Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How Shall The Country Be Run?

Update added below:

Sorry to put you through a long post, but some of the more dramatic ideas come at the end.

Questions which look much the same at first glance conceal enormous differences in perspective.

What shall we do to defeat terrorists?

What shall we do to defeat terrorism?

The answers to those questions might end up in the same place, but the discussion will certain start off in different directions. Ask yourself each question in turn and see how quickly they diverge. This is why the power to frame the debate is so desired in political argument.

We can use this knowledge to work the equation backward, and see a little deeper into discussions. When disputants not only give different answers, but different types of answers, it is likely they are answering different questions. If they not only give different evidence, but different types of evidence, we can use this to discover what are the questions behind the questions that the various parties are asking.

Discussions about the economy reveal that people are not only citing conflicting evidence, but different types of evidence in the discussion. There is certainly enough political posturing, spinning the same bits of evidence in different ways. As things are seldom uniformly good or uniformly bad in an economy, there is ample room to for parties to highlight unemployment one year, the deficit another year, and the stock market a third year for electoral purposes. But the different types of evidence suggest that different questions are being answered.

My sympathies are almost entirely with the free market people on the implied questions behind the evidence given. It is more important to me what the poor have, rather than what they have in comparison to the richest. It is more important to me that jobs are created faster than they are lost, tather than whether we can prevent specific jobs from being lost. Increase in income seems more important than whether people feel that their situation is better. But then, I’m an economic conservative. I would see things that way.

In the comments sections I plow through every day, there is a type of data that keeps surfacing that seems entirely beside the point to me. When someone asserts “We can win in Iraq,” or something similar, there is frequently the quick response “Most Americans don’t think so.” There are variations on this – “Most Iraqis don’t think so,” “Europeans don’t think so,” “General such-and-such doesn’t think so.” Well so what? Is my first thought. In May 2003, when most people did think so, it didn’t mean that we had won. It didn’t mean much of anything.

I can’t tell you how much this has torqued me off over the last decade, and especially the last few years. But in the run-up to the elections I began to not only deplore this, but puzzle over it as well. Different types of answers imply different questions. The answer to the question “Are we winning?” has little to do with who thinks so. What, then, is the question they are actually answering.

I will divert for a moment to note that an answer which describes who-thinks-we-are-winning will ultimately have enormous effect on whether we do win. This is much of what infuriates conservatives, who believe that expressing defeat aids the enemy – which it does, of course. But that is a separate issue for the moment. I would rather stay with the more basic concept: “65% of the American people believe we are not winning” is an answer to what question, exactly?

Questions shade into each other. In this case the difference is between

A: How shall the country be run? and

B: Who shall run the country?

These questions are deeply related, but they are not the same. The unifying theme is “What vision shall direct the nation?” or “How shall we be governed?” But question A shades into “What shall we attempt next?” The question B shades into “Who shall we elect?” The first question is about issues. The second question is about tribes.

In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, this conflict of questions as evidenced by the polls has played out. Many people disdained Clinton’s following the polls in governing, believing it showed he had not principles. Clearly, many people were not bothered by that at all, as he was re-elected. During impeachment, Clinton’s supporters focused on the polls that showed that most people preferred he not be impeached. (Note: by way of argument, I will point out that almost half of that 65% did not care deeply if he were impeached, but had only a mild preference that he not be. This shows a weakness of government by polling). Clinton opponents focused on whether what he had done deserved impeachment.

In contrast, the loudest criticism of Bush has been from people who state he “doesn’t listen to the people” and “is stubborn.” That he is not governed by polls is seen as a plus by Bush’s supporters. Very different perspectives.

The division is not neat between liberals and conservatives on this, which is part of what creates strains in coalitions. There are certainly liberals who hated Clinton’s waffling, and conservatives who think that Bush doesn’t listen. I willingly grant that there are plenty of idea-and principle people among the Democratic Coalition and many tribal people among the Republican Coalition. Yet as a very general rule, if we don’t try to cram too many people into categories they don’t deserve, it is true that Democrats have been more concerned with what sort of person a candidate is – what tribe he or she comes from, if you will – while Republicans have been more concerned with ideas and effects.

It is also not a complete division in any of us. We can all think Germany 1933. I don’t care what their program is. Don’t vote for Nazis. Or conversely Random election 1964. I don’t care who the guy is. For Civil Rights or against? As individuals we have tendencies to tribal choices or idea choices, but they are seldom the only factor.

The Religious Right may provide a notable exception to this, as Bush’s support among this group seems to have elements of them liking who he is and that he expresses his faith as much as the specific policy ideas he espouses.

As additional evidence for this, I would submit the type of criticism that Democrats and Republicans direct at each other. Republicans claim that the natural extension of liberal ideas leads to socialism, discord, or disloyalty and thus accuse liberals of those ills. But hearers who are judging such questions by the type of people they are find this absurd and merely insulting. Democrats, on the other hand, complain that conservatives don’t care, or are yahoos (or fascists, or whatever), and attribute their actions to bad motives of selfishness, or desire for control, or anger. Conservatives wonder what’s caring or motive got to do with it? I actually do care, but if I didn’t, so what? Is it good for the country or not? The accusation seems like nothing so much as an attempt to change the subject.

I just reprised my observation that one’s stance on abortion is often a proxy for a whole set of beliefs. Not that people do not care deeply about the issue on both sides, but that it stands in for a host of attitudes of how one feels about women’s issues, or religious issues. In short, it tells if you are “one of us.” I have concluded that for many of us, the Iraq war and the GWOT are also proxies for a deeper vision. The political issue in the US has become “What type of people shall we be?”

That’s a great question, worth having elections and debates about. Worth having the energy of schools, and magazines, and media spent on it for a generation, in every generation.

Unfortunately, it’s also a real war and people are trying to kill us. Treating OIF as a proxy of Who Shall We Be is ultimately dangerous, no matter who’s doing it. The war needs to be fought as a war. So everyone cut it out, right now. Do I have to pull this car over?

Update: I have decided I am unsatisfied with my own response to terri’s comment, below. I would like to make a different distinction.

The question “What sort of people shall we be?” in the current context, only marginally includes the moral questions of honesty, righteousness, kindness. I was thinking more of what ranking we give to our values. Will we be the sort of people who value entrepeneurs more than teachers? Will we value compassion over patriotism? Will we defer to reason, or to intuition?
Valuing honesty over dishonesty is of a different moral order. In that sense of “What sort of people shall we be?” terri is absolutely correct. Moral choices are not suspended, even in wartime. My use of the ambiguous term “sort” led to the muddled nature of the point. I was referring to what style of people shall we be; terri’s noting that what quality of people we should be remains a central question is apt. While quality and style run into each other and are not always separable, they are distinct concepts.


terri said...

AVI...But, doesn't the question,"What type of people shall we be?" perfectly encapsulate where we are. We must know who we are, and what it is we're about, before we can proceed with confidence and strength.

The war on terrorism is not solely a strategical war. It is an ideological war. When we have very public screw-ups such as Abu Ghraib, chaos at Sadaam's execution, perceived injustice to prisoners at Gitmo it affects our ability to win this war. The only way we will ever have the ability to win is if the Iraqi people, as a whole, are willing to embrace some of the ideals that have made this country great. If they hate who we are, they will never accept the opportunity they have to make democracy work.

We have made this a war of ideas. We have set ourselves up as liberators, bringing democracy to an oppressed people. If the Iraqi people don't believe in "the type of people" we are, they will never accept us, our philosophies, or our help.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I would say yes and no. Who we are, and who we are to be, are of course the more important questions. God is building companions, not playing Risk. But that should have been in place, not decided on the fly while we are in danger. I exaggerate somewhat, because I at least am not being shot at, and have some leisure to think.

But it is a lesson to us that we do not know when the call comes. There is a military saying that you will not rise to the occasion, you will revert to the level of your training. We can only spend what capital of honor and righteousness we have at present. In war we don't get many opportunities to build that up, only spend it down.