Tag Archives: Democrats

Coping With Uncertainty

There is a genre of op-eds/”guest essays” that I generally don’t read: the “what my [parent/relative/meanest boss] taught me about [life/politics/persistence/etc.]  It isn’t that this particular approach to self-help isn’t interesting or useful–these reflections are often quite thoughtful. But given the number of information resources we all receive, most of us need to pick and choose the materials we actually access and consider, and my priorities are elsewhere.

I made an exception to my usual practice a week or so ago, however, for a guest essay titled “What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Living.” I’m glad I did, because the “lesson” the author conveyed really applies to a great deal more than our individual lives; it is directly relevant to the contemporary political environment.

The author of the essay reported that, as she was trying to come to terms with her father’s imminent death, she had asked her wife about the wife’s experiences as a social worker.

What, exactly, do you do with people who are dying? How do you help them and their families? Beyond helping with their practical needs, she explained, she tried to help them normalize their feelings, minimize their regrets and see that people have the capacity to change, right up to the end.

She said that the thing people wanted more than anything was answers. How long does my wife have? Is my mother suffering? These are questions that are impossible to answer, so her work consisted of something else.

“I try to help them increase their tolerance for uncertainty,” she told me. In the absence of answers, she tried to help them live with not knowing.

This conversation struck me as profound, in ways that go well beyond the prospects of a loved one’s life or death.

I have long been convinced that living in the modern world requires one absolutely essential skill above all: the ability to tolerate ambiguity– a recognition that authentic “bright lines” are rare, and that large areas of our lives will necessarily be lived in shades of gray.

The inability to cope with moral and political ambiguity explains so much of what is wrong with today’s politics. Americans today are faced with questions that don’t have easy or obvious answers. That reality goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of bizarre conspiracy theories–such theories provide “answers” to people who find the lack of certainty intolerable. That inability to abide uncertainty also helps explain the evident need of so many people for identifiable “bad guys.”

The need for certainty partly explains the “reasoning” of people who insist on making the perfect the enemy of the good–either X is without fault, or he is unworthy of support, no matter how much worse Y might be. Their discomfort with nuance and complexity requires  an “either/or” world–not one in which progress is incremental and white knights rare.

In a very real sense, America’s political parties have sorted themselves on the basis of tolerance for ambiguity: today’s Democratic Party, whatever its faults and failures, grapples with and argues about the world’s complex realities, while the GOP responds to that complexity with “certainties” that have either been discredited by repeated real-world evidence or invented out of whole cloth.

What the Republican Party does understand is that, in a world that is complicated and devoid of certitudes, scapegoats are essential.

Are there several interrelated causes that are thought to contribute to California’s wildfires?  Too complicated; it must be Jewish Space Lasers. Do job openings available to me require skills my parents’ generation didn’t need? People of color willing to deploy those skills are being brought across the border to replace me. Are my children embracing strange new ideas that are at odds with what I was raised to believe? It’s attributable to a “woke” culture that accepts same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

See? There are clear answers…They just aren’t rooted in (or even in the vicinity of) reality.

Later in the essay, the author addressed that all-important but elusive ability to live with uncertainty.

There is something so powerful about this idea, something so broadly useful to modern life. We all want to know what happens next, to fix upon some certainty as an anchor in the rough seas of our times. But to tolerate uncertainty is to become buoyant, able to bob in the waves, no matter the tide.

I would go further than “buoyancy.” I would identify the ability to function thoughtfully and purposefully in an increasingly complex and ambiguous world as absolutely essential to life in the 21st Century.

 

 

Negative Partisanship

Us versus Them–tribalism– seems to be a constant in human nature. It’s a primary motivator of war, a significant element of policymaking, a constant of religious strife–and the primary tool of campaigns to get out the vote.

Political polarization and what political scientists call “negative partisanship” get more people to the polls than reasoned appeals based upon policy promises.

I still recall a conversation with another politician back when the GOP was still a political party and not a theocratic cult; I had criticized one of our candidates , and he responded  “He may be a nutcase, but he’s our nutcase.” It was a perfect expression of what has since become the defining trait of the Republican Party. (Democrats—being far less cohesive–are somewhat more forgiving of intra-party criticism.)

Time Magazine article written after the first public hearing held by the January 6th committee considered that insistence on group solidarity as it is currently being applied to Liz Cheney.

In GOP circles, two things are true at once. First, large majorities of Republican voters disapprove of the January 6 rioters. At the same time, large majorities still approve of Donald Trump, and Liz Cheney—the Republican most prominently intent on investigating and exposing what happened—is less popular with Republicans than renowned conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene.

In fact, Cheney might now be the least popular Republican in the entire Republican Party, in spite of her consistently conservative voting record and her support for Donald Trump’s re-election in 2020. The reason is simple. She has violated the prime directive of negative partisanship. Even if she’s right to be upset by the riots, she’s attacking her own team. It’s the responsibility of GOP politicians to always, always train their fire on the left.

And that rule–that your guns must always be trained on the other guy–is why, as my kids might say, we Americans can’t have nice things.

Negative partisanship is a simple concept with profound implications. At its most basic, it means that “the parties hang together mainly out of sheer hatred of the other team, rather than a shared sense of purpose.” When negative partisanship dominates, a political coalition is united far more by animosity than policy. The policy priorities are malleable and flexible, so long as the politician rhetorically punches the right people.

Negative partisanship is why Republicans in the Senate voted against the PACT Act after voting for it–in identical form–just a few weeks earlier. (They did grudgingly reverse that vote in the wake of a huge blowback.) The vote had absolutely nothing to do with the Act itself, and everything to do with a spiteful “We’ll show you!” response to the deal hammered out between Schumer and Manchin.

Negative partisanship helps explain Republican acceptance of conspiracy theorists like Marjorie Taylor Greene. The same polling that shows Cheney underwater with Republican voters shows Green with a slight positive rating, despite her constant stream of utterly bizarre and baseless claims. As the article explains, she fights the left, and the left despises her, and for millions of Republicans that’s all it takes to earn their approval.

Negative partisanship also played a significant role in America’s vaccine hesitancy. Republicans were literally willing to risk death in order to “own the libs.”

Of course, Democrats disapprove of Republicans just as much as Republicans detest Democrats. But people like me, who would love to see the current hostilities replaced by genuine efforts to work across the aisle, are stymied by the reality that today’s parties are not morally equivalent. Germany really was an “evil empire” in the thirties, and the current GOP really has morphed into something other than a traditional, flawed political party.

And that something is malignant.

We Americans who live in what the George W. Bush administration dismissively called “the reality-based community”  find ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. We don’t want to paint the entire GOP with a broad and unforgiving brush, but we also don’t want to be so naive that we ignore the very real threat posed by a party now dominated by White Christian Nationalists and wacko conspiracy theorists.

Can that scorned “negative partisanship” come to our rescue?

If Democrats were to turn out in Kansas-like numbers this November–spurred by the GOP’s unremitting attacks on constitutional  liberties and democratic norms–a historically-improbable midterm defeat might begin the process of returning the GOP to its roots as a political party. As the Time article put it, the threats to America’s constitutional order currently come from the Right–and it’s the Right that must put its house in order.

If that happens, Americans of good will can focus their efforts on combatting tribalism and negative partisanship. If it doesn’t, all bets are off….

 

Voting One’s Interests

If there is one lament that occurs during virtually every conversation I’ve had about politics, it’s “Why are ‘those people’ voting against their own interests?'” Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the misconception at the base of that complaint: Republicans and Democrats have very different notions of where voters’ interests reside.

One Democratic strategist who clearly does understand that difference is Indiana’s current Democratic Chair, Mike Schmuhl, who was recently profiled in a Washington Post article.

The article was focused on the difficulty of flipping deep-red states–a task Schmuhl described as more difficult than managing the Presidential campaign of an out gay small-town Indiana mayor. What Schmuhl–and far too few others–seems to recognize is the contested nature of the “interests” that impel voters.

Democrats define interests economically; Republicans see interests as cultural. The result is that partisans end up talking past each other.

Democrats cannot–and should not–abandon their emphasis on issues of economic security, but they need to recognize that for many voters–especially the older, White, rural voters who predominate in Indiana and decide statewide elections–economics are less important than the cultural “wedge” issues the GOP has so skillfully deployed.

Schmuhl is clearly aware of the challenge he faces.

Schmuhl sees two possible avenues for Democrats to start to make gains, although neither presents an easy path for success. The first is the possibility that Republicans will swing so far to the right, and so deeply into Donald Trump’s conspiracy politics, that there will be a voter backlash.

That hasn’t yet happened in Indiana or, for that matter, in other red states, where GOP legislatures have pushed the envelope with new laws on voting rights, education, abortion and other cultural issues. Schmuhl holds out hope that things could yet turn. “Republican domination is a double-edged sword,” he said. “You can go so far and so you kind of tip over.”

He pointed out that in Indiana this year, about two dozen incumbent Republican legislators, including some committee chairs, face such primary challenges, many from candidates with a Trumpian agenda. “I think that every day on their side, it’s really kind of divisions between the far-right kind of MAGA crowd and the establishment Republicans.”

Schmuhl also faces the challenge posed by skillful misinformation, otherwise called lies, promulgated by conservative media outlets, including but not limited to Fox News. He has received money from the Democratic National Committee to fund a war room position “for me to look at innovative ways to fight misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, all of that,” he said.

Media propaganda is especially pervasive–and persuasive–in rural areas populated predominantly by older, non-college-educated White Hoosiers who feel abandoned and resentful. Those folks are enticing targets for the wedge issues deployed by the GOP’s culture warriors. Whether they will continue to “go along”–whether they will accept and endorse the Party’s wholesale embrace of clearly crazy conspiracy theories and overtly racist policies is a question we cannot yet answer.

So far, those in rural precincts have been able to determine the outcome of statewide elections. They are why Indiana has sent two embarrassments to the U.S. Senate, both of whom shamefully mischaracterized her judicial record to justify voting against the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

From where I sit–I don’t know either of them personally–Indiana’s Senators would seem to represent the two remaining elements of a once-respectable political party. Todd Young displays a genuine interest in policy, and might–in other times–have been an effective Senator. He’s intelligent but spineless–clearly in thrall to the crazies who are the remaining Republican base, and unwilling to confront those in his party bent on the destruction of democratic norms.

Braun has no observable redeeming characteristics, and with his recent endorsement of “state’s rights”–i.e., effective repeal of the 14th Amendment–has demonstrated his unfitness for any political office.

As Mike Schmuhl clearly understands, the prospects for turning Indiana purple–let alone blue–depend on Democrats’ ability to convince rural voters that their cultural interests are best served by a party committed to economic and social fair play, and that “fair play” includes concern for their well-being.

That’s not a message that will resonate with voters whose resentments and disappointments have hardened into hatred of the “others” who they believe have “replaced” them. I am unwilling to believe that those folks are a majority, even in rural areas dominated by Fox News and hate radio.

But I guess we’ll see….

 

 

 

Words, Words, Words…..

One of the barriers to productive political debate is language–its use and misuse.

Genuine communication–in general, not just in politics– is anything but simple. Back in “the day,” when I was a high school English teacher, discussions of grammar included a lesson on the difference between “definition” and “connotation”–between the dictionary meaning of a word, and the social or emotional “freight” it had picked up through use. (Further complicating matters, that “freight”–the negative or positive spin on a word or phrase–often varies depending upon the constituency hearing it. Think of how different ears hear “woke.”)

We all bring our individual world-views to our discussions, and those views and personal experiences become the lens through which we interpret what others are saying. Often, those interpretations are wildly different from the intended meaning–think “Defund the Police”–which is why political strategists and PR folks are so concerned with the language employed by candidates and/or commercial interests. Insisting “that isn’t what I meant” is almost always ineffective; it’s far preferable to initially frame an argument or proposition using  language that is as accurate about meaning as possible, and that will be most resistant to misinterpretation, whether intentional or unintentional.

Sometimes, partisans forget that the object should be to communicate, not simply to engage in virtue signaling.

Back in April, Governing Magazine ran an article titled ” ‘No Accountability, No Peace’: Sloganeering and the Language of the Left,” focusing on the differences in language employed by contemporary Republicans and Democrats. The author noted the “constant demand on the left” to be sensitive, to use words that are received as less hurtful. Sometimes, he wrote, this makes perfect sense. “Other times it feels like they want to fight on the wrong battlefield.”

This is not an isolated linguistic debate. It comes just after the recent overbaked argument about whether President Biden’s infrastructure plan, or parts of it, qualify as infrastructure, namely caregiving for children, the elderly and those with disabilities. Mother Jones was not alone in decrying this as a “semantic argument,” stressing the importance of Biden wanting to support women workers as part of the recovery.

But semantics do matter in politics. For years, the right has found success by putting potent, clever labels on things that help make their arguments for them: Recasting estate taxes as the “death tax,” for example, or succeeding in switching usage from the clinical description of intact dilation and evacuation to the soberingly graphic “partial-birth abortion.”

On the left, the impulse is more aspirational. You increase the power of your vocabulary by borrowing meanings, asserting that some things actually mean other, good things — that child care is infrastructure, or that housing is a human right or health care is a human right.

Give credit where it’s due: the GOP has been far more successful than Democrats in using language–words–to drive public opinion. That success has been partly due to good PR advice, but it also owes a debt to the fact that today, Republicans are far more monolithic  than Democrats, and their major goals are simpler to convey: keep my taxes low lends itself to far clearer messaging than, say, immigration reform, or even “Black Lives Matter.”

I actually think a large-scale public debate over the meaning of “infrastructure” would be  very useful. I have often distinguished between physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, the electrical grid, etc.) and what I think is accurately described as social infrastructure–the governmentally-provided social supports and services that are arguably necessary to social functioning and national cohesion.

America is rather clearly not ready for that discussion–not ready to use language for its intended purpose, which–I will reiterate– is to communicate. Far too many of us evidently subscribe to Tallyrand’s theory that “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” 

“Make America Great Again” comes to mind….

Alternate Realities

If we needed a reminder that today’s Republicans and Democrats occupy very different realities, Pew recently provided it.

The Pew Research Center fielded one of its periodic surveys, asking Americans to identify the issues facing the country that they considered most pressing. A majority of Democrats identified gun violence, health care affordability, the coronavirus outbreak and racism as very big problems facing the country today. Each of those issues was identified by two-thirds or more of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

But far fewer Republicans saw these issues as major problems.  The closest they came was the four-in-ten Republicans who did identify health care affordability; approximately two-in-ten rated the coronavirus and gun violence as big problems.

The extent to which climate change and economic inequality are viewed as very big problems is similarly split along partisan lines. About six-in-ten Democrats say each of these are very big problems, while just 21% of Republicans say economic inequality is a very big problem and even fewer (14%) say this about climate change.

By contrast, illegal immigration and the federal budget deficit are the top problems identified by Republicans. About seven-in-ten say both of these are very big problems for the country. Only about three-in-ten Democrats identify these issues as very big problems

It isn’t hard to see the influence of partisanship in these responses. Pew reports that Republicans today are 40 percentage points more likely than Democrats to say the deficit is a very big problem, a finding that–among other things– is in stark contrast to the numbers who said so during the Trump Administration, when there wasn’t a partisan split on that issue. Evidently, deficits incurred when Republican Presidents cut taxes on the wealthy aren’t as worrisome as deficits caused by Democratic Presidents spending on pandemic relief and infrastructure.

It is stating the obvious to say that government cannot solve a problem it fails to properly diagnose. We have evidently reached a point in our political lives where Americans refuse to see problems that are at all inconsistent with their political identities–so people who embrace so-called “Second Amendment” liberties don’t see the steady toll of mass shootings (not to mention the consistent loss of life attributable to suicide by gun) as a big problem.

What is truly difficult to understand is the survey’s finding that only 14% of Republicans identify climate change as a problem. This, in the face of dramatic increases in damaging weather events, out-of-control fires attributable to unusually severe droughts, rising sea levels and other evidence that is widely reported and just as widely attributed to climate change– and that increasingly affects the daily lives of ordinary Americans.

The fact that members of the GOP don’t consider income inequality a problem is more understandable, if equally unforgivable. After all, Republican policy preferences have caused that inequality.

It also isn’t surprising that Republicans named immigration as a “big problem.” For many of them, immigration these days equates to the entry of people of color, hastening the time when White Americans are no longer in the majority. Democrats who consider immigration a problem generally define the problem differently; for them, the problem is a dysfunctional system that takes far too long, is difficult to administer, and is unfair to categories of would-be immigrants.

The Pew survey illustrates what most observers already know: Republicans and Democrats no longer simply disagree about the policies needed to solve our problems. They occupy different realities, in which the identity and severity of the nation’s problems are starkly different.

No wonder our political system is gridlocked.