What’s Your “Go-To” Lesson in Politics?

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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85 Responses

  1. Will Truman says:

    My side doesn’t do it. Well, that example you point out doesn’t compare to the many ways the other side does it worse. Hmmm, that second example isn’t comparable to what the other side is doing because the circumstances are different in a specific and not-arbitrary-I-swear way. Oh, well that third example is pretty bad, I guess. But really, my side only does it because the other side does it.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Anyway, that’s my go-to lesson. What’s yours?

    Get yourself some Kraft Dinner and some pre-shredded “Mexican Blend” from the case. Drop yourself half of that bag (or more, I won’t tell you how to live… maybe add some salsa!) into the mix after you add the orange stuff but before you add the milk and stir it for 10 seconds or so and *THEN* add the milk.

    Stir until everything is even.Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    As for the real question, I point to two things.

    First, people vote their pocketbooks unless you give them a damn good reason not to. The default question is are you better off than you were four years ago?

    Second, if you need to get people to change the way they would vote if left to their own devices — indeed, if you need to control their behavior in any way at all — you have to scare them. LBJ’s “Daisy” advertisement is still the zenith of political fearmongering.

    I don’t mean to suggest that voters in 1964 voted against their economic interests in picking Johnson over Goldwater, or that the 1980 election was free from fearmongering. What I do mean to suggest is that democratic decision-making is ultimately the product of tension between greed and fear.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Burt, I’d be curious to know where you got these lessons. Experience, observation, study?Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Experience. I used to work for a political fearmonger. I’ve appealed to both fear and greed when I’ve gotten good results out of juries; when I try to focus on other things, I’ve found that my results are less satisfactory. And I notice that both political parties have abandoned any pretense of making appeals to voters’ better angels and instead now aim directly at one of those two targets in every advertisement, every rumor float, and every talking point. “Hope and change” were about fear (of the status quo, which in 2008 sucked) and greed (things sucked in 2008 so change was bound to make people less poor). My only question is, when was the last time that some emotional appeal other than these was made to voters in a way that resonated?Report

        • Katherine in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Have you looked at the most recent Canadian election? The Conservatives appealed to fear of everything, the Liberals (as they have been doing for the last decade) to fear of the Conservatives, but the NDP (social democrats) ran a positive campaign.

          The Conservatives won a majority, which supports your thesis, but the NDP managed to vault themselves out of third-party status and become the official opposition for the first time in their history.Report

          • Tod Kelly in reply to Katherine says:

            I’d like to learn more about the way the Irish have it set up, where you vote for two candidates. My understanding is this works well with breaking out of the “I like him/her, but they’re not electable” quandary. And I think it’s how the conservative catholic country finally elected it’s first woman president about 10 years ago.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              I’m a fan of IRV (I don’t know if that’s precisely what the Irish are doing, but it’s a way of stating your preferences up and down rather than potentially throwing your vote away). Our system does trap us in a two-party system, and I think that the two party system has a bad rap in some ways, but there are things we can do to open things up somewhat, at least on the legislative level, without amending the Constitution.Report

            • Katherine in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              BC tried to bring in something like that a couple years ago, but the referendum on it narrowly failed because people though it seemed too complicated (it was set up so that every few ridings were consolidated into one bigger one, each of which elected 3-6 people, and people ranked their choices of candidates).Report

          • Aimless Aardvark in reply to Katherine says:

            The problem with this idea is that the NDP surge took place in only a single province; Quebec, which decided to jettison the Bloc party in favour of new blood, since they had already tried every other federal party before. Outside of Quebec, the story was massive Conservative gains at the expense of the Liberals. The NDP, if memory serves, only picked up two seats in the rest of Canada.

            My point is that there are other factors that can be used to explain the NDP surge, NOT a widespread acceptance of a positive message.Report

  4. I’d say my life experience so far has lacked anything anchoring my political thought. Perhaps the closest thing for me was reading Les Miserables. Nothing I’d ever read before compared to the effect that book had on me, and nothing has since.Report

  5. J. Otto Pohl says:

    “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”Report

  6. mark boggs says:

    “The Irony of Democracy” by Dye and Ziegler. Ever since then the cynicism just oozes from my every orifice.Report

  7. Murali says:

    To my eternal shame, reading mencius moldbug forever ruined elecoral politics for me.Report

  8. I think my go-to lesson is usually what Burt said, but my no. 2 or 1B lesson is to emphasize how very, very little most people know/care about politics.Report

  9. Kyle Cupp says:

    The biblical story about the crowd choosing the criminal Barabbas over the guy who’s challenged the prevailing religious/political power norms and structures.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      Good one.Report

    • Katherine in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

      In some translations Barabbas is a revolutionary, so it’s a choice between resistance to oppression being done peacefully through sacrifice or being done violently.

      Being of revolutionary sympathies myself, I struggled a fair bit with that one.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to Katherine says:

        Revolution against what? Stephen Harper?Report

        • Katherine in reply to Art Deco says:

          LOL, no. Not within my country as it is; revolution against a democratic government by enfranchised people who possess civil liberties is unjustifiable in almost every circumstance.

          I’m a fan of Louis Riel, though he did go somewhat mad near the end. I have some admiration for John Brown. I consider the Cuban Revolution and the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua to have been justified, and substantial improvements over the governments that preceded them. I think that the ANC had every right to bomb buildings in South Africa. In the present day, I have deep sympathies for the Palestinians. I do not believe that the use of violence against an unjust government renders a movement illegitimate.

          In short: it is generally believed that when one nation attacks another, the nation attacked has a right to defend itself using violence. The inclination of my heart is to feel that, similarly, any group within a state that is attacked or oppressed by its government, and lacks legal or electoral means of redress, has the right to violently resist that government.Report

          • Murali in reply to Katherine says:

            Revolution against a government is not justified unless the government agresses against its own people in a conflict which it has escalated to the level of a war of all against all. Even then, the revolution is only justified if it will improve the lifetime prospects of the worst off.Report

          • Murali in reply to Katherine says:

            The mere fact of oppression is insufficient. Gays are oppressed in many states in america because they are not given equal rights. This still does not justify rebellion. The reason why the bar for justifying armed rebellion is that the chaos engendered is bad for everyone, especially the worst off. This is not just in terms of income, but in terms of civil liberties etc. In a state of war of all against all, the poor are the ones most likely to be subject to predation (even by the revolutionaries themselves)Report

  10. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Reading Gödel’s incompleteness theorems in 1992.

    It shattered all belief that there is one framework to explain everything.Report

  11. For the record, I will admit to campaigning hard for Obama, partly on what is now obviously a naive hope that he was sincere about the whole Change schtick. I will almost certainly vote for him again, but solely because the GOP has presented a completely unpalatable alternative. If there were a Republican candidate I agreed with on even a handful of issues, I would probably vote for him or her. I lament that there is not.

    As far as what informs my take on politics, there is probably no single event or thing. If I had to define it, even vaguely, it would probably be the experience of being raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical church and leaving it as a young adult. There was no single moment, but the process of abandoning the worldview of my youth probably makes me the somewhat conflicted voter I am today.

    And the Better Half’s macaroni is too kick-ass to even begin to compare with the boxed stuff.Report

  12. Tom Van Dyke says:

    The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis. I saw the modern project laid bare, a project I was inculcated into without any awareness that there was any other.

    Here, free:


    Don’t be a Man Without a Chest. I also liked the appendix, Illustrations of the Tao. There are things that are good; then, now and always.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      This might have been the one out of everyone that I might have actually guessed correctly.

      Good choice.Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Tod: And Mr. Carr took so long to penetrate where I’m “coming from,” which was so obvious to you. I don’t blame him, of course, as he’s self-evidently a good Joe. But I do blame “the system,” and the academy.

        One thinly-paged book stands unrefuted against what they shove down our collegians’ throats, @ high payment and debt at that. Y’d think they’d fit it in there somewheres, for pennies on the scholastic dollar.Report

  13. Phil says:

    Back in the Marines I once tried to interpret an order that a General had put in writing. I figured that I knew what he was thinking when he wrote it. The Sergeant Major basically told me I was being an idiot. The General had written exactly what he was thinking and anything I came up with was reading into something that wasn’t there. That caused me to realise that folks do the same thing with everything. Law, the Constitution, advertising, politicking, etc.Report

  14. Anderson says:

    Not quite a “go-to lesson”, but Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is one of my favorites when it comes to politics. It really speaks out against idealism, which doesn’t please me, but it’s so damn true when it comes to the conflicts, biases, and distortions that arise when any person holds power. The story of Willie Stark/Huey Long (and Jack Burden) could have been told in an ancient Greek city-state or an episode of the Wire; it’s just about the combination of having to make consequential decisions and satisfy many parties, including one’s self. Morally ambiguous for sure, but power and politics are rarely beautiful creatures. These thoughts stay with me when I consider the complexities of the individuals within governing institutions. I try not to be “a hater” and put myself in the politician’s shoes…Shoes, admittedly, I would be terrified to be in.

    Some favorite quotes: “Yes, I am a student of history, don’t you remember? And what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of the bad and the bad out of the good, and the devil takes the hindmost. But Adam, he is a scientist, and everything is tidy for him…and a thing is always what it is…The molecule of good always behaves the same way. The molecule of bad always behaves the same way.” -Jack Burden

    “He resigned because he wanted to keep his hands clean. *He wanted the bricks but he just didn’t know somebody has to paddle in the mud to make ’em.* He was like somebody that just loves beefsteak and just can’t bear to go to a slaughter pen because there are some bad, rough men down there who aren’t animal lovers and ought to be reported to the S.P.C.A. Well, he resigned.” -Willie StarkReport

    • Jaybird in reply to Anderson says:

      There’s a Dorothy Parker poem you might like.

      The Veteran

      When I was young and bold and strong,
      Oh, right was right, and wrong was wrong!
      My plume on high, my flag unfurled,
      I rode away to right the world.
      “Come out, you dogs, and fight!” said I,
      And wept there was but once to die.

      But I am old; and good and bad
      Are woven in a crazy plaid.
      I sit and say, “The world is so;
      And he is wise who lets it go.
      A battle lost, a battle won-
      The difference is small, my son.”

      Inertia rides and riddles me;
      The which is called Philosophy.Report

    • Art Deco in reply to Anderson says:

      I found All the King’s Men an engaging piece of literature. Please note, though, that its author was a professor of literature never employed in any political post. I am not sure he ever carried a petition as a volunteer.Report

  15. MFarmer says:

    My main lesson was when I became familiar with the welfare system and it’s deleterious effects on the poor in America.Report

  16. James K says:

    For me it was reading Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter. It really helped me integrate the new economic models of irrational agents into a framework of human behaviour. Plus it has some great examples of just how deeply perverse most people’s views of economic topics actually are.Report

  17. Jason Kuznicki says:

    Where’s your data on the Kraft story? I’d be curious to read more about it.

    As to political lessons, The Once and Future King — politics is supposed to be noble and beautiful. Mostly it’s crass and very sad. We would be better off in a lot of ways if we could just do without it. But we can’t. And life is still beautiful.Report

  18. MattE says:

    This doesn’t qualify as a foundation political inspiration, but whenever I hear people bemoan the lack of civility in today’s politics (implying a golden age of civility sometime past), I remember reading a biography of Sam Houston who beat a fellow member of Congress with a cane. The Star Spangled Banner also brings this scene to mind because Houston’s lawyer was Frances Scott Key.Report

    • MFarmer in reply to MattE says:

      It’s not true that politics is more uncivilized today, not according to history, anyway. Just going back to Reagan — I remember Reagan getting savaged worse than any president since, and it was unrelenting.Report

      • Art Deco in reply to MFarmer says:

        Some handicapping is necessary. Though he had countervailing themes and practical objects inconsistent with such, Reagan’s rhetorical aspiration was the reconstruction of the political economy of 1928 (with a large standing army appended). Not so Mr. Bush, whose general tendencies might be most instructively described as “Rockefeller Republican ca. 1962” (before such types started pushing contraception and abortion). Mr. Reagan was far more confrontational to the political class of his day (in objectives and in words) than was Mr. Bush, for better or for worse.Report

  19. Aimless Aardvark says:

    The most important political lesson I have learned is that, of themselves, people seek not their own good, but their own destruction. Anyone who forgets this, forgets why we need politics in the first place.Report

  20. Renee says:

    Ashby’s law of requisite variety. I am wary of any control system (government or otherwise) that does not adequately take into account the variety of the system it is supposed to control.Report