Monday, October 17, 2011

Bringing America Together, One Venn Diagram at a Time

Last Monday I posted an article expressing my view that Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party are, in many ways, “raging against different halves of the same machine,” and I threw in a crude Venn diagram to illustrate my point. By Friday, the article had brought more traffic to this blog than my entire previous output combined, and the diagram had appeared on sites as prominent and ideologically disparate as The Cato Institute, Reason, The American Conservative, ThinkProgress, JoeMyGod, The Daily Beast, Time, and The Atlantic.[1]

Needless to say, this was a somewhat stronger response than I expected.[2] Almost as surprising is how overwhelmingly positive the reaction has been. I thought I was saying something controversial—something many would consider downright heretical—but instead I was met with near-universal agreement.[3] And the criticism hasn’t even been all that critical. Many have pointed out that the diagram fails to account for some key point or another, which is perfectly fair, and I acknowledged as much in the article, but few have objected to its underlying premise.

What, then, can be taken away from all this feel-goodery? Whatever you want to take away from it, I suppose (and I’m interested to hear some other opinions), but I think it’s safe to assume the diagram resonated so well because of its simplicity, not in spite of it—and with simplicity comes a certain toothlessness. In this case, the message could be expressed in simple terms because it dealt only with identifying problems, but once you start talking about solutions, ideological differences come into play and things get complicated.

If that sounds cynical, it’s…well, because it is, but it actually represents a step up for me. I started this blog, in part, because I feel like the ubiquitous left/right, liberal/conservative dichotomy has just about destroyed our ability to even agree on problems, much less solutions. There’s this tendency to associate every viewpoint with one side or the other, which is tolerable enough if it’s something like “we should reduce taxes on high-income earners” or “the financial industry should be more heavily regulated”, but it's distracting and counter-productive when the dispute is centered around contrasting interpretations of reality.

I watched this happen with the Tea Party. The Tea Party has, in many ways, become a conservative movement (and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party), but there’s no good reason for the cause of rebelling against government excess and inefficiency not to appeal to everyone—libertarian, conservative, liberal, or miscellaneous. The frustration I expressed last week arose from the seeming inevitability of OWS lapsing into a similar affiliation with liberalism and the Democratic Party, and from my sense that I couldn't declare my support for and identification with the OWS movement without being branded a socialist (which I’m not—no offense, socialists).

But what I saw instead was a refudiation [4] of the idea that there’s something inherently “liberal” about acknowledging the role of the private sector in our current troubles, because of course there isn’t—no more than there’s anything inherently “conservative” about acknowledging the role of the government. And now I’m at least hopeful that the OWS/liberalism/Democratic Party alignment is not as inevitable as I thought—and hey, maybe there’s still hope for the Tea Party to turn it around, too.

So that’s what I’m taking away from the popularity of the Venn diagram. We’ll always have trouble agreeing on the best solution, but the crucial first step is agreeing on what the problem is, which at least gets us to the point where we can meaningfully and constructively disagree. Looks like I'm not the only one who's tired of bypassing that step.

1. I don’t want this to sound like an awards show speech, but seriously, thanks to Jeffrey Ellis and Steve Horwitz for getting the ball rolling. Thanks to everyone who commented on my article, everyone who shared the link or the diagram on Facebook or Twitter or wherever else… [“wrap it up” music starts playing] …my long-time readers for all the support and encouragement, um…thanks to JoeMyGod for showing me there's nothing wrong with having a blog with an awkward name and “blogspot” in the URL. [music getting louder] Ok, they're telling me to wrap it up. If I forgot anyone, sorry!
2. And, as the title of this post indicates, I've already let it go to my head. This is a good thing, because bitterness makes me funny, so I should be in rare form after I fall back down to Earth, which I assume will be any day now.
3. As the week went on the story sort of morphed from “OWS and the Tea Party have too many similarities to be so antagonistic” to “Could Occupy Wall St. and the Tea Party Unite?”, which is the title of this post on Time's Curious Capitalist blog. I might come up with more to say about that in the near future, but, for now, I just want to say that for all the enjoyment I've gotten out of watching the media overreact to things over the years, it makes me proud that, just this once, I was one of the causes of the overreaction.
4. What? It’s a perfectly cromulent word.


  1. Not to worry; you haven't let it go to your head. A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. What? That, too, is a perfectly cromulent word.

  2. Just to let you know that I didn't show up here because of the Venn diagram - as good as it is. It was this brilliant statement underneath it that hooked me (The Atlantic):

    The greatest threat to our economy is neither corporations nor the government. The greatest threat to our economy is both of them working together.

    As a liberal, I felt that should be made clear :-)

    After reading other entries on the site, I have bookmarked it. You're pretty good.

  3. Yep, you're now in my reader.

  4. I was driven here by a post on yesterday. Thanks for your work.

    You are correct that the left/right dichotomy is not useful for promoting understanding or dialog. Much better is the two axis system proposed at The Political Compass.

    Highly recommended.

  5. James, I'm honored to have played a part in helping your excellent diagram go viral, but I bet it would have done so in any case.

  6. The company you keep is getting grander by the minute. You're mentioned in an Atlantic Wire column today along with Pres. Obama and Jon Stewart.

  7. My goodness, so I'm not the only person out there who has noticed the similarity. Actually, I think that Occupy is really the same movement as Tea Party originally was. Some of the actors may be different, but they are really saying essentially the same things.

  8. I found last weeks post while browsing through articles about OWS, read it (and it's responses) with great interest. I find this week's post mirroring my thoughts quite a bit. Thanks for the blog, it now has a place in my reader.

  9. "Actually, I think that Occupy is really the same movement as Tea Party originally was."

    No, Tell me when the Tea Party made demands that they be bailed out like the OWS demands. The Tea Party doesn't have it's hand out to be bought off, it has it's hand out in the "stop" position.

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  12. interesting how China is using this model of big corporations + big government to dominate the world's economy. In fact, the system worked pretty well for the US as long as it could maintain its economic dominance. People are getting all worked up now because we are not able to fleece the rest of the world like we used to.

  13. walking here with a smile. take care.. have a nice day ~ =D

    Regards, (A Growing Teenager Diary) ..

  14. Found your blog via a post on Facebook. Good stuff, keep it up!

  15. “I started this blog, in part, because I feel like the ubiquitous left/right, liberal/conservative dichotomy has just about destroyed our ability to even agree on problems, much less solutions.”

    Your post was successful on several levels including helping to move your mission, as stated above, forward: You found credible common ground in these seemingly disparate groups. I’m encouraged if the ‘overreaction’ to your post means that ‘We the People’ are not only wanting to rise above the liberal-conservative duality in which we find ourselves, but also we’re craving it! You tapped into it, revealing what might be the light at the end of a dark tunnel. Congratulations!

  16. James,

    The only thing that surprises me here is that you find it at all surprising that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Your diagram was neither heretical nor was it controversial. Quite the opposite: You tapped the Zeitgeist!

    What you expressed in your diagram is something that I and my friends (both liberal and conservative) have been saying for a long time. In fact, as you've seen, it's the one thing that both my liberal and conservative friends can agree on.

    I cannot tell you how impressed I am at how you took the concerns of 300 million people and distilled them down to a simple diagram that everyone could agree with regardless of political ideology. Kudoes!

    Your diagram should be hung in the Oval Office and in both chambers of Congress.

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  18. James Sinclair,
    You should email me at: - it's about where that Venn diagram came from. This evidence may surprise you,
    Hope to hear from you,
    Jon Lyon

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