Politics of Personal Delusion
I suspect that these kinds of posts will be a rarity on my blog. My plan for now is to stick to a loose theme of personal growth and improvement, and if there is one subject that is the antithesis of growth and improvement, it’s politics. Still, it is election day. I figure I’m allowed one day out of the year to publicly poke a sharp knife at the establishment.
Over at the Washington Examiner, Gene Healy has written a column on mindless partisanship (which leads me to wonder, is there another kind?). He reports:
Since 2003, Gallup has periodically asked Americans whether the federal government “poses an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” The latest results are in, and in just four years Republicans’ and Democrats’ answers “have shifted dramatically.”
In September 2006, 57 percent of Democrats said yes, while only 21 percent of Republicans agreed. Since then, Congress and the White House have gone from red to blue, and the two camps have switched places. “What, me worry?” say all but 21 percent of the Ds today, while 66 percent of the Rs are ready to start provisioning their concrete bunkers.
So, let me make a confession here. At one point in my life I was registered with one of the two major political parties.
I was young. I thought I needed a political party to root for. I was so, so wrong. Please forgive my indiscretion.
Having done that and walked away, though, I can now look back at my emotional states during and after each election in that time period, and find that my experience is pretty much mirrored by the data. When my team lost power, I would fear for the future of the country. I would expose myself to people in the media who shared my bias, looking for reassurance or confirmation of my feelings of outrage. Occasionally, I would engage in talking point poop flinging matches with someone who was busy rooting for the other team. Finally, when my team eventually gained power, I would feel more relaxed and confident about my nation.
As time went on, though, I realized there was problem. See, I had no real good rational reason to feel more relaxed and confident, or to fear for the future of the country, just because a few congressional seats changed hands. Even when the Executive branch would turn over it didn’t actually affect much in my day to day life. That’s because, when it comes right down to it, the way we interact with our government leads our two major political parties to not be too different from one another.
Now, before those of you who are still rooting hard for your favorite (or against your hated) team respond to that immediate urge to tell me how wrong I am, take a deep breath and hear me out. If you think I’m full of it, you can still vote your team again next year. Let’s head back to the column for a minute:
Gallup tries to downplay political tribalism as an explanation for the results. After all, they write, Republicans worry more about “government involvement in health care,” while Democrats worry more about “wars or anti-terrorism activities.”
If voters’ threat perceptions are based “not on how much [government] is doing but rather on what it is doing,” then maybe both Rs and Ds had good reason to change their answers.
Nice try, but during the relevant period government was doing all of the above. In 2003, President George W. Bush pushed through a massive expansion of socialized medicine with Medicare Part D, whose price tag — $1.1 trillion over the next decade — dwarfs most estimates of Obamacare’s projected costs.
For his part, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama nearly tripled deployments to Afghanistan, and he’s lately claimed the power to kill American citizens with drone strikes. Both presidents relentlessly expanded federal power at home and abroad.
When Republicans run for office, they talk about fiscal responsibility. They’ll even entertain spending cuts in very vague terms. When they’re in office, though, is a whole other story. Bush passing Medicare Part D through a Republican controlled congress is just one of many instances of increased spending in the name of some non-specific greater good. In my lifetime, there has never been a year where the federal government has spent less than it has brought in in tax revenues. Our national debt constantly grows, no matter who holds the reins of power.
When Democrats run for office, they talk about protecting civil liberties. They’ll even entertain having more transparency and responsibility in government in very vague terms. When they’re in control, though, it’s a whole other story. Obama has continued, with a Democrat controlled congress, to expand our wars abroad without ever clarifying what our exact mission is and what defines victory and what the terms for withdrawal look like. Take into account the broader scope of the War on Terror and the PATRIOT Act, and the more mature and invasive War on Drugs, and every year it seems our leaders are happy to take from the people a little more liberty in the name of a bit more supposed safety. It doesn’t matter who holds the reins of power.
Whose fault is this? Ours. When we’re happy about the people who have (or don’t have) power, we tend to shut up about the things that drive us to the polls in the first place. For example, how many big, well-publicized Anti-War demonstrations have there been in America since January 2009? It isn’t like the nature of the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have suddenly become better and more just simply because the occupant of the White House is from Illinois instead of Texas, but the majority of people who were concerned enough to march two and a half years ago have put down their signs and gone home. Why? And where were the enraged members of the Tea Party when Bush was ballooning the debt every year of his presidency?
It’s a self-evident truth, people only rail against the halls of national power when they don’t like the leaders wielding that power. When we do like them, we will rationalize and delude ourselves into accepting their actions, even when they are engaging in activities that are the exact opposite of why we elected them.
Hm? What’s that? You’re above that, huh? There’s no way you’d engage in self-delusion in that way. I believe you. Really.
Still, are you sure?
Political scientist Adam J. Berinsky puts it starkly: “In the battle between facts and partisanship, partisanship always wins.”
In 2004, psychologist Drew Westen took a look at the partisan mind through an MRI scanner. He presented 15 “strong Democrats” and 15 “strong Republicans” with negative statements about their favored candidates and watched which parts of their brains lit up.
“None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged,” Dr. Westen reported — it appeared “as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want.” [Emphasis added]
After tonight’s election results are in and tallied, some of you are going to be elated, and some of you are going to be pissed. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be. What I’m suggesting is that, once the dust clears, you might want to take some time and think about the principles that lead you to vote the way you do. If they’re really important to you, and you really want to see your agenda move forward, then who holds the office shouldn’t matter as much as what they’re doing. There is no such thing as having the ‘right people’ in charge. If you aren’t being diligent and holding them accountable for their actions, things will remain politics as usual. As Healy puts it,
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” runs the adage. “Eternal” means even — perhaps especially — when the faction you favor is at the helm.
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