Friday, November 05, 2004

Faith, Flip-flop, and other 'F'-words

There is an Excel file making its way around the internet that lists the median IQ for each state and to whom that state's electoral college votes went in the 2004 election. Although I doubt it is an instance of the bipartisan cooperation President Bush recommended to Democrats during his victory speech, the file is being forwarded by liberals as well as by conservatives. And, as far as I can tell by reading the margin-editorials on the email forward the file was attached to, it's being sent by members of both groups for exactly the same reason: sheer derision of the other guys. The Bush supporters take it to be proof of their crudest caricature of east-coast liberals: arrogant, elitist, and condescending towards the rest of the country. And Kerry supporters red with rage let themselves get carried away by these sorts of statistics into regarding the rest of the country as childish and backward. Neither side's use of the data surprises me.

(Kerry supporters: there's all the difference in the world between showing that the states with the smartest people on average voted for Kerry over Bush, and showing that they voted for Kerry over Bush because they were the smartest.)

Despite what Paul Begala said yesterday in the New York Times, I don't think that all the negative campaigning in 2003-4 helped the country. Begala seems to think that it was connected to higher voter turnout. He may be right about that; or he may be wrong. But in any case, going to the polls out of a sense of hatred for the other guys isn't all part of the rollicking fun of life in a democracy. It's deeply inimical to the spirit of deliberation that is part of democracy's internal logic. So I'm hoping Begala's wrong.

Democracy depends on there being a difference between fighting and debating.

(It is just this difference that shows like Crossfire do their best to obliterate, and this is one reason why I appreciated Jon Stewart's attack.)

Both fighting and debating, to be sure, are ways of arguing with someone who doesn't share your beliefs. But the argument sense of fighting, the one that the fire-and-brimstone pundits like Coulter and Begala specialize in, is one in which having a reason for believing what you do counts for little. A fight is won by the strongest person, not the person with the (furthest) justified beliefs. Ideally, it is just this that differentiates fighting from debating. A debate is supposed to be won by the person, or team, or party that presents the best views and defends them adequately against rational attack.

As an old professor of mine used to say: "No one cares what you believe; they only care why you believe it."

This attitude is an idealization specially suited to the college classroom, yes; but it is the sort of attitude that is also crucial to the success of democracies. Why? Two reasons.

First, there is nothing special about the people that makes rule "by and for the people" any more immune to error than, say rule by the landholders or rule by the clowns. For "the people" can go just as wrong in their beliefs as can any ruler or group of rulers. The people, after all, don't have their collective ear to the Door of Heaven. And when the people go wrong, it is just as bad as in any other type of political society. Tyranny by the majority is no less a tyranny for coming from the neighbors rather than the king. If "the people" are to be any better at deciding on the appropriate course of action, then it has to be because they can, between themselves, examine all the possibilities and determine which is the best. Fighting is simply no good for doing that.

Second, what is it we imagine happens in the legislature? Senators stand, I imagine, and argue with each other over the merits of various bills. But what are they doing when they do this? Aren't they supposedly offering reasons to support the bills they support? If not, then why go through this process at all? Why not just push through with your party's preferences and leave it at that? I imagine that this does happen, probably much of the time. But the idea, I take it, is that our congresspeople are supposed to rationally determine the best laws for all of us.

Debate, then, requires you both to take your opponent seriously and to be open to changing your mind. Yes, it requires being a flip-flopper. Because being a flip-flopper, in this sense, is just being subject to the force of the better reason. If you discover that you didn't know all the facts, or that you weren't thinking of all the possible cases, or whatever, then you had better reevaluate your position.

I recently heard a New Jersey political personality say in an interview that she supported Bush because she knew where he stood on the issues. He wouldn't decide his opinion for that day when he got up in the morning. I'm not sure if this is a fair description of President Bush; but even if it is, is it good to "know" what you out should do before you've examined all the options for benefits and drawbacks? What then do we need legislators for?

Flip-floppers and purveyors of the Kerry "global test" aren't shrinking violets who can't hold their own. Flip-flopping is part and parcel of being a disputant in a debate, since no one is lucky enough to never be wrong. And the global test is for similar reasons a key strategy in the war on terror; for if we take the concerns of the world seriously, we will be perceived by its inhabitants as truly democratic and not as imperalistic. And this is a central part of the oft-mentioned battle for hearts and minds.

Beneficial democracy demands taking each other seriously. And that demands not forcing articles of faith onto each other, but doing our best to make collective decisions for reasons that many accept. But citizens who despise each other, like those inspired to circulate nasty emails about the other guys, never manage this kind of mutual engagement. This is why I hope Paul Begala is wrong.


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