Monday, June 21, 2010

Defending the Opponent

This project is meant to raise a number of questions. Among the more obvious: Why do I feel compelled to defend supporters of political views with which I disagree? I'm sure part of it is that I'm a contrarian by nature, but here are some better reasons:

They aren't always wrong.
Call me idealistic, but I choose not to live in a reality where one of the two major political movements consists entirely of people who are insane and/or deluded. And call me cynical (or, you know, moderately observant), but I can't get behind the inverse—that the other movement consists entirely of the righteous and rational—either.

Even if they are wrong, there sure are a lot of them.
Seriously. 69.5 million people voted for Obama in 2008. If they were to all lie down end to end along the equator they would circle the Earth almost three full times,[1] though millions would surely drown.

It's a thousand times easier to change someone's mind if you respect their point of view.
Consider this exchange that just happened in my head:
Liberal: Corporations are destroying the environment and wiping out endangered species! They must be stopped!
Conservative: You fool, corporations are the backbone of our economy. Besides, nobody's going to miss some stupid fly.
Liberal: How can you say that? Tons of plant and animal species make important contributions to the planet, from playing vital roles in maintaining stable ecosystems to helping us fight and cure diseases. Every time we let a species go extinct, we hurt ourselves as well.
Conservative: Yeah, yeah, let me know when that fly cures cancer. Meanwhile, I'll be driving around in my Hummer eating Big Macs and tossing the wrappers out the window.

Now, here's a similar conversation from the part of my head that exists in some bizarro universe where people respect opposing points of view:
Liberal: Corporations are destroying the environment and wiping out endangered species! They must be stopped!
Conservative: of endangered species is certainly an important objective, but I'm not sure that government regulation is the best way to achieve it.
Liberal: That's intriguingly counter-intuitive. What do you mean?
Conservative: Well, I'm sure you'd agree that even the most well-intentioned regulations are never perfect. Since the government can't just enact a law that says "don't harm endangered species" and leave it at that, it has to create a black-and-white set of rules supposedly designed with that goal in mind. But there's hardly a scientific consensus on how best to protect endangered species, and even if there was, no two sets of circumstances are the same.
Liberal: Ok, that makes sense. But imperfect regulation is still better than no regulation at all.
Conservative: Not necessarily. There are a number of ways regulation could have a detrimental effect...

And so on. You get the point.

They identify legitimate problems that need to be addressed.
Above all else, this is what I want whoever stumbles across the blog to come away convinced of. As an illustration, take the following opinions:
-The government should provide a public option for those who cannot afford health insurance.
-Additional regulation is needed to combat fraud in the financial industry.
-Federal legislation is necessary to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.

I think it's safe to say most conservatives would not agree with any of those statements. It's also safe to say most conservatives wouldn't go to the trouble of breaking the statements down and constructing a table, but that's just one of many ways I'm unlike most conservatives.

Problem Proposed solution
Millions of Americans do not have health insurance Government intervention
Legally- and ethically-questionable practices in the financial industry have had wide-ranging harmful effects on the economy Government intervention
Many gay people believe they are susceptible to discrimination due to their sexual orientation Government intervention

Now, place a strip of non-transparent tape on your computer screen (or use your hand—whatever), covering up the right half of the table. Just like that, the Marxist liberal nonsense has disappeared. What remains is a short list of things some unknown amount of Americans—myself very much included—find worrisome, untainted by rhetoric about how the problems should be addressed, if at all.

If nothing else, this is what liberals contribute. Since they take a more egalitarian approach to distribution of wealth, they are the first to identify whichever basic needs the lower classes can't afford. Since they feel no deep-seated allegiance to free market economics, they are the first to complain when the market shows signs of criminal activity. And since they have no ideological objection to group-based classifications, they are the first to notice that certain people are being mistreated by society for reasons beyond their control. Sure, they'll get upset about non-issues on occasion (as if conservatives don't), but only the most close-minded, spiteful conservative (I'm looking at you, Hannity) could have the audacity to insist that liberals never identify a genuine problem.

Moving on, once a problem has been asserted, the opposition has several possible responses:
1. Acknowledge the problem and agree with the proposed solution.
2. Acknowledge the problem, but argue that a different approach (and not necessarily one that involves any governmental use of force) would have more short-term effectiveness, or would be better for the long-term interests of society, or both.
3. Concede that the underlying presumptions are valid, but argue that there is not actually a problem, and therefore no action should be taken.
4. Refuse to discuss the issue altogether, instead ridiculing those who raised it.

I'm sure #1 happens from time to time, but only if the problem and proposed solution are along the lines of "men who beat up pregnant women should be removed from society and harshly punished" (oh, wait—maybe not). Of course, #2 is what I'd like to see more of. As an avid observer of popular political discourse, however, all I see are #3 and #4, playing out over and over.[2]

This is what I want to say to conservatives when they get on their soapbox to complain about the government intruding in their lives: You were told about the problem and you were given plenty of time to discuss alternate solutions, but you chose instead to deny it and ridicule those who brought it up. It is baffling to me that you would then expect lawmakers, whose jobs depend on keeping the people happy, to take your side. Lawmakers are going to take the side of the people who want them to do something, so your best chance is to convince those people that enacting a law is not in their best interests. Shockingly enough, "screw you, I don't care about your problem" doesn't seem to be all that persuasive.

1. I had to do the math myself because I couldn't find a website that does the conversions for you, but I also didn't try very hard. Is there such a site? If not, there should be.
2. To be clear, this is an issue, like most of what I intend to cover on this site, that goes both ways. But I'm sure there's a would-be liberal out there somewhere with a blog about everything liberals are doing wrong, so I'll leave it to him or her to cover the other side. That said, I do think that the nature of liberals and conservatives is such that the former is more likely to voice a complaint and the latter is more likely to dismiss it as baseless.

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