Chad Perrin: SOB

2 June 2008

Political Sainthood and False Dilemmas

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 03:02

Each political party seems to have its canonized saints. Oddly enough, though, the more powerful the party is, the fewer the number of saints its members tend to recognize.

I think it comes down to the fact that humans have a built-in preference for binary decisions. In fact, get too far past two choices to consider in a given decision, and many humans will suffer analysis paralysis if they can’t quickly find excuses to ignore all but two of the options. This, of course, leads to a predilection for false dilemmas. Look at the pattern: both the Republican and Democrat parties “standardize” on two socially acceptable “saints” of the party platform — one historical and (at least nominally) martyred for the cause, the other contemporary and providing a living memory view of “the good life”.

  • In the case of Democrats, the two choices are JFK and (Bill) Clinton — though Gore came awfully close to stealing away the title from his former boss, and Obama threatens both of their claims. Previously a favorite icon, FDR is now a little-remembered foundational figure for neoliberalism in the United States.

  • In the case of the Republicans, the two choices are Lincoln and Reagan — as I was rather inescapably reminded when I attended my State and Congressional District Conventions this weekend. Positioned similarly to FDR, Barry Goldwater is all but forgotten, even more marginalized than the New Dealer. The intercession and subsequent fall from grace of both Nixon and GWB (whose fall is still in progress, and will not be fully accepted by the orthodoxy until some time after he leaves office) may have something to do with Goldwater’s loss of status, to say nothing of the fact that all his best qualities have been usurped in the mainstream consciousness as belonging to Ronald Reagan.

It should come as no surprise that (at least according to my experience) the parties most dominated by people who cannot bring themselves to think beyond a false dilemma when considering who to revere as exemplars of their political ideals are the two parties that most dominate modern politics. After all, it’s the exact same psychological (or, as some studies suggest, neurological) mechanism at work that makes these two parties so dominant. Consider the fact that, when deciding how to vote, most people will refuse to vote for any party’s candidates but Republicans and Democrats because the alternative is to “throw away” their votes. Even when they find the R and D options both so unpalatable that they choose to forgo the false dilemma, it never occurs to them to choose a candidate from outside that artificial binary decision even as a protest vote — and they just stay home.

This is exactly the mechanism that has led to the situation in which each party now finds itself:

  • The Republicans faced a broader field of candidates who survived the winnowing process as far as Super Tuesday than the Democrats, and as a result each party member who got involved in the process enough to have formed an opinion on who should be nominated internalized a false dilemma: either the candidate of their choice, or the candidate the media was already casting as the probable nominee (John McCain). As the zero hour of Super Tuesday drew nigh, some of these people focused on a perceived McCain vs. Romney binary decision, others (especially those whose candidates had officially dropped out of the race already) just accepted the media darling McCain and shifted focus to the McCain vs. Democrat decision, and the remainder doggedly stuck to their guns and toughed it out hoping their own original choice (Huckabee, for instance) would have a chance against McCain. The latter, of course, would have to rationalize away Romney’s media attention as irrelevant, thanks to some great flaw — in most cases, probably his Mormon faith or Massachusetts political record.

  • The Democrats, at this time, are facing a binary decision between its two remaining candidates — Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The continuation of the battle between them would never have happened if their respective qualities did not so polarize their party, effectively splitting it down the middle (with some social engineering help from outside agitators like Rush Limbaugh). Even so, many are already turning their minds toward a new false dilemma: Obama vs. McCain. Clinton’s candidacy is all but over at this point. It’s a corpse that doesn’t seem to know it’s dead, barring a miraculous resurrection.

The Presidential race for 2008 was pretty remarkable in recent history in that Ron Paul and, to a far lesser degree, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, provided an apparent choice outside the false dilemma within each of the two parties that dominate US politics. Similarly, H. Ross Perot provided an apparent choice outside the false dilemma between each of the two parties that dominate US politics. Even in each of these exceptional cases, however, it should be noted that the additional options were remarkable only in that they lasted as long as they did as choices that the majority of interested individuals could conceive of as “real” choices. In the end, the compulsion toward binary decisions always wins out.

Of course, monomania is indicative of real extremism in this case. Those parties that can admit only a single saint are pretty damned scary, and (thankfully) both rare and weak.

By contrast, parties that attract people willing and able to understand that there are options beyond the two most obviously popularized parties also tend to have a much more numerous and widely varied canon (or, perhaps, rogues gallery) of saints. The Libertarian Party, for instance, claims as its saints primarily the “Founders” of this nation, though a number of influential political philosophers, revolutionaries, and economists outside the Founders’ number also sneak into the roll call (such as Lock, Voltaire, Rand, Rothbard, Mises, and Friedman), depending on who’s referring to the Great Men/Women who exemplify their ideals. I’ll just stop listing examples now, as this name-dropping really could go on at great length, excepting the special mentions in the next paragraph (emphasized so you don’t miss it):

Interestingly, whereas Republican and Democrat orthodoxy simply cannot conceive of granting significant positive recognition (sainthood, in other words) to anyone that isn’t a part of its own respective party, other parties don’t have such problems. A great deal of respect among many registered Libertarians has been afforded to Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich for their courage and individualistic drive to buck the mainstream within their party and, even more dramatically notable, many of them have jumped parties to support Ron Paul to the best of their ability.

If those who joined the Republican Party to lend support to the candidate who shares its initials, and the courage of their convictions (particularly as they matched those supposedly held dear by the Republicans themselves), were treated with more respect, they may even have remained Republicans in significant numbers, and helped the party grow in prominence in US politics. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the chilly reception these libertarians received (for daring to assume that well-reasoned decision making without unthinkingly accepting false dilemmas was a viable direction for the party to take) ensured this mass migration would reverse itself. What could have become a decisive win for the Republican Party this November will now almost certainly be a decisive loss to Obama — unless race proves a more significant factor in the final analysis than I expect, in which case it’ll probably be a narrow loss to Obama instead.

Back to sainthood . . .

Really, if each of the Republican and Democrat parties are to claim a saint above all others, the Republicans should have stuck with Goldwater, and the Democrats should damned well have noticed the strengths of Grover Cleveland.

  • While Republicans attribute Herculean qualities of fiscal conservatism to Reagan, his legacy is a rose-colored exaggeration of an at best middling commitment to free market capitalism dwarfed fully by that of Barry Goldwater.

  • Where Democrats pretend to be the party of the common (wo)man, championing those downtrodden people of simple character who are the backbone of the nation1, Grover Cleveland possessed greatness that, in the words of his biographer Allan Nevins, “lies in typical rather than unusual qualities. He had no endowments that thousands of men do not have. He possessed honesty, courage, firmness, independence, and common sense. But he possessed them to a degree other men do not.”

The limitations of a mind predisposed toward false dilemmas virtually guarantees forgetting real greatness when a shiny new appearance of greatness rears its gaudy head. Such is the nature of political sainthood.

As for me, I’m a huge fan of a President that neither Republicans nor Democrats can afford to speak ill of, or hold too publicly in high esteem because of his views on foreign entanglements, and that no major political party can promote to the head of its canon because of the strong counsel he gave in his farewell address when he retired from office against the very concept of political parties themselves: George Washington. Like any other mortal man, of course, he had his flaws — but he may well have been the best President the Union ever had as well as the first to serve in the nation’s highest executive office under the terms of the United States Constitution.

I don’t hold him as a saint, however, above criticism or reproach. In fact, some of the political compromises he made while in office are indefensible. I simply regard him as a standard against which to judge all who have followed, until such time as he is surpassed. Show me a President who hasn’t significantly damaged the sovereignty of the States, the liberties of their Citizens, and the ideals on which this nation was founded, and I’ll show you an example of political propaganda you never bothered to examine in enough depth to scratch past the surface — or a President who died before he could do any substantial damage.

I don’t subscribe to any false dilemma in my estimation of the quality of any Presidency, however. Yes, they all have their flaws — some greater than others. All have their positive points as well. Yes, all have their positive points — even GWB’s and Carter’s administrations. It’s a continuum of quality, though; it isn’t a black-and-white choice between “good” and “bad”.

. . . just as it really isn’t a binary choice between McCain and Obama or McCain and Clinton, just as it wasn’t a binary choice between McCain and Romney, and just as it is never a binary choice between Republican and Democrat. In fact, if Republican orthodoxy opened its collective mind enough to allow a brain cell or two enough room to breathe, it would notice that there still are options other than McCain for the Republican nomination; if enough pledged McCain delegates stayed home this September rather than attending the RNC in Minneapolis, we would see a brokered convention, giving both Romney and Paul serious shots at intercepting John McCain’s expected coronation.

I’m a cynic, though, and am fully aware that’s not what’s going to happen — barring a bona fide miracle. False dilemmas will be the only winners this November, and the pale specter of desired party sainthood will surely be foremost in the mind of the man who sits in the Oval Office next January.

footnotes

1: Where FDR’s political ploys purported to save our nation’s poor from starvation while they actually prolonged the effects of the Great Depression and guaranteed future federal insolvency, and where Clinton played saxophone badly on MTV in a ludicrous attempt to fit in with citizens young enough to be his children and barely old enough to vote . . .

5 Comments

  1. While I think much of what you are saying here has something to it I think you are mistaken to cast it as some kind of psychological fallacy.

    Now if everyone collectively all decided to vote for a third party such a party could win an election, true. However, we all know that in fact most people won’t vote for a third party so it is in fact rational of us to choose between the viable candidates, i.e., the members of the two major parties. In other words having a two party system is a stable equilibrium and the fact that things might be different if everyone acted differently doesn’t actually amount to an argument for you to act differently.


    Moreover, I think people tend to mistakenly think that the two party system is somehow keeping out other ideas from politics. Well it might be to some extent but no more so than any system of party affiliations whether there are 3 parties or 300. Politics requires coalitions to win and the lines along which coalitions are formed (do the parties split on economic issues or social ones etc..) will affect the outcomes but that is unavoidable.

    Ultimately the reason people assume the two party system is somehow less representative is that they mistakenly take the actual election to be the way the citizens exert their influence. While it is necessary that everyone (candidates included) believe that their will be an election in the long run there wouldn’t be much difference if we choose the president by a coin flip. The real way the people affect who will be president is by causing party leaders to support candidates who are likely to win and by causing those candidates to position themselves to gain the most votes.

    This is how the presidential race can be competitive almost every time. Each party shifts position whenever it will bring them a net gain in voters and the end result is two mainstream candidates with broad appeal (compare the ideas endorsed by even the ‘extremist’ presidents to those endorsed by your angry neighbor or ditzy friend). The two parties aren’t unchanging entities, they shift all the time to appeal to new groups.

    Even people like libertarians and others who might want a third party have their voices heard in American politics. They don’t get to vote for a candidate who believes everything they do (but even if we abolished the two party system such a candidate couldn’t win) but the two parties do shift their policies and priorities to appeal to them. Ultimately this is all a political system should achieve. It doesn’t matter if we vote for the government or not as long as it is responsive to the will of the people.

    Comment by TruePath — 2 June 2008 @ 11:03

  2. […] Political Sainthood and False Dilemmas: […]

    Pingback by Chad Perrin: SOB » follow-up links: music and politics — 2 June 2008 @ 04:57

  3. Now if everyone collectively all decided to vote for a third party such a party could win an election, true.

    It doesn’t take anywhere near “all”. All it would take is for everyone to vote for candidates whose platforms most closely matched their own ideals. If that happened, either the Democrats and Republicans would lose every election, or they’d change drastically.

    However, we all know that in fact most people won’t vote for a third party so it is in fact rational of us to choose between the viable candidates, i.e., the members of the two major parties.

    Incorrect. Sure, most people won’t currently vote for anyone that isn’t a Republican or a Democrat, but that doesn’t make continuing down that destructive road rational. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — claiming that nobody but a Republican or Democrat can win, and using that as justification for voting for nobody but a Republican or Democrat, is the only reason Republicans and Democrats win.

    Making self-fulfilling prophecies of bad outcomes is inherently irrational.

    . . . and you’ve just fallen into the trap of the false dilemma in political choice. Congratulations.

    In other words having a two party system is a stable equilibrium

    . . . as long as everyone subscribes to the false dilemma theory of politics — including you, evidently.

    the fact that things might be different if everyone acted differently doesn’t actually amount to an argument for you to act differently.

    It doesn’t require everyone acting differently to make a difference. It only requires a larger number of people voting for some third party than the number voting for either the first or second party — and, in fact, it doesn’t even take that. Once a number of people votes for a third party that makes it obvious that third party can challenge the first and second parties, it becomes a strong argument for you to vote for that third party (assuming you agree with its platform). But wait — there’s some point before that where it makes sense to try to convince others to vote for that third party so that it can get to the point where it challenges the supremacy of the first and second parties enough to finally tip the scales, but it’s difficult to get others to vote for a third party if you yourself are unwilling to do so; as such, it makes sense to vote for that third party long before it can put in such a good showing. In other words, if you agree with the third party, but not the first and second parties, it pretty much always makes sense to vote for the third party, as long as doing so can help to increase the number of people who vote for it and as long as there’s a possibility that at some point in the future more people might approve of that third party’s platform than the first and second parties’ platforms.

    Moreover, I think people tend to mistakenly think that the two party system is somehow keeping out other ideas from politics.

    I think some people mistakenly think that the two party system is “somehow keeping out other ideas from politics,” but most people correctly think the two party system is keeping other ideas out of mainstream politics. That’s because, of course, mainstream politics isn’t based around ideals the way people like you seem to think it is. It’s based around nothing more than getting elected — which, in many cases, actually encourages a certain amount of cooperation between the two ruling parties so that enough similarity of platform can be agreed upon to simplify the voting process by eliminating choices they find undesirable as politicians. An oversimplified voting process benefits an oligarchy — not the constituency.

    Well it might be to some extent but no more so than any system of party affiliations whether there are 3 parties or 300.

    Thanks for making my point, and George Washington’s, for me.

    there wouldn’t be much difference if we choose the president by a coin flip.

    Thanks for making my points for me, again.

    The real way the people affect who will be president is by causing party leaders to support candidates who are likely to win and by causing those candidates to position themselves to gain the most votes.

    That might affect who would be President in some minor manner, but it wouldn’t affect policy. In fact, it would force policy into exactly the same groove it’s already in — and, in fact, it’s what party leadership already tries to do in the Republican and Democrat parties. Sadly, it’s what the Libertarian Party has started trying to do, too, and it’s what the Reform Party started trying to do for a while before it imploded.

    compare the ideas endorsed by even the ‘extremist’ presidents to those endorsed by your angry neighbor or ditzy friend

    I don’t want an “extremist” President, anyway. In fact, one of the most mild Presidents the US has ever had was one of its best — Grover Cleveland. He was a Democrat at the time, but you’ll never see anyone like him get anywhere near the Democrat nomination, the closest the Republican party’s Presidential efforts has gotten to a Grover Cleveland in the last century is with Ron Paul and Barry Goldwater. If you consider the relative outcomes of those two circumstances, you might notice that we’re not exactly moving in a good direction on that score.

    The two parties aren’t unchanging entities, they shift all the time to appeal to new groups.

    They change on superficial matters, and remain the same on the important stuff. It’s a great way to ensure you keep your party in power once it’s there, but it’s a piss-poor way to actually do any good.

    even if we abolished the two party system such a candidate couldn’t win

    You say so. I guess that means we’re supposed to take your word for it.

    Of course, even without abolishing the two-party system we’re looking at getting a candidate that isn’t much different from the LP’s this year. Bob Barr is a former Republican mainstream politician. For the last couple years or so national LP “leadership” has been leaning hard in the direction of trying to appeal to the same people as the Republican and Democrat parties, which of course means that in the near future there may not be an LP worth supporting. Of course, the LP is still small enough that we could turn that around — if more people without their heads up their fourth points of contact got involved. I guess that now the major decision to be made is whether it makes more sense to try to reform the LP again or to try to reform the Republican Party, since (thanks to the Ron Paul candidacy’s popularity) things might be positioned to move in a positive direction in that regard.

    It doesn’t matter if we vote for the government or not as long as it is responsive to the will of the people.

    . . . which it isn’t — at least, not on matters of policy.

    Furthermore, I’m more concerned with whether it’s a good government than whether it’s “responsive to the will of the people”. I’m not a huge fan of mob justice.

    In that vein, I’ll leave you with something someone recently said to me:

    it’s not that the political elites undermine the will of the people to our detriment but that to the contrary the most harm is done when the political elites cater to the demands of the electorate and government only works as well as it does because governmental officials often have the discretion to make choices that the public doesn’t have much awareness or input in.

    Comment by apotheon — 3 June 2008 @ 09:47

  4. *Note- I started to write this at 8:30 this morning but got pulled away into a meeting and couldn’t finish. It looks like many of my points have already been addressed by the comment above, but I’ll go ahead and post it anyway.

    TruePath:

    I think you are mistaken to cast it as some kind of psychological fallacy.

    It sounds like what you’ve said in your first comment does more to prove Chad’s point than to refute it. You seem to be falling into the same pattern that there can only be two options in the world. So unless your argument is that the number two follows some sort of law of nature and is therefore not a problem within the minds of people, but instead some force greater and more powerful than humans then I’d say your statements fall in line perfectly with people falsely believing they only have binary choices.

    Now if everyone collectively all decided to vote for a third party such a party could win an election, true.

    You know, to win an election it doesn’t require everyone to vote for a third choice. I hear people all the time say they’d vote for someone else other than the major candidates because they don’t like either choice but won’t do it because they can’t get past the idea that they really have more than two choices. This is illogical because if each one of those people broke out of that mindset, then the alternative choice would matter.

    I think people tend to mistakenly think that the two party system is somehow keeping out other ideas from politics.

    It is keeping other ideas from politics. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties represent what I believe in. Two parties cannot encompass everything. It is true that many decisions are binary, you are either for or against something, but one binary decision isn’t all there is to it. Two parties cannot encompass each combination possible and therefore many ideas are not represented in such a system.

    Comment by medullaoblongata — 3 June 2008 @ 10:26

  5. […] pieces on Political Saints and “Throwing away your vote” are both pretty good […]

    Pingback by Great rant from Chad Perrin — 7 June 2008 @ 02:57

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