From fading Obama posters to games of Battleship, this presidential campaign has been a master class in the varieties of condescension. Like much of the Republican party, Romney and Ryan have mastered the coded cadences of the country club locker room and the alumni tailgate: “Obama? He’s a heck of a nice guy, and we were rooting for him to succeed (especially considering his background) but he just wasn’t up to the job (and who’s surprised?).” Biden brings it second-generation-immigrant white-guy blue-collar East-Coast old-school style: “Malarkey!” And Obama is simply too cool for Romney; not to mention too cool for legislators in his own party; too cool for photo-ops with billionaire liberal donors; and way too cool for lame things like practicing for presidential debates. Fortunately, he also killed Osama.
The 2012 presidential race has been fun to follow not only because the personal attacks have been equally vicious from both sides, but because those attacks can’t be answered with the typical, convenient (and usually true) accusation that they are “just a distraction” from the “real issues.” To a fantastic degree, both Romney and Obama’s personal lives embody their platforms. Obama, the former community organizer and first black president, represents a party defined by the struggle to win civil rights and use government to create opportunity. Romney is a millionaire who currently pays a fourteen percent income tax rate, running for a party that has lowered taxes to historic levels and wants to cut them even further.
Romney’s biography means I can justify the aspersions I loudly, profanely, and routinely cast upon Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan by framing my ad hominem rants as critiques of income inequality. And Obama’s blackness (not to mention Romney/Ryan’s extraordinary whiteness) means I can accuse Romney/Ryan supporters of being racist. Of course, this was all a lot more fun in mid-September than it’s been since the first presidential debate.
For less partisan campaign watchers, or simply for people like my lovely fiancée Liz, who are just as partisan but appreciate civil debate and abhor name-calling, this campaign has not been fun at all. It has been (or, to be more accurate, has been portrayed by the media as) a contest over which candidate can more effectively avoid the issues, dissemble his positions, harness his supporters’ worst prejudices, and paint his opponent by the ugliest possible stereotype without putting it so explicitly that any of his supporters might recognize themselves. At times, both candidates have manifestly failed at this.
While fighting for Wall Street reform in 2009, Obama talked routinely about fat cats.
Now that he’s relying on the fat cats to fund his campaign, he has to find more subtle ways to gin up the base, like the instantly infamous, “Mitt Romney. Not one of us.” ads he’s running in Ohio (apparently re-appropriating the coded language of the dog whistle the same way he re-appropriated the term “Obamacare”). Romney of course is still trying to walk back the claim that 148 million Americans are freeloaders who will “never” be convinced to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
It’s easy to slap your forehead when Obama alienates some of his most ardent supporters in 2008, or when Romney alienates half the country, but both candidates have an extraordinarily difficult task. They are each trying to win over an electorate that has already made up its mind and doesn’t even know it. There is a vast amount of research showing that the rational logic we think we use to make up our minds on issues from evolution to climate change to Middle East politics is all a sham. When we listen to an argument, especially a partisan argument, we are using logic not to decide what we think, but to rationalize what we already believe. If Romney and Obama don’t feed our egos by offering us policy, we are offended. But if they genuinely talk policy, we tune them out. And their task is further complicated by the fact that they have to keep the vast majority of the country feeling sated while bending all their efforts to the extraordinarily tiny portion of the electorate who actually get to decide who will be president: about 800,000 undecided voters in nine tossup states. That means the campaigns are spending $1,000 per person on people like this:
So far I’ve focused on the specifics of this particular election to explain its ugly tone (note that I use the terms “ugly” and “fun” interchangeably.) But the real reason to get depressed has less to do with the two candidates than with the disquieting knowledge that even as we passionately excoriate one or the other for the things he says he’ll do as president, the only significant thing either man will likely do over the next four years is appoint Supreme Court Justices. It’s Congress that makes laws, and there is good reason to reason to believe it won’t be making many. Ezra Klein has made a compelling argument that the 112th Congress is the worst Congress ever. And this is no outlier, it’s a harbinger of what’s to come.
Klein is also responsible for the most important political analysis I read this year. His aim is to narrowly examine Richard Neustadt’s oft-quoted summation of presidential influence: “the power of the president is the power to persuade.” Klein proceeds not only to destroy this argument, using the research of George Edwards, but to argue that when a president faces a divided congress, his efforts to publicly persuade the nation are inversely correlated with successful passage of a bill. A victory for the president on any policy he’s publicly endorsed is a loss for the opposing party, whose success is measured by whether they can unseat him. If the GOP had worked with Obama to solve the budget crisis last year, the incumbent would have a feather in his cap, and Mitt Romney would have no tax reform platform to mendaciously run on. The implications of Klein’s argument are clear: American politics is a zero-sum game. Permanent deadlock is the logical result when both sides make rational decisions based on self-interest.
But if deadlock is the natural state of the American political process, why didn’t the first 111 Congresses, or at least the last fifty or so, exhibit it just as badly? Put simply, because Lincoln was a Republican. Once the Civil Rights movement reshuffled conservative southern Democrats out of existence, congressional politics have traced a steady course toward ever more perfect polarization. As conservative southern Democrats and liberal northern Republicans were defeated in primaries or simply retired congress achieved a state of such ideological purity that stalemate became the logical outcome, as shown in this graphic from National Journal.
Our country, like our congress, is divided remarkably evenly between people who have opposing theories of government, believe different facts about the world, and even judge the state of their personal lives through a partisan lens: in a late October Gallup poll, sixty-two percent of Democratic respondents said they were better off than they were a year ago compared with sixteen percent of Republicans. When even our own happiness can be politicized, it’s hard to believe that there is any common ground to be found. Republicans and Democrats simply cannot translate their worldviews to one another.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt, a professed liberal, uses the metaphor of the crazy neighbor to understand the two mindsets. He writes that the difference between a neighbor who puts up a yard sign saying “Cables are an affront to the god Thoth” is different from a neighbor who puts up a sign saying “Gay marriage will undermine marriage” only because the first neighbor is alone in her irrational beliefs, and can therefore be classified as delusional according to DSM-IV, while the other shares her irrational beliefs with millions of people. What Haidt concludes from this example, of course, is that it is the liberal observer who is handicapped.
On a fellowship to study in Bhubaneswar, India, Haidt—a liberal, atheist, academic—spent a lot of time among the privileged beneficiaries of “a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society” and found that he really, really liked them. This sympathy forced him to try and see the world from their perspective:
Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and pitying the women, children, and servants as helpless victims, I was able to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society, and the members of each extended family (including its servants) are intensely interdependent. In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties, were more important. Looking at America from this vantage point, what I saw now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused.
Trying to create a definition of morality capable of encompassing his own beliefs and his Indian friends’, Haidt developed a model of morality with five foundations (which he’s since expanded to six):
Haidt claims that for most of the last 200,000 years that modern humans have been walking (or running?) around in groups, we have based our moral decision-making on a relatively equal balance of all six concerns. But in recent years, we’ve seen an unprecedented proliferation of people who not only ignore many of these moral principles, they violently reject them, prioritizing one above all others, then forcing their exclusive moral beliefs onto everyone through guilt-trips, government policies, and court decisions. These are, of course, liberals. Most Americans who identify as Democrats elevate compassion above liberty and fairness, with which they are also concerned, and feel uncomfortable with moral choices based on group loyalty, respect for authority, and beliefs about sanctity and what is sacred. We are sympathetic to hired killers and vilify Catholic Bishops.
On the other hand, it is enraging to argue with someone who claims your sister or uncle or son is going to hell because of who they love. There is no rejoinder to the argument, “Because God said so.” Somehow, the liberal faith in rational inquiry must be reconciled with religious belief. In The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade argues that religion is a product of evolution. He points out that religious behavior, like language, is universal in every human culture: we seem genetically disposed to believe in a higher power, and we acquire specific beliefs and rituals in the same way we learn a specific language. To make his point, Wade demonstrates the survival advantages early humans with religious beliefs would have had over those without them.
In the evolution from solitary hunters to organized social groups, our ancestors confronted two basic problems: convincing the selfish to sacrifice for the good of the whole, and convincing the lazy to contribute their fair share. Religion solves both problems.
How do you motivate young men to defend the group in a battle that may cost them their lives and the opportunity to pass on their genes? Tell them there is a special, eternal afterlife reserved exclusively for those who die in combat. How do you convince a young woman to spend the day harvesting a primitive form of wheat when she could be conserving strength and calories that will help her survive pregnancy and feed her young child? Tell her she is trading a few hours of naptime in the shade for an eternity of flesh-melting fire.
Groups that gave their members these two messages would grow by producing resources more efficiently, and as they grew they could acquire more space by killing or assimilating groups whose warriors lacked any incentive to risk death. Eventually, groups inclined toward religion would displace groups that weren’t. This theory solves the vexing problem of why social animals are inclined to behave altruistically when there is no evolutionary benefit to them as individuals. Behaving altruistically to someone within your group made you collectively stronger, as did being fearlessly merciless towards someone outside your group. Wade shows how the paradox of human nature, our capacity for great kindness and extreme cruelty, is completely logical. Compassion for some could not exist without enmity to others.
The strongest criticism of this theory is that the force of people making selfish choices for their own self-interest would overwhelm whatever benefits the group could confer. But Wade says this argument can be defeated if the danger of external warfare were more extreme than the danger of freeloading. Researchers like Steven Pinker argue that early human groups used to kill each other at such a prodigious rate that any group with too many freeloaders was certain to be wiped out by one that functioned more altruistically. The world has never been more peaceful than it is today.
This is a good thing, because as warfare has diminished, our weapons have become more powerful. The broader ecosphere would probably be better off if human beings were still going after one another on a daily basis with slings and spears. But no one wins a nuclear war. According to journalist Robert Wright, we are very close to the finish line in a race to form an effective world government before we destroy ourselves. Describing himself as the most pessimistic optimist you will ever meet, Wright tries to show that the tendency of human history has always been towards increased cooperation: from hunter-gatherer tribes, to agricultural communities, to states, to empires, to international alliances. The traditional understanding of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest posits evolution as a zero-sum game. When one individual wins the resources it needs (+1) another must lose resources (-1). But Wright claims that for social animals like humans, survival is a game in which everyone wins: by sharing our primitive grains with a neighbor whose harvest was poor (+1 for them) we make it more likely that they will do the same in a year when our harvest is poor (+1 for us). To describe this phenomenon, Jonathon Haidt, ever quick with a metaphor, uses the analogy of a boat race: each boat is competing in a zero sum game against the other boat, but the rowers within each boat are in a non-zero sum relationship with their teammates. They win or lose together.
We’re in a race that is likely to be decided in our lifetimes. We need to figure out how to see ourselves as one enormous team rowing a pretty fragile boat before we blow up the planet, one way or another. At least that’s how I see it. In fact, that’s basically how all liberals see it. Haidt’s three liberal values—compassion, liberty, fairness—are the ones we reserve for members of our in-group. The values liberals basically reject—loyalty to the group, blind respect for authority, and the sanctity of our own beliefs—are necessary, or can only exist, in opposition to something else. Disloyalty to the group is impossible if there is no other group to support. Respect for authority (when that authority is separate from justice) is only necessary if there is an external threat that justifies the suspension of justice. And the idea of the sacred cannot exist without the idea of the profane.
Of course loyalty, discipline, and patriotism are all extremely useful when we need to defend ourselves. It is no coincidence that liberal societies have flourished in nations that aren’t threatened by war. But freedom from outside threat raises its own problems. Wade shows we need warfare to manage the two great problems of group cooperation: how to prevent the selfish from taking advantage of the generous, and the lazy from taking advantage of the hard-working. In a peaceful world what do we do about the fat cats and the freeloaders? And now we’re back to Campaign 2012.
The two preoccupations of our two political parties are the two fundamental threats to altruism. Democrats are willing to put up with a few freeloaders in order to restrain the fat cats from taking more than their fair share. Republicans say we could all be fat cats if we’d just eliminate the freeloaders who drag down the economy and de-incentivize hard work. The absence of any discussion of climate change is clearly one of the most egregious aspects of this campaign. But perhaps we can be cheered by the absence of interest in foreign policy. Maybe the only thing all voters have in common this election is that they are sick of war—both the literal wars of the last ten years, and the culture wars of the last fifty. We are raring for a fight over fat cats and free loaders, and that’s a fight we need to have. It’s a fight over the great twenty-first century problem of how we live together on a planet in which every person believes every other person deserves compassion, liberty, and fairness and all the problems that creates. At the heart of the 2012 election is the great modern problem of how to maintain a society that doesn’t need warfare to incentivize it. And that cheers me up.
I’m inclined to think we crossed a threshold when the first human being saw our planet as a single vessel floating in a terrible void. We will continue to fight over street corners, ideologies, and national borders, but now these are fights within one group rather than between groups. Even our most intractable conflicts are mediated by an alphabet soup of UN conventions, arms control treaties, trade agreements, diplomatic alliances, economic unions, and criminal courts that, however imperfectly, enmesh our interactions in the moralities of justice, compassion, and liberty that we extend only to fellow group-members. In what is surely a poll-tested position, both presidential candidates agreed in the last presidential debate that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
We are well on our way to seeing ourselves in one giant, metaphorical boat. But it will take more than that to break the deadlock in American government. It’s hard not to squabble in an aimlessly drifting boat, and you usually end up eating each other. What we need is a rival boat to pull against. The great news is, there is no shortage of threats to the entire human race: from global climate change to killer asteroids. Call me naïve, but I think 2016 is shaping up to be even more fun than 2012.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.