Facts and Fictions, Part I

About a month ago I wrote a post that started with this quote:

Win or lose, the GOP talks about three core principles: less government, lower taxes, and a strong military. It doesn’t matter that, when in charge, Republican politicians have been known to grow government, raise taxes, and stretch the military too thin. Party leaders have decided that less government, lower taxes, and a strong military is what they stand for and what they run on. That’s their story and they’re sticking with it for good reason — because more often that not, it has helped them win. [Bill Scher, Wait! Don’t Move to Canada! (Rodale, 2006), p. 13.]

I asked if we might come up with our own short list of “ideas” to run on. I see that LeonJohn Podesta asked a similar question:

“The question I’m asked most often is, When are we getting our eight words?” Podesta said. Conservatives, he went on, “have their eight words in a bumper sticker: Less government. Lower taxes. Less welfare. And so on. Where’s our eight-word bumper sticker?”

My post generated some rich discussion, but no “eight words in a bumper sticker.” I’ve been thinking about this since, and realized that everything I come up with is much less specific than what the Right runs on. For example, where the Right always runs on cutting taxes, I would run on responsible taxes. Whether taxes should be raised or lowered, IMO, depends on a whole lot of factors that are always changing. Factors to consider include what people need from their government and what’s good for the economic health of the nation, both short and long term. There is a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. And there’s a time to lower taxes, and a time to raise them. But the phrase “responsible taxes” doesn’t mean anything unless I explain what I mean, so we’re already over the eight words.

Of course, I always want to pin conservatives down on what they mean by “less” government, since many of them seem OK with big, strong, intrusive government in matters of sex and death. If you think about it, they seem to want government to go away only where money is involved. And I’m all for a “strong” military, but by that I don’t mean keeping the military-industrial complex gorged on no-bid contracts and sweetheart deals. I mean a military strong enough to defend the nation.

Leon Podesta said that coming up with eight words in a bumper sticker is harder for liberals, “because we believe in a lot more things.” I don’t think that’s true; righties certainly seem to have beliefs up the wazoo. Liberals get slammed because we don’t have beliefs. For example, check out what what Sebastian Mallaby wrote in the Washington Post awhile back:

After years of single-party government, the prospect of a Democratic majority in the House ought to feel refreshing. But even with Republicans collapsing in a pile of sexual sleaze, I just can’t get excited. Most Democrats in Congress seem bereft of ideas or the courage to stand up for them. They clearly want power, but they have no principles to guide their use of it.

In fact, Dems are brimming over with ideas; just check out Podesta’s think tank if you want some examples. Do the Dems as a party have clearly articulated principles to guide their use of power? That’s a harder question to answer. But do Republicans? Not that I’ve seen. Republicans have rhetoric; they have talking points; they have campaign slogans. Principles, not so much. But Republicans get a pass on the principle thing. In the same way, the Democratic Party is perpetually being challenged to come up with a plan for Iraq; individual Dems have come up with a number of plans, but since the party hasn’t rallied around any one plan, this doesn’t count. But Republicans as a party have no discernible “plan,” either, other than “stay the course.” And now some of them are disowning even that.

But as I’ve been combing through commentary this morning I’m struck by the fact that many commenters (like Mallaby) use words like idea, principle, and belief loosely and interchangeably as if they were synonyms, and of course they are not. Fuzzy use of language usually connotes fuzzy thinking. Why is it that Republicans get credit for having ideas even though they haven’t had a genuinely new idea since the McKinley Administration? Why is it Republicans get credit for having principles even though their words and deeds rarely meet up in the same ball park?

Many liberals argue that righties have us beat in the language and framing departments, and I think that’s part of it, but I say there’s a more fundamental reason: righties have a strong ideology, and lefties don’t.

I just stumbled upon this very lovely quote —

    “The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.” -Bertrand Russell

Contrast this to our current crop of American conservatives, who remain steadfastly loyal to their ideas even after trial and empirical evidence reveal they don’t work. Supply side economics comes to mind.

I’m not saying ideologies are better than no-ideology; just the opposite. I am leery of ideology. The dictionary defines ideology thus —

1. The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture. 2. A set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

— But I think ideology is better understood as an interface to reality. An ideology makes interacting with reality easier, because it eliminates much of the detail and limits one’s choices.

For example, if a non-ideological person wants to understand why there is so much poverty in New Orleans, he has to piece together myriad historical, cultural, political, and economic factors, some of which may be unique to New Orleans. But an ideologue can click on the drop-down menu for social problems, then choose poverty, and get a simple answer. Easy as pie.

Simple answers have the advantage of being easier to explain and to understand than complicated answers. This gives politicians with simple answers a strong advantage over those whose answers require some explaining. A person with simple answers also can seem more certain about what he says than someone who understands all the ambiguities and complications and mitigating factors.

And, my dears, there are always ambiguities and complications and mitigating factors. Pretending they aren’t there doesn’t make them go away.

Put another way, instead of learning more about a issue to understand it, ideologues eliminate factors until the issue becomes easily understandable. The fact that the “understanding” may have little to do with reality is of no consequence. You see this phenomenon in righties’ quest for “moral clarity.” The way one achieves “moral clarity” is not through deep thinking or thorough study; it is through reducing complex issues to a simple “good versus evil” equation. And this equation is created by eliminating any factors that don’t return the desired answer.

For example, “moral clarity” on the abortion issue usually means designating the embryo as “good” and the woman who wants to abort as “bad.” In order to be “clear” the ideologue sees the embryo as innocent and blameless, but the “bad” woman is narcissistic and immoral. Crushing personal circumstances or genetic anomalies are dismissed as “inconveniences” that virtuous women would accept without complaint. Factors that don’t fit into the equation are dismissed as unimportant, in other words.

To be fair, there are lefties who dismiss the embryo as a “growth” or a “parasite,” which is another easy way to achieve “clarity” on the issue. To my mind, these people are playing the same mental games righties are playing. It’s not an honest way to look at the issue.

Ideologies can be found all along the political spectrum. But neither conservatism nor liberalism are in themselves ideologies. In some people, conservatism or liberalism are no more than inclinations or attitudes that cause them to sympathize with one set of values more than another. If you look at political conservatism around the globe and over time, you find all manner of competing and contradictory ideas attached to it. And many Americans have called themselves conservative without having to believe that taxes must always be cut or that abortions must be stopped at all cost.

But right now, in the U.S., most of the Right is strongly ideological, but most of the Left isn’t. Most of us who call ourselves “liberals” or “progressives” or “Democrats” these days do not have simple doctrines and beliefs and dogmas that tell us whether taxes should go up or down, for example. Instead, we’ve got policy wonks studying trends and crunching numbers. Most of us in favor of reproduction rights are concerned about the impact of abortion and birth control bans on the lives and health of women, and our concerns are based on real-world experience. We think government ought to be responsive to the needs and desires of citizens, but we don’t assume what those needs and desires are always going to be.

Thus, we have “nuances.” We lack “clarity.” We aren’t always sure we are right. We can’t reduce our ideas into simple slogans and equations. The Right can do these things, however. While the Left consults maps and debates diverse routes, the Right knows exactly which way to march.

But then, so do lemmings.

See also: The Anonymous Liberal, “Straw Man Politics and The Great Rhetorical Divide“; Robert Parry, “Whose Moral Clarity?

37 thoughts on “Facts and Fictions, Part I

  1. Great Post. As I mentioned early on – I am a Democrat because I know I am not Republican. This tends to be true of many of us, but it leaves a LOT of room for what you DO believe in or identify with. Republicans are trying to cleanse the ranks of RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and this purge may result in fragmentation almost equal to ours.

    However on ths subject of 8-word slogans we can unite behind – here is 2 short words (I will work on 6 more) FAIR TAXES. This includes 2 facets 1) Tax rates would reflect what’s the best for the moment we are in 2) Business and the rich would pay their share.

  2. “The Right knows exactly which way to march. . . . But then, so do lemmings.

    Just so. Lemmings picks up the pitfalls of ideology perfectly.

    Don: FAIR TAXES, aye. How about FAIR WAGES? (and I could wish for ECOLOGICAL RESPONSIBILITY)

  3. I’ve been accused of being..”A double minded man, unstable in all his ways”….I guess that means I’m a liberal, huh?.

    Another great post, Maha.

  4. “Fair taxes” sound a lot better than “responsible taxes.” Everyone likes fairness, even if we don’t agree what’s fair. Responsible taxes sound like something your parents will make you do when they get home.

  5. Sure there are short summaries of liberalism; but as Russell noted, it has to be process-oriented. So try out:
    Listen To The People
    You Be The Boss – vote Democratic

    Of course that would require the D’s take a more populist stance than lately

  6. Populism is the key, if you want the middle class to vote for you you’ve got to give them something concrete to vote for.

    Affordable healthcare, secure future, good schools, fair wages.

    That’s eight.

    The repugs lower taxes is actually a lot more nuanced than first appears, but plays very well with many because they simply want more money to spend. Recently here in Bucky land the state leg. negotiated a semi-freeze on property taxes that will save tax payers thirty bucks a household, eight bucks a person. But will in the end cost schools millions. Do people get that lower taxes means less stuff for the middle class, who need government services more than the wealthy?

  7. A great post, Maha.
    I dislike having a ‘bumper sticker’ party as much as I dislike the thought of ingesting ‘fast food’. The whole idea that parties can mostly be ‘marketed’ in sound bites…. and that Democrats need to enter into a ‘brand’ field competition, issue slogan by issue slogan……well, the whole premise is a slippery slope, IMHO.

    Democrats don’t hide behind ‘sound bites’.

    Those who want to hear what those words mean will take some time to listen further. Those who limit themselves to ‘sound bite’ loyalty [and fast food] won’t spend the time to consider anything healthier, anyway.

  8. I was thinking exactly along those same lines yesterday in a comment toPublius ‘ post about how he had a certain feeling of dread about the midterms and just wants them over with:

    I think the main feeling of dread comes from the fact that we have had to put up with a bunch of GOP whinging and blaming a dem controlled congress or President Clinton for every ill on the face of the earth.

    Then they finally get control of all the levers of power and in six short years proves just how unworkable all their simple minded theories of governance are. Tax cuts for the rich, wars of conquest, corporate written legislation, crony appointments, I could go on and on.

    One of the biggest problems though is that the GOP has had a ready to wear pattern that allows literally anyone to run on the GOP ticket – no matter how stupid they may be. See Schmitt, Jean. People who have never had to think policies through, then, when they inevitably fail as they have in the last 6 years they pull out stuff like flag burning and gay marriage and a bunch of other meaningless crap.

    The GOP talks a lot about “responsibility” but it is clear that they have never truly understood the term (“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”). Being a majority government mean actually having to fucking govern, something the GOP is incapable of doing.

    So instead when it all comes crashing down it isn’t the GOP’s fault, it’s Activist Judges, Liberal Acedemia, or the dreaded Liberal MSM. God forbid they should have to bother their beautiful minds to actually rethink the logic behind all the idiotic crap they’ve been spouting since Goldwater.

    Finally the thing that really makes me want to howl at the moon is that none of the GOP seems to have any shame or remorse about about screwing up this county so badly it’ll take up at least a decade to get back to where we were.

    Hell, it seems like they don’t even recognize the magnitude of their folly. But, of course that would entail taking “personal responsibility”

  9. Great discernment above.
    The only principles I’ve detected in Republicons is ‘Mo money for me” and then run like hell and let a Dem clean up the mess.

  10. “energy independence”: good point. Can we roll that (along with the environment) into “secure future”?

  11. Democratic bumpersticker:

    Vote Democratic:
    Pro-social security, pro-balanced budget, pro-American jobs

  12. how about just “fairness” ? isnt that the real problem with repugs is that fairness is a concept they dont use. Just being fair would fill the bill for me

  13. Yeah, k, what is the disconnect between Republicans and accountability? They blithely ignore their legally mandated oversight of the executive branch, aid and abet that branch in creating these really huge destructive messes [Iraq, deficit spending, indebtedness of trillions to foreigners, military preparedness decline, constitutional crises] and then boldy taunt Democrats, demanding immediate answers about ‘cleaning up the messes’.

    Weren’t the Republicans supposed to be the authoritarian ‘daddy’ party? Well, wait a minute: first they let their teen-brat Bush make all these messes, then they make excuses for him [it’s Clinton’s fault] and then they grovel side-ways to insinuate that the clean-up better be done by the adults [Democrats], who they helplessly look to for answers while they also pre-emptively criticize Dems about the clean-up before the Dem’s are even allowed into the action. ‘Neer-do-well daddy’ party is more the truth.

    BTW, I like Bucky Blue’s list of 8 words. [comment #7]

  14. Here’s the snag. Snappy bumper stickers, without action, is just crap. Even if you win elections. Action won’t happen without a philosophy supporting the planks of the platform. My opinion is that the Dem PARTY – the machine – has the best interests of the PARTY at heart -. NOT the best interests of the American People. They will do better than the Republicans – at some things – because they can’t do it worse.

    There are no home runs waiting for us – even if the election is pure gold – until we find a conscience. The actions of the Democrats, those elected and those speaking for the party – suggest to me – we Democrats don’t have it.

    Sometime – well before the next election – we have to find it. A conscience, I mean – unless someone has a better word for it. We won’t need it to win – not the way Bush is running the Republican Revolution into the ground. We will need it to make something happen if ‘we’ Democrats have power. Without it – we will perform only a little better than the Republicans – and only because we can’t do worse.

  15. The simplest thing is to just ATTACK this rightie idiocy…


    Less government…OK, you and you childredn can die younger from chemical pollution, untreated disease or maybe yer plane will go down ’cause there ain’t enough air traffic controllers…or they’re asleep. Had any nice spinach salad lately?

    Strong Military…yup, ‘n yere cousins and sons and daughters can march off to another war every 15 years or so…a war we end up LOSING. That works for me and every ‘right-thinking’ American.

    Lower taxes….bwaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaah fer rich fucks maybe…not fer you. Have you seen your taxes go down lately….

    Didn’t think so.

    No need to come up with new ‘talking points’ the Republican ones are quite servicable.

    If you’ve got the balls to tell it like it is.

    See Jon Tester or Wesley Clark.

    Not if you’r a refucker in ‘Dems’ clothing like Schumer, Emmanuel, The Hill or ‘Big Puppy’.

  16. Doug.., I think that even if the Democrats gain a majority they won’t become a machine like we’ve seen with the Rebublicans. The lack of cohesion as a party that we’ve seen with the Democrats suggests to me that conscience is a factor. Glenn Greenwald posted several days ago an eye opening commentary where he displayed a visual of the voting counts on several important pieces of legislation. The Republican side voted on all legislation with a “lockstep”. no dissention vote, whereas the Democrat side of the vote was fragmented. I believe it is in the nature of Democrats to resist the surrender of conscience to the party.

  17. But right now, in the U.S., most of the Right is strongly ideological, but most of the Left isn’t. Most of us who call ourselves “liberals” or “progressives” or “Democrats” these days do not have simple doctrines and beliefs and dogmas that tell us whether taxes should go up or down, for example.

    Maha, this was a “major” revelation for me a few years ago and is the number one reason why I don’t mind supporting the Democrats or the “left” for now.

    The mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centruy was a time of major activity in the name of various leftwing ideaologies. In many ways the stereotypes of the Right and Left are still strongly effected by that history – and I can ASSURE YOU that many on the Right still see “the left” as dominated fervent marxist idealogues. In fact, however, you are right. The most “idealogical” leftwingers tend to be “fringe” elements lacking real public support.

    The current “right” today came together as a mixture of groups and platforms unifted mainly by their opposition to militant leftwing ideology – an understandable reaction to an age when it was a problem. Perhaps tomorrows left is starting today as a covergence of many interests mainly united by their opposition of the militant rightwing ideology.

  18. On the motto:

    “American Strength through American Democracy” ?

    People like America, Strength and Democracy.
    It rightly implies that we are lacking “American Democracy” now.
    Finally, the word “through” carries the message that the two are related and implicitly rebuts the notion (touted by Busheviks) that “We need a single strong leader in time of war”. Bullshit! Americans are seeing how a “single strong leader” who makes dumb-ass mistakes can ruin everything – Its not only arguable “un-American” but it can’t even live up to its promises.

    On a side note: Although Left/Liberals tend to HATE V.D.Hanson, his book “The Soul of Battle” is a GREAT BOOK for liberal ammunition on this issue. It’s main theme is that democracies of free citizens are not weaker, but can actually be much stronger, than the alternatives – that the “weakness” touted by opponents of “selfish individualism” is mostly an illusion and that the “strength” of their systems is mostly just show.

  19. The idea of the REP party standing for limit goverment,national security and moral values is at best a lie. The core values of the REP party is lies,deciet,and secrecy and they have practiced those values over the past six years. At the same time they continue to practice those values as we speak. For example on Iraq the lies told to justify the war. The use of deceit and lies by Bush and CO to get the Christian right money and votes. There is an endless list,but it continues as we speak.

  20. r4d20, #23 — you hit the nail on the head. The unifying principle of the Right is defeating the Left. But they’re so full of hate and hysteria that they haven’t noticed “the Left” they oppose fell apart more than 30 years ago. They are battling a “straw Left” that exists mostly in their own heads.

  21. The righties’ are still fixated on a ‘straw left’ because their slogans have been designed to end thought rather than encourage thought.

  22. They are battling a “straw Left” that exists mostly in their own heads.

    Well that makes sense.. I’ve always had difficulty trying to understand how the Hippie references fit into the current political dialog.

  23. Maha, thankyou for this post and the Bertrand Russell quote.

    Frankly, there are too many categories: Democrat, liberal, moderate, far-left, progressive (even Bill O’Reilly’s new group – the evil secular progressives or SPs). As much as these groups have their overlapping philosophies, they also have their differences. It used to worry me that I didn’t fit into a specific category – I didn’t quite know how to identify myself.

    Bertrand Russell’s quote opened my eyes – after reading a synopsis of his philosophies – I am addding a new category with which I will now identify – Russellcrat .

  24. I second Marshall’s suggestion: We believe in the Constitution not in Kings.

    Referencing the Constitution covers a lot of territory, and it has a cold, hard quality because the right has often claimed to defend the Constitution in the past. I remember vividly listening to that blowhard Jay Severin on his radio show in 2000, and he brought up the Constitution all the time. To listen to this guy talk, you’d think the Constitution was written for the express purpose of keeping noble republicans in power for time eternal. What an ass.

    Maybe I’m being too intellectual, but I think the gutting of the Constitution is a crime against humanity, and the sooner people in this country wrap their heads around it, the better. And who committed this crime? Republicans. These people have, practically speaking, sold our children into slavery just to stay in power.

  25. 1) How ’bout focusing on results: Government, for the people, by the people.

    2) McKinley administration: what “new” idea?

    3) Recently reminded that the Tudors made a good business out of “privatising” the wealth of monastaries. Nothing new under the sun.

  26. Pingback: The Mahablog » Facts and Fictions, Part II

  27. Thanks for that right-on comment, Mike #34. Also, I notice that this administration embodies a lot of the ‘intentions’ which they accuse their ‘straw version’ of terrorists of having—-‘they want to destroy our way of life’, ‘they would love to create a base of operation in Iraq’, and so forth.

    I say again, evil has puny power on its own, but gains its power by riding on good energy, twisting that good energy [patriotism, protection of nation and family, and so forth] until that good energy is serving evil.
    Think of the how the Bush administration claims ‘born again’ religious status, rides atop the support of fervent evangelicals and fundamentalists [ ‘in-house’, they deride those supporters as being nuts] and persuades those faithful new servants of theirs that pre-emptive war is ok, that killing tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis is ok, that even torture is ok.

    True evil [power-hunger, greed, coveting the oil of Iraqis, lying and purposefully spinning fogs of confusion, embracing torture, destroying habeas corpus] needs to be separated from the good and basic common values of folks whom that evil has manipulated. And it is important to examine just how evil could gain control of good energy, or else we could also fall victim to adopting rovian manipulative behavior in trying to counter it.

    I feel a deep wave of compassion for those who have had their best selves betrayed by the Bush cabal.

Comments are closed.