me had a bumper sticker on it. It was against the Patriot Act, and it had the line "One Nation Under Surveillance."

It really stood out to me, because to me, Bush has run the country from the position of fear for a long time. I've only recently moved to the US, and we all see things differently depending on access to information and distance, but it was interesting to note that random security issues seemed to come up every time there was a desire for increased military action or some bill to be passed. All of a sudden the US is on heightened alert.

And maybe it was legitimate, but the fact that I - and many others I knew - found it easy to believe that the alerts might be manipulated in order to stir up fear so that people wouldn't think through things but let the president do what he wanted without being challenged... I don't know. It's a sad statement, isn't it? Maybe it says nothing more than that I'm a skeptic, but maybe is says a lot about how the US lost some of its international respect over the past 8 years.

Although I live here now, I've looked at this election in large part through the international lens. The stats internationally favour an Obama win with anything from 66% to 77%. We could be here all day dissecting why that is, and whether or not it's relevant, but I'll just sum it up with saying that I think it is. Being a world leader means taking appropriate leadership. There's been division in the international community based on choices Bush has made during his presidency. One of the jokes north of the border is that Canada is getting a lot of credit for fighting in a war Canadians actually aren't involved in: Iraq. What does it say when the US's closest ally goes to Afghanistan but draws a line in the sand and doesn't support the war in Iraq?

Obviously, I disagree with the Iraq war. Beyond that, a lot of people will reluctantly concede now that the evidence wasn't there to support the invasion of Iraq. Was Iraq a nice country? No. Did we like Hussein? No way. But was Iraq, at the time action was initiated, guilty of what they were accused of? Who can show us the WOMD?

Now, I hear Palin and McCain talking about wanting to declare victory in Iraq, and I'm uncomfortable. I'm nervous that they're so committed to winning a war that never should have been fought in the first place. How does an unjustified invasion and military action that's fought to the bitter end look any better on the US than the Iraq invasion of Kuwait looked on them back in 1991?

Just walking away from Iraq now will destabilize the region, but at what point will there be apologies - to the families of innocent civilians who lost their lives, or homes, or livelihood, because of this? We can't simply point to the ones who are better off as a result - if we didn't do the right thing, we need to own up to that.

International respect is gained not by rule with an iron fist, but by a track record of integrity. You've already spoken to another reason why I have such a problem with McCain's campaign - the secrecy, the unwillingness of Palin to answer questions, the willingness to stir up irrational fears as a way to sway voters instead of laying out the facts, answering questions and being accountable...

If they won't do those things now, in the campaigning, how can we expect those things later? We can't. This country wasn't founded with a governing dictator, and I hope it doesn't elect another one.

Anonymous said...

Barry -- I'm with're on a rampage and I'm loving it too.

Tom S

KSR said...


You know, Barack Obama went by the name "Barry" until college. I think it's time you changed your name to Barack. Barack Eisler.

Just a thought.


Barry Eisler said...

Gregy, it's always a tough choice. On the one hand, you want to vote for whatever party you think would be best for America. On the other hand, you know a third party is highly unlikely to win, meaning a vote cast for a third-party candidate is one vote less for your second choice. On the other other hand, this thinking en masse leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My guess is that most of the people who voted for Nader in 2000 would have voted for Gore in Nader's absence. I'm sure it was satisfying for Naderites to vote their conscience, but the primary effect of their collective votes was the election of George Bush, probably not something many of them hoped to achieve.


Dougist said...

I wanted to touch on the "Why not Nader" point too but it's well covered above. So here's another take...

> “you have to get over the fact that neither side is doing, nor will ever do, what you think the country really needs”

Can any one election of one man (or woman) fill the needs of 150 million households? And by extension the rest of the world? I doubt it.

The problem is we have funneled over 1/3 of our nation’s wealth into one huge government making these elections so important since so much patronage money is at stake.

But a single election creates impossible choices that are only solved by media positions that have got you and a lot of America up in arms.

Essentially you are arguing for process over content. So long as the Rep’s say things in a nasty way I’m not voting for them regardless of the fact that the Dem’s who speaks nicely are espousing political positions I wouldn’t otherwise tolerate.

The Dem’s have very craftily exploited this in 2008 and have taken a very divisive set of policies that pit class against class (or often are just silent on policy so you can fill the empty vessel with what ever you care to) and have cloaked them with nice rhetoric making the Rep’s look ugly. Then the Rep’s went more and more negative in a panic as people ran to the empty vessel filling it with what every they thought “hope” and “change” might mean.

I completely understand your position, but what a crappy place to be for choosing what we used to call the leader of the free world.

It's so hard to look past the marketing (and it is all just a lot of very expensive marketing) to see the real positions. My biggest fear is that when this all over we will relaize that we all were just had, and the disapointment will be crushing.


Anonymous said...

hats off to Tia Hu, the world is turning and all of us need to choose the paths that we think will lead us toward a viable
and more self sustaining world. No one person is really going to change all the things that need to be changed. We first have to get past the trainwreck of the last eight years. Nixon's legacy of paranoia lives on in the divisive and deliberate anti-American policies of anyone that descendes to underhanded dirty tricks. Only by establishing a new moral tone and realizing that we are all in this together will we succeed. The age of narcissism is over, the new age of making the world work is about to dawn if we let it.

Anonymous said...

I love how you (Barry) use the term (words mean things): Substantive Conversation. You should define that term. Because I wonder what exactly that means in your terms. Only for the sake that to a middle class union worker, I have absolutely no idea what you mean. But... in terms of a substantive conversation on your terms? To what you believe and the other side being un-substantive.

I go so far as to suggest your arguments are really no different then any "Joe the Plumber" Maybe just better written. But you are a pro writer.