Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Really, America? Rick Santorum?

Ugh, alright, let's talk about Rick Santorum.

As someone who tries very hard to observe the principle of reciprocity—"we should respect the reasonableness and the goodwill of those with whom we disagree…even if we judge their opinions to be unreasonable and/or their views to be unjust or immoral"—I refuse to simply write Santorum off as a bigot. So I did some investigating, and it turns out he's not a bigot—at least, if you believe what he says when asked if he's a bigot.

Consider these two quotes from Santorum's interview with Piers Morgan last August:[1]
There are a lot of things in society that are sins or moral wrongs, that we don't make illegal. Just because something is immoral or something is wrong, doesn't mean that it should be illegal, and that the federal government or any level of government should involve themselves in it. . . . If I was a legislator in the state of Texas dealing with the Texas sodomy law [that was overturned by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas], I would've voted against it, because I don't think that's something that the state should involve itself in.
The Catholic church teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I'm a Catholic, and I subscribe to the Catholic church's teaching. But that's not relevant from the standpoint of how I view these issues from a public policy point of view.
And this one, from an appearance on Fox News around the same time:
The bottom line is, we can have a public policy difference about what the proper marriage laws should be in this country and what's in the best interests of society, and not hate somebody or feel ill will toward anybody. As I've said many times, I have friends who are gay, I accept them as they are, but I disagree with them vehemently about what is in the best interests of society with respect to our marriage laws. . . . It's not personal, it's about policy.
Got it? He believes homosexuality is immoral, but he doesn't consider immorality a valid reason for the government to get involved. And because he subscribes to the teachings of the Catholic church (he's careful to point that part out, as if everything that flows from it is somehow involuntary), he believes homosexuality is a sin, but he doesn't consider sinfulness a valid reason for the government to get involved either. All that matters, he says, is what's in the best interests of society—a determination that should not be tainted by the biases of one's own moral and religious beliefs. Santorum, who of course has a healthy respect for scientific objectivity, judiciously examined the evidence on all sides and reached the conclusion that, strictly as a matter of public policy, THE GOVERNMENT MUST PUT A STOP TO GAY MARRIAGE BEFORE SOCIETY IS RUINED FOREVER.

Any resemblance his political views may have to his personal moral and religious beliefs is, apparently, purely coincidental.

One can't help but wonder, then, what is the basis for his political views? The closest thing I can find to an answer came during the January 8 debate:
We know there’s certain things that work in America. The Brookings Institute came out with a study just a few years ago that said, if you graduate from high school, and if you work, and if you’re a man, if you marry, if you’re a woman, if you marry before you have children, you have a 2 percent chance of being in poverty in America. And to be above the median income, if you do those three things, 77 percent chance of being above the median income.

Why isn’t the president of the United States or why aren’t leaders in this country talking about that and trying to formulate, not necessarily federal government policy, but local policy and state policy and community policy, to help people do those things that we know work and we know are good for society?
And again during the January 16 debate:
It’s very interesting, if you look at a study that was done by the Brookings Institute back in 2009, they determined that if Americans do three things, they can avoid poverty. Three things. Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children. Those three things, if you do, according to Brookings, results in only 2 percent of people who do all those things ending up in poverty, and 77 percent above the national average in income.
Clearly, that Brookings Institute study has had quite the impact. It's also a common talking point at campaign appearances, and there are implicit references to it on his website.[2] The upshot is always the same: It has been conclusively proven (by Science!) that there is a threefold path to moderate success—get a job, get a high school education, and get married before you have kids (or is it just that you aren't supposed to have kids if you aren't married? I can't tell, and I'm getting a headache trying to figure out if it matters). Thus, the government should do everything in its power to promote those three things—even if it means depriving gay people of same-sex marriage rights, which has something to do with the third thing, I guess.[3]

This is the form interventionist social conservatism has taken—say all the right things about condemning bigotry and valuing individual freedom and approaching the issues with an open mind, then reach the same moralistic conclusions as your garden-variety 20th century bigot. Santorum isn't even all that good at it, but, lucky for him, he doesn't have to be. We've had, like, 500 debates, most of which have been hosted and moderated by members of the Liberal Media, and at no point has he been asked any of the following:
  • How, exactly, does being married cause a person's income to increase?
  • Have you read the Economic Policy Institute's report suggesting you've confused cause with effect?
  • Did that possibility honestly never occur to you?
  • By the way, even if you're right about the benefits of marriage, what part of that Brookings Institute study makes you think its findings apply only to opposite-sex couples?
  • And do we really need to explain to you, Senator, why it is that unplanned, pre-marital pregnancy isn't a huge concern in the gay community?
  • Seriously, do you want us to draw you a picture? Because we'd be happy to draw you a picture.
  • Wait a minute…that Brookings Institute study was released less than three years ago, but your political views have been fairly consistent since at least the early 90s. How did you rationalize your big-government moralism before 2009?[4]
  • Have you learned to travel back and forth through time, allowing you to read the report decades before it was released?
  • Still, wouldn't you expect someone who has mastered time travel to understand at least the basics of how causation works?
  • Also, you were recently asked, "as a champion of family values and keeping America strong, would you continue to destroy families by sending nonviolent drug offenders to prison?", to which you answered, "the federal government doesn't do that." Which country's federal government were you talking about?
  • Was it Portugal's?
  • Or are you actually that obtuse?
Instead, he gets questions that amount to, "are you a bigot?" His answers are simplistic and logically dubious, and they go unchallenged—not because he wins over his critics, but because nothing he says changes their perception that, yeah, he probably is a bigot. But there's also nothing to change his supporters' perception that he's not a bigot—he's just trying to do what's in the best interests of society. And until he's forced to defend his views in a real, meaningful way, I can't say for sure that his supporters are wrong.

In other words, if Rick Santorum wins this election, I'm going to blame the media.

1. Perhaps the most incredible thing Santorum said during the interview:
From a public policy point of view there are a lot of things that I find morally wrong—or, as you would use the term, sinful—that don't necessarily rise to the level that government should be involved in regulating that activity.
I would love to see what's on that list. I bet it makes Ned Flanders look like a libertine.
2. From Santorum's "Bold solutions for America’s families":
The family is the foundation of our country. We need to have an economic policy that supports families and freedom and encourages marriage.

I don’t believe that poverty is a permanent condition. How do we effectively address poverty in rural and urban America? We promote jobs, marriage, quality education and access to capital and embrace the supports of civil society.
3. Not a whole lot of room for controversy on the first two. That being employed is one of the keys to having an above-median income sounds like something Tim McCarver would say, and it's only marginally less obvious that having a high school education is important, too. We may never reach a consensus on how, exactly, but I think we can all agree that employment and education are to be encouraged.
    Also, it should be noted that Santorum hasn't actually stated a problem here. Even if we come up with the best possible policies for promoting employment, education, and marriage, it's still going to be the case that a single parent without a high school education is more likely to have a below-median income. He's engaging in the fallacy that conservatives often (rightly) accuse liberals of—defining a problem in terms of inequality, which makes it virtually impossible to satisfactorily resolve.
4. I'm guessing the answer to that question can be found in his book, which I assume is readily available at one of those warehouse stores right off the interstate, where you can find entire pallets of generic self-help guides, unfunny joke compilations, and autobiographies of middle-tier politicians for sale at a fraction of their original price.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Growing Rift in the Republican Party

Here's the opening to Ben Shapiro's recent column for
In 1831, Henry Clay formed a new political party. He called it the Whig Party. His goal was to ensure Jeffersonian democracy and fight President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat. Over the course of the next 20 years, the Whig Party achieved several presidential victories. But as slavery assumed more and more national importance in the political debate, the Whig Party began to shatter.
As Shapiro goes on to explain, the Whig Party was gone by 1860.[1] The anti-slavery members in the North left to form their own party, and the pro-slavery members in the South left to form their own country. And now, seven score and twelve years later, Shapiro wonders if the unrecognizable modern-day descendant of that upstart Northern party is in the early stages of a Whig-like demise:
The center of the Republican Party cannot hold. With Mitt Romney's victory in the Florida primary, it's clear that large swaths of the Republican establishment have rejected the Tea Party; it's similarly clear that the Tea Party has largely rejected Romney and his backers. . . . On what basis will the party unite? On fiscal responsibility? Romney and his cohorts have said nothing about serious entitlement reform; the Tea Party, meanwhile, calls for it daily. On taxation? Romney has a 59-point plan that smacks of class warfare; the Tea Party wants broad tax cuts across the board. On health care? Romney and much of the establishment aren't against the individual mandate in principle; the Tea Party despises the individual mandate as a violation of Constitutionally-guaranteed liberties. On foreign policy? Paleoconservatives want a Ron Paul-like isolationism; neoconservatives want a George W. Bush-like interventionism; realists want something in between.

There is the very real potential for the Republican Party to spin apart in the near future. It could easily become a set of regional parties knit together by opposition to extreme liberalism. Chris Christie and his followers don't have all that much in common with Rick Perry and his followers. Never has that chasm been so obvious.
To recap, we have four issues identified as signs of the growing rift within the Republican Party:
  • Entitlement reform. Tea Partiers won't shut up about it; Romney doesn't like to bring it up.[2]
  • Taxes. Tea Partiers favor "broad tax cuts across the board"; Romney has a convoluted plan including a number of prongs which, considered together, bear a vague resemblance to something that might, if you squint and the lighting is just right, be described as broad tax cuts across the board.
  • Healthcare. Tea Partiers are staunchly opposed to the individual mandate at the federal level; Romney claims to be staunchly opposed to the individual mandate at the federal level.
  • Foreign policy. Nobody can agree on anything.
I'm reminded of the debate from Futurama ("I say your three cent titanium tax goes too far!" "And I say your three cent titanium tax doesn't go too far enough!"). I mean, yeah, Romney's moderate in virtually every sense of the word, and I totally understand why so many Republicans are indifferent—if not outwardly hostile—toward his inevitable nomination. But let's not lose our minds here. Mitt Romney is not the harbinger of an ideological split in the Republican Party. He doesn't even have an ideology.

But, much like a wildly off-target golf shot that rolls to a stop ten feet from the cup on an adjacent hole, Shapiro is at least wrong in a strangely accurate way. I doubt anything can save his central comparison—slavery demanded a level of humanitarian concern and moral outrage unmatched by any contemporary issue, with the possible exception of slavery—but if we're going to insist on trying to find the closest parallel, I think we can come up with a few injustices more appalling than high taxes and mandatory health insurance. How about:
  • Denial of same-sex marriage rights
  • The War on Drugs
  • Mandatory minimum sentences
  • Torture and indefinite detention
  • Capital punishment
  • Restrictions on access to abortion and contraception
To name a few. Obviously, I'm talking about issues where libertarians diverge from conservatives—and the Republican Party in general. And yet, so many libertarians are nonetheless content to support a party that only sometimes aligns with their core values.[3] I don't have any great insight into whether that uneasy coalition is about to fall apart, but why shouldn't it? The discord Shapiro's talking about—the manufactured panic over Romney—is little more than petty squabbling among conservatives about the ideal volume at which to be conservative. Meanwhile, they're continuing to ignore and alienate an entire bloc of voters who disagree with them in actual, substantive ways, and who probably should've left the Republican Party a long time ago.

1. Would it surprise you to learn that the Whig Party has been revived? Me neither. And I more than welcome this development, if only because it carries with it the possibility—however remote—of "Whiggery" re-entering the lexicon.
2. At least, that's what Shapiro says. Skeptical, I went to Romney's website, and I can see how he missed it—you have to go all the way to page 142 of "Believe in America: Mitt Romney's Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth" to find the section on entitlement reform. Shapiro must've given up somewhere around the chapter on "Human Capital Policy", which sounds a lot like a phrase a computer would produce in a valiant—but ultimately unsuccessful—attempt to pass the Turing test.
3. I'm sure this goes without saying, but, of course, all libertarians have exactly the same set of beliefs and priorities, and thus it's perfectly appropriate to broadly characterize them as one single-minded entity.