originally published Aug. 22, 2011 on Open Salon. This is the sort of thing Karen McKim writes about. Another appropriate title for this could be "Why I Bother."
As those of you who read me with any regularity know, I've been utterly mystified as to why no officeholders in the Democratic party appeared to question the assumption behind the Tea Party Representatives' move to hold the budget process hostage, a move that caused the lowest approval ratings for Congress ever recorded. I've been questioning that assumption, but to find me you've got to go to an obscure blog and find an even more obscure writer. Why wasn't anyone in office, particularly the President, saying that the contention that raising taxes would kill job creation wasn't true? I felt like I was in the middle of an old fable, The Emperor Has No Clothes. I'm sure you all know it: a pair of tailors tell a king that they're going to make him an outfit that will only be visible to people who are competent at their jobs, so neither he nor anyone else in his kingdom will admit that they can't see the ostensible clothing until a little kid along the parade route where the king shows off his new outfit shouts "He's got nothing on!" The tailors were, of course, swindlers who relied on their marks' being afraid of ridicule.
In this version of the fable, it's "The logic of this assumption is only apparent to people who understand economics." What shocks me is that it worked, though I guess the difference in this version is that those standing in for the tailors actually believe they're making an outfit! So, in this version, who plays the little kid?
Would you believe Warren Buffet? One of the guys the Tea Party was ostensibly protecting? The second richest man in America? Well, he does. He wrote an op-ed recently in the NY Times in which he said that taxes don't prevent him or any of his peers from investing and he said to the Federal Government, blatantly: Tax Me! He's my hero at the moment. Why was he alone?
I've talked to some guys on OS who know more about economics than I do and the reaction I'm getting is that the faultiness of the aforementioned assumption is screamingly obvious. They're wrong, of course; if it were obvious to that many people, we wouldn't have had this problem in the first place, a point I view as screamingly obvious. Apparently I, too, am wrong, because the guys I'm talking about are very smart and my point wasn't obvious enough to them.
Screamingly Obvious may be a concept that's too detrimental to keep around. I have some conservative friends, a couple of whom believed that homosexuality is a choice; that it isn't is something else I view as screamingly obvious but, again, it's screamingly obvious that it isn't screamingly obvious to a whole lot of people. It took me about ten minutes in each case to change their opinions on this matter. How did I do it? It's really quite simple:
I took the ten minutes.
The arguments I made are arguments I've blogged about and reposted; they're easy enough to find. However, that's not really the point. My friends are neither fools nor zealots; they just never examined this particular belief closely because their experiences didn't lead them to the conclusion that they had to. As such, it would have been a mistake for me to write them off and avoid the conversations.
I've seen far too many of my fellow liberals willing to write off people with these views, in essence to demonize them as fools or zealots. This is of course exactly what the Republicans do to us. When we do this, politics goes from a game of persuasion to a game of mobilization: whoever gets more of their people to the polls on Election Day runs things. It is, after all, easier to preach to the choir than to subject your views to real challenge from the opposition.
One result is a highly divided electorate and uncivil politics. Another is that neither side can maintain a substantial majority, so more energy has to go into the next election and discrediting the opposition than into actually running things because the consequences of losing the next election are too ideologically dire. Do you know anyone who is happy with the consequences?
In order to engage in persuasion and break the deadlock, you have to seem reasonable to those you're trying to persuade. That entails opening yourself to persuasion, to the possibility that your own views will change. It's certainly happened to me: Though I'm a staunch gun-control advocate, my opinion on gun shows shifted substantially as a result of Token, an OS conservative, spending ten minutes with me. This has certainly been a two-way street but that's how it's supposed to work.
This approach frequently works with normal people but pundits are another matter. They typically have a vested interest in presenting a particular viewpoint so they're not open to persuasion, viewing new information not as a way to update their views but as ammunition for the next argument. For them, discourse is a one-way street, which is to say it isn't discourse at all. Those who aren't open to being persuaded have neither intellectual integrity nor intellectual courage and are worth neither my time nor my respect. These are the real fools and zealots.
Sometimes, however, even pundits are more open than you'd think. George F. Will once wrote a column about how a Colorado educator persuaded him that for education to improve it was necessary to change the funding model from primarily local to primarily statewide, the reason being that gross inequalities in the wealth of communities led to extreme enough differences in school district funding to be seriously disfunctional - some poor districts can't afford to provide adequate education. As a result, I have far more respect for Mr. Will than for most other conservative pundits.
What has disappointed me more about the Obama administration than any other single factor has been his failure of persuasion when it comes to economics. He made his national reputation in an amazing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention by refusing to demonize the opposition, leading me to conclude that he'd engage in such persuasion. Instead, he's somehow managed to separate demonizing the opposition from writing them off. In the budget standoff that just occurred, he relied on the argument that the rich should pay their fair share. That's basically the old liberal tactic of shoving guilt, of claiming that Republicans are unjust. In this case, he may have gained credibility with a few in the center temporarily but it won't work with core Republicans because they don't accept that definition of economic justice. Why go solely with a moral argument instead of also with a factual argument? Facts have the advantage of being considerably less subjective. It makes more sense to approach Republicans with a case based on practicality because practicality is a universal value. If the public really doubted that refusing to raise taxes would help with job creation, what justification would the Tea Party have left? That the rich deserve their money more than the rest of us? Good luck maintaining support with that one.
So why hasn't the President questioned that Tea Party jobs assumption? Is it because he's written the Republicans off? That he'll consent to work with them but that he's concluded that either they won't get it or they won't care? More importantly, has he written off their constituents? Or is it that he buys into their assumption but thinks we have bigger priorities or, worse, that talking about taxing the rich is strictly a question of political expediency? I know he's a bright guy so my initial inclination was to trust him but I don't have a clue as to what the answer is. None of the potential answers I see are good. If I'm missing something and you see it, please bring it to my attention.
I try not to write people off. A lot of my posts are geared either to moderates and conservatives directly or to providing my fellow liberals with approaches they can use when talking to moderates and conservatives. Maybe it's arrogant of me but I view a lot of conservatives as people who haven't examined a lot of their beliefs closely because their experiences haven't lead them to the conclusion that they have to. I've tried to reach my own conclusions logically, morally, and consistently, often arriving by very different routes than my fellow liberals. Maybe I'm too cloistered but I doubt it; I've found that when I disagree with conservatives on most issues it's usually because I have more information rather than less and because I'm asking more detailed questions than they are. Not all the time; sometimes they've changed my mind, which is certainly open to being changed, but not usually. I'm a liberal because my exposure to a wide variety of issues has led me to liberal conclusions, though not always for typically liberal reasons. I am not knee-jerk anything, a label that actually fits conservative pundits way better than it fits liberal me.
I think the extent to which my fellow liberals write off moderates and conservatives is deeply counterproductive. I've seen them do it too often, with dangerous political results. We watched conservatives monopolize God as a justification for policy and most of us stood by and allowed it to happen on the grounds of Separation of Church and State in spite of the fact that religion has led millions to liberal conclusions, emphatically including me. We watched conservatives monopolize a reputation for support for the military, largely based on the excesses of a few on the far Left during the Vietnam War, in spite of the fact that many prominent Democrats have serious military service in their backgrounds and that we have been far more vigilant in advocating for the welfare of enlisted personnel than they have - conservatives believe in expressing public support for them but not in paying their medical bills. Who else are we willing to write off? What makes us think we can afford to write people off?
What does it take to set our country on the right path?
It's screamingly obvious.
To start with: