We’re Having the Wrong Argument – Opening Statement
I have an idea bouncing around inside of my head like a marble, and as I am pretty sure everyone here will disagree with it I am going to ask for some feedback from the hive mind:
I have been wondering lately how different we Americans, with our different political labels and sub-labels, really are from one another. Not how different we tell each other we are, but how different we are at the end of the day.
We appear to be cloistered on opposite ends of the political spectrum on paper, especially if you’re using that paper to print bumper stickers. We all know collectively that conservatives hate Government and love Corporations, and that liberals are their mirror image. Libertarians just want the chips to fall where they may, while Progressives want to divide the chips up as evenly as possible. If you doubt any of this feel free to argue otherwise in an online chatroom of your choice, and then sit back and enjoy the earful that will follow.
But one of the things I have noticed is that when you deal with most people on a one-on-one basis, discussing specific issues that affect their lives and not party-driven side shows that don’t, we’re pretty much on the same page most of the time.
In discussing my leanings toward principled pragmatism, I used the example of worksite safety regulations to illustrate this point. I have never had a discussion with a conservative or libertarian where they have not agreed that some baseline level of governmental safety oversight has been a net positive in our culture, and should be continued. Likewise, I have never had a discussion with a liberal or progressive where they have not agreed that much of today’s regulation is cumbersome, inefficient, and often created by people who do not fully understand the processes they oversee. In fact, I will tell you that when you get right down to it, on a case-by-case all of these people usually agree on exactly where to draw the line. But that’s just when talking to them as individuals about specific safety issues. Talk to any of them about the Big Picture of governmental safety regulations and everyone retreats into the chest thumping rehearsed lines they sincerely cling to when talking politics, even as they dismiss them in their day-to-day lives.
To use the obligatory sports metaphor, I am more and more coming to the opinion that on the field of public policy debate we are telling ourselves that we stand in opposing end zones, when actually we are all jostling for position between one another’s 48-yard lines. I see this dynamic play out all the time in discussions I follow or engage in here at the League. It’s pretty common here to see discussions where a beginning of flame throwing ends with both sides realizing they are really not that far apart after all. On a more macro level, though, the most concrete example of what I’m describing might be the 2000 presidential race. Because, as FOX and CNN were happy to explain ad nauseum at the time, if there’s one thing that the 2000 Bush-Gore election taught us it is that we are a nation deeply divided.
Except that if there’s another thing it taught us, it’s that we really aren’t.
The media- and party-driven three-ring circus played up the newly minted Red State/Blue State meme, working hard to make us fret that we might face governmental apocalypse should we use our vote unwisely. What very few people bothered to notice or comment on at the time was that the platform each side ran on – and I’m speaking of the vision each candidate pitched to the voters, not the wonky ankle biting over policy details behind the curtain – was pretty much interchangeable. The campaign platform for each was a promise to create a federal government that was smaller and more efficient, including the military. Education would be the single highest priority, using federal dollars and oversight to improve the quality of public schools. We would have a government that would be friendly to business, but options to facilitate business growth would be viewed through a prism of maintaining the quality of our environment. Social security was seen as sacrosanct, but the need for immediate change in its inner-workings was very, very important to the long-term health of the program.
You could have taken either candidate’s campaign speeches, changed the appropriate candidate and party names to reflect the desired white hat/black hat message, and swapped them in the dead of night while each campaign was sleeping. No one would have been the wiser.
Now, there will be those that point out that each candidate’s speech and election platform might well have been cynically insincere, and that the audience for such orations aren’t political insiders so much as the general population of the country’s vast rank and file. Which is exactly my point. Americans aren’t really that far apart on the public policy issues that matter most to their everyday lives. They are simply trained to believe that they are. Or, to be more precise, they are taught to use the pre-approved language of disagreement. Most people, for example, will agree on the same sweet spot for worksite safety issues. But rather than looking at and naming said spot, they describe it’s position using irrelevant and incorrect “Government is Evil” or “Corporations are Evil” window dressing.
Take away the sting of tribalism in the 2000 election, and the reaction from both sides to the various chad-induced back and forth results should have been: “My guy lost? Fish! What the hell does this other guy stand for? … Really? Oh. Well, alright then, I’m cool with that.” Instead you’d have thought the other side’s guy was caught sleeping with each individual voter’s significant other, such was the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Over the next few weeks, I plan to delve into this a bit more in a variety of different post subjects that all have the same underlying theme, which is this: I am beginning to believe that when it comes to politics and governance we are all having the wrong arguments. I think we are having ideological arguments about government vs. corporations, or right vs. left, or central vs. local not because they are the most pressing issues, but because these are the arguments we feel most comfortable having. In fact, we have them despite the fact that most of us are already on the same page in those places where the rubber meets the road.
The real foundational issues we need to concern ourselves with lie elsewhere: Corruption. Competence. Communication. Collaboration. These are the keys to improvement, I think; the issues surrounding label vs. label are but a distraction.