Thursday, July 14, 2005

Polarization, Compromise, and Choice

As the population of the United States slowly grows more and more polarized around positions on the key issues of the day—the war and occupation of Iraq, the composition and philosophic direction of the federal judiciary, the relationship of religion to public and official government activities, the deplorable state of public education, terrorists and terrorism, poverty and welfare, immigration and public services, free trade and American jobs, women's rights and abortion, and campaign finance and election reforms, to name what I think are the top ten—the prospect emerges that the political choices for voters in the Congressional elections in 2006 and the national election in 2008 will not adequately address these problems. Polarization is frightening because it evacuates the middle ground where compromise is usually found and established. In a world of competing interests compromise is always necessary—not fecklessness, not flakiness, not mendacity—but real share-the-floor compromise.

Currently, both the Republicans and Democrats are hurling epithets at one another under what each calls "hate speech." The usual definition of "hate speech" is that it contains "fighting words," which no resolute partisan can "take" sitting down. Democrats call Republicans moronic, racist, jingoistic, militaristic, corporate dupes and fools, while these fine people call Democrats "elitists," America-Haters, leftwing losers, anti-Christian sinners, and so forth. Much of the hate-speech vocabulary is concocted by politicians' staffs to serve as icons for larger issues. These icons make it easy to hit every point in a speech without actually saying anything detailed. They are what George Lakoff calls "framing" vocabulary. See our essay on this. Framing is important, but it does not lead, generally, to amity and compromise.

It is essential (despite the polarization and partly because of it) that we Liberals find common ground among ourselves—and soon. But, this is not going to be easy. Our normal political allegiance is usually to the Democratic Party, and as we already know political parties are always looser or tighter-knit coalitions of various interests wherein one person's top issue is sometimes eventually ranked fifth or eighth overall, while someone else's top issue gets the primary attention. In a situation where there are at least ten top issues, and most of them compound issues with nuances and reverberations across the politics and economy and ethics of the population, the creation of a coalition is a formidable task ... and recently Liberal politicians have not been much good at it.

One of the questions partisans—you and me—have to ask ourselves is how many ideas can Americans keep sorted out and understood well enough to vote for a candidate on these issues. If they don't vote on the issues, then they are voting for "the man/woman," which means they are voting for those nebulous "character issues" that have sunk more than one candidacy or Presidency in recent memory. So, if the number of issues that the average voter can deal with is, say, five, then the rest of their brains have to be working on "character" issues and "intangibles" like distorted reporting and personal biases.

Of the ten listed issues above, which are the top five? ... and which of the known probable candidates in the Democratic Party (Alpha-order: Joe Biden, Wes Clark, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Al Gore, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Mark Warner) would lead best? and why? What are the natural constituencies for the issues and the candidates, that is, what profiles of American citizens would tend to gravitate to an issue or a candidate? Would, for instance, women in general favor a femme candidate for President, or would they organize themselves by issues or by party?

As background to this discussion let's remember that Liberals typically are interested in humane issues and in positions on issues where an ethical rule of law can be established or supported. So, Liberals easily gravitate to issues of poverty, jobs, education, but also the safety and security of citizens from terror, war, unethical business and industrial practices, and disease. Liberals typically identify themselves with the middle classes (or the middle class as the standard of acceptable economic and social position). Liberals willingly use the power of the central government to assist the social and economic mobility of distressed classes of individuals, so the tradition has been to treat the less fortunate (economically and educationally) as a special constituency for whom extraordinary if not herculean efforts must be made to provide opportunities for mobility into the middle classes. At the bottom of it all is a Liberal idea about the worth of individuals ... which is not shared by the other side.

Liberals don't hate America or even Republican Americans. We love America and our energy and generosity created the best parts of it. Liberals will always fight plutocracy and theocracy and mendacity and irresponsibility and jingoism. When Liberals fight they take prisoners; they don't trash Americans, they liberate them. But, Liberals need to know how to deal with basic human emotions like fear and envy and greed. It is not enough to be against the Republican exploitation of fear and envy and greed; Liberals must act and speak from an understanding of these and the antidote: the power of people united by ethical sensibilities and compassion.

So the last component of our analysis is us. Who are we? Well, Americans are divided up into all manner of types and kinds, so creating a list does not create a set of "profile Americans." But a list can be valuable, so let's try. I have put some of the types together by their natural categories.


  • Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, independents, infrequent voters

  • Very wealthy, wealthy, high moderate income, middle middle, low middle, low income, poverty, dependents

  • Graduate education, college, high school, 6-11th grade, K-5

  • Male, female, gay, lesbian

  • Age: 18-25, 25-35, 35-50, 50-65, 65-80, 80 and older

  • Christians:
    Strong Catholic, Revisionist Catholic, Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant, Moderate Protestant, Mormon, Other

  • Jews:
    Orthodox, Other

  • Other Religions:
    Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, other

  • Vocation: Owner/entrepreneur, Manager/Exec, professional, educator/scientist, government, military/police, homemaker, highly skilled trade, skilled trade, unskilled worker, unemployed

  • Urban, suburban, exurban, rural, overseas

That's enough for now. There are eight categories, ten counting the three large religious categories, and among them about sixty labels. Obviously some of the labels could be applied to other categories, like 25-35 year old unskilled workers, or female executives, or urban professionals, etc., etc.

Now lets create maps, or matrices, to help visualize the situation. List the candidates along the top of a page; make a column for each candidate. Then list the constituents along the left margin (or right, if you must) by categories and by types. This produces a matrix into which you can jot down your best judgement as to whether the candidate does well with a particular type of people. Since you will have no idea on some and strong intuitions on others, assign a ten for strong and put nothing down when you have no idea. For a more vivid final product you could do this with colors, as well.

Now set up a matrix with the candidates along the top and the issues along the margin and take your best shot at which candidate is strongest on which issues.

Finally, set up a third matrix with the issues along the top and the constituencies along the side. Which issues resonate most strongly with which constituencies?

Samples are available here for downloading, printing, and practice.

This is the sort of thing that "Josh Lyman" on West Wing does. He knows by heart how certain groups respond to certain key political individuals and to certain key issues. Josh is then in a position to see where compromise is going to be necessary and when to pull out the stops and go for the ideal case. Yes, this is profiling. It is an inexact art, but it beats the heck out of wandering around in the wilderness not knowing what to believe or do.

James Richard Brett

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