In the midst of an overwhelming week, I found myself embroiled in not one, but two long discussions with my good friend Redstar - one which you can witness in the comment thread to the previous post, the other a long discussion via e-mail about our differing approaches to politics and debate.
It's all been great food for thought, especially at a moment when I find myself, well, not blogging with the regularity I once did (oh dear... irregularity). And it got me thinking about the interaction of emotion and reason when discussing politics.
Writing is my passion, and it was flattering, really, to have Red suggest in our e-mails that I write, passionately, about politics. That's not how I see it. If anything, I see myself as ultimately very dispassionate about politics; because I think as a society we tend to be moved, less rationally, by prevailing emotions, rather than by careful, reasoned judgment. But rational judgment is why I'm a liberal, after all: I do, sincerely, believe that if one looks at the problems we have and what it would take to solve them... then the liberal solutions are really the best ones.
I have always looked at conservatism and found it wanting; not because it's "mean" or "cruel" - though it can be both - but because, simply, they are wrong. Or, let me clarify: I consider them wrong because I suspect, in terms of the conclusions elite conservatives make about others (that some people are better than others, and they deserve more or better treatment), that they may have a point... and it's one we should fight against, actively.
This is not, I know, the way everyone approaches politics. I know many - too many, probably - people for whom activism provides a sense of passion and purpose. It's not un-reasoned, or unreasonable... but the political appeal is an emotional one. A recent example is the new campaign by ACORN to personalize the foreclosure crisis by showing some truly terrible stories of individuals facing imminent foreclosure. This is meant, really, to cause an emotional reaction, and encourage people to "fight back."
I've long thought - and indeed, I'm surprised to see how it became a running thread in my commentary - that purely emotional appeals to political action are one of the consistent mistakes Democrats make. Mainly, I think, we do our ideas a disservice by insisting that the thought behind them - the reasons and rational approaches we put to the policies we create - matter less than our feelings, and the feelings of those we want to convince. But also... feelings aren't facts. Feelings can change at a moments notice, on a whim... or with the introduction of a compelling alternative narrative.
And though we dismiss conservatism (and as I said, I think their policy ideas are actually real losers), the Reagan, Gingrich and Bush (Rove) waves of conservative success demonstrated the success conservatives can have when they, too, turn to more emotional, less reasoned appeals. When they can incite a "populist rage", or turn competing interests against one another... they can win through division and discord. It's an emotional appeal... perhaps to the wrong emotions... but still.
To me, this tension between emotion and reason played out in the primaries between Obama and Clinton, because Obama's appeal was built on touching the emotional chords - a passionate candidate doing his best to inspire feelings of unity, hope and the promise of change. Mrs. Clinton's campaign - for me anyway - was the triumph of reason: we need change... but we need to think about what those changes actually are, what specific actions need to be taken, and why they matter. Not because it "feels good" but because when we work, in a thoughtful manner, to achieve our ideals... everyone (or most of us) win.
It's easy to say "well, that proves it, weboy - you win on emotional appeals; that must be the answer." I'd argue - naturally - the opposite: that Obama couldn't win on emotional appeals alone; pushed by Clinton, and others, to get specific, Obama did move to ground his emotional appeals in the rational thought of liberal political goals. Once he spoke to doing actual, practical work to achieve his vague notions of change, his success was much more assured, and he bridged a lot of the gap that held Clinton supporters back.
Red, interestingly, argued the opposite to me... that she found Clinton more emotionally appealing because she channeled an anger and frustration with the status quo and showed a passion to fight for what was right. Well, yeah, I guess... that, too. But still, I think it wasn't just a willingness to fight... but a sense of what she was fighting for, that really completed the picture.
In any case, I bring all this up, because a consistent theme in my arguments with Red, and my discussions with others, is a new round of "you're depressing!" - that is, that I've been complaining, criticizing, and nitpicking the various Obama plans - the stimulus, the bank proposal, and - not yet, but I will - the bad foreclosure plan. I've been asked, more than once, why I can't seem to offer any sort of positive alternative... why don't I seem to support real liberalism... why am I so ... moderate. (That's a bad thing to be, these days... along with "bipartisan.")
The funny thing is... I don't see myself as moderate, or bi-anything. I pick something (someone), I'm passionate about it... I stick. At least until I find a new passion. In my writing, though, I do, yes, try to find the common ground, the shared ideas... and I try to identify the issues we face... sometimes without a clear sense of how to solve them. I think we can't find good solutions, the right solutions... until we understand the problem. And too often - especially in the big issues we face in this hard times - we don't think hard enough, try hard enough, to understand the depth of the problems we face. And because of that, the solutions crafted by government... have fallen absurdly short. I find that distressing. I can't pretend otherwise. I may not have the answers... but I think someone ought to try harder, do better, at defining the questions, first.
And yes, I believe in trying to find common ground, because I think we need to respect and consider ideas that challenge our worldviews, even if we ultimately reject them. If our ideas can't stand up to reasoned, intellectual challenges - if all we have to fall back on is emotional appeals - then our ideas don't really work... and we should adapt them. I'm not moderate, and I don't believe in giving away every core principle... but you have to have a core of reasoned principles to know what isn't worth giving away. Our Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 have brought with them, I think, the emotional satisfaction that comes with winning; it's natural, I think, that behind that has come the urge to gloat, to punish, to have our way. I want our ideas to win because they are the best ideas... not because we can beat opponents down or make them feel bad, or like losers. That kind of thinking, it seems to me, is what animated 25 years of conservative political fights. And they failed, because what they needed... was a willingness to continue to grow and adapt, to see that good ideas come from everywhere, not just a chosen few. We run the risk of repeating those same mistakes,if we let emotion triumph over reason.
For too long, our society has run amok, pursuing our passions and our pleasures with no thought of consequences; we've spent money we didn't have, bought candy and toys we didn't need... behaving, for all the world (and with much of the world joining us), like spoiled, emotional brats. We've enshrined a series of dubious value systems, created a culture that, in many ways, we didn't recognize or understand... and then complained when anyone tried to suggest that playtime was over. And now, day after day, it's becoming clearer what we have wrought, that the bill is due... that changes will have to be made. I don't think - begging Red's indulgence, to complain, yet again, about the lack of understanding of people, generally - that any of us can fully understand what's happened... because it's still unfolding; the magnitude of the problems we've created, and the enormity of how it will play out... these are things that all of us - even me, even you - are just beginning to figure out.
I can't, and I won't try to sugarcoat the problems we face. I won't pretend I know how to solve them. More importantly, I won't pretend that for all his bright promise, and his commanding rhetoric, that Obama and his Administration, thus far, have lived up, in almost any way, to the promise of thoughtful solutions to solve our most pressing problems. We have been given half measures, empty promises, and bad legislation, and we are expected, in an emotional appeal, to be grateful that "something is being done." Well... call me an ungrateful bastard. I'm unconvinced. And I'm not looking for emotional salvation... I'm looking for good, thoughtful, practical solutions to the problems we face. I'm not sad, I won't cry... and my suggestion, if you feel like crying about what we face... is get that out of your system now and toughen up. There's work to do, and no time to cry about it.
I don't want pity. I just want what is mine. And yours. What's right for all of us. I don't deal - politically - in emotional appeals or emotional blackmail; I can't make you feel better, and I don't believe I can make you feel worse, either... all I can do - all I want to do - is encourage people to think, seriously, about what's going on in the world. And, occasionally think about the beauty in the world, too. I'm sorry if that seems cold... it isn't meant to. it's just that I think, as Americans, we indulge, way too much, in feelings over facts. That needs to stop. And that's just me... trying to stop it.... without tears.