Monday, April 25, 2011

And now, some politics

I really need to get in the habit of blogging Facebook threads quickly. These days I'm not posting much here on Kazim's Korner, but I am having the occasional heated discussion on Facebook. Unfortunately, Facebook posts are not searchable in any graceful way, which means that they become effectively impossible to find after a month or two has elapsed. These discussions are exactly the sorts of things I enjoy coming back and reading again a few years later, so I'm synthesizing the discussion from the one I just linked so I can have a record of it.

For starters, I recommend this article.

Good article. Hits many of the points that I like to highlight in my typical political posts. As I've said before, I am often frustrated by the fact that liberals (and, to a lesser extent, many atheists) are so married to the idea that they must be "reasonable" that they tend to try to compromise as quickly as possible. In falling all over themselves to give ground in every argument, they crippling their ability to negotiate effectively.

I often tell this joke about the kids haggling over a cake (see the post linked in the previous paragraph) to highlight a truism: if one side starts out taking at an extreme position, and the other side reasonably starts in the middle, then the extremist will usually be happier in the end. That's because if you start from the middle and then negotiate a "middle ground" between those positions, that ground must be much closer to the extremist's position than it is to the the reasonable person's position. Therefore, I would like people who agree with me to start out saying what they really want, and then fight to reach a compromise which is as close as possible to what they wanted all along.

Here's my party affiliation in a nutshell. I am a liberal because I believe two things. First, people should have the right to do pretty much whatever they want with their private lives that doesn't hurt others. Second, it is a demonstrable historic good to have a social infrastructure that provides education, roads, a social safety net, and pooled resources for scientific research, among other things.

When I look at the Democratic Party Platform, I agree with most of it. When I look at the Republican Party Platform, I disagree with most of it. Hence I am a Democrat. I do not start from the position "I am a Democrat" and then reason out my positions based on asking "What would my party do?" I am a Democrat because with any given issue I care about, I find that the Republican party nearly always lands on the wrong side of my beliefs.

I tend to get into political arguments with three kinds of people:

  1. People who agree with Republicans on social issues (i.e., religious intrusion in government, abortion, gay rights, war on drugs).
  2. People who agree with Republicans on economic issues (often libertarians, generally encompassing shrinking or eliminating social safety net programs, cutting spending on education and national infrastructure, replacing our existing tax structure with something far more punishing to people lower on the income totem pole).
  3. People who do not appear to have any significant political principles, but are opposed in general to supporting any political party, in order to be contrarian.

I very rarely get into arguments with people who agree with Republicans on both social and economic issues, except in artificial situations such as taking calls on The Atheist Experience. This is simply because there is so little common ground between us that there is little to be gained from such a discussion. They are plentiful out there in the world, but they're a very small part of the universe of people I'd typically spend time with.

As a result, when I argue politics with somebody, it's nearly always someone who falls into one of the above three categories. It follows that those people are neither Republicans nor Democrats. Category 3 is, by definition, unaffiliated. Categories 1 and 2 can be shown not to belong to either party, because if they were Democrats they'd likely agree with me on both social and economic issues, and if they were Republicans they'd likely disagree with me on both social and economic issues. QED.

Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.

To my friends who substantially disagree with me on economic or social issues, and cannot find a party to call home, all I can say is: You and I have fundamental disagreements on the best way to run a country, and I will never persuade you to vote for candidates that I would like. As the Republican party doesn't suit your needs either, all I can do is wish you luck in finding a candidate who matches your interests, although when you find such a candidate I will most likely vote against him.

But also, every time I do a political post, I can count on a number of people showing up from
the third category. They seem to agree with me on what policies are desirable, but argue that the party platforms are trivial and irrelevant. Examples from the thread:

So is it worth associating yourself with the right or left? or any political parties in particular? I mean some Democrats have good ideas and not so good ideas. Some Republicans the same way. It really depends on the times you live in. To me it always seemed foolish to tout party lines or vice versa label (project your ideas) on someone who naively associates themselves with a political party.


Both parties are crap. The only difference is that one is a pile of lying crap that wants to take away your right to abort a fetus, while the other doesn't.

The impending demise of reproductive rights

Let me get specific about what prompted that last qualifier. Pro-choice is one of my issues. As I recently discussed on the Non-Prophets, there has been a recent rush of state laws which deliberately violate Roe v Wade. This article by Dahlia Lithwick documents that:

Since the start of this year, 916 measures seeking to regulate reproductive health have been introduced in 49 states. According to the Guttmacher Institute, by the end of March, 15 laws had been enacted in seven states. These laws include an expansion of the waiting period in South Dakota from 24 to 72 hours and a requirement that counseling from "crisis pregnancy centers" include scientifically flawed data on risk factors. There are new regulations in Utah and Virginia governing abortion clinics. Legislation has been introduced in 13 states requiring that women have an ultrasound procedure before having an abortion—and in seven of those states, the woman must view the fetus and listen to a detailed verbal description as well. Measures have been introduced in 17 states copying a Nebraska law banning abortion at 20 weeks, on the theory—again based on questionable medical data—that this is when a fetus can feel pain.

As a result, abortion is rapidly becoming effectively illegal in many parts of the country right now, even though these statutes are deliberately running afoul of established supreme court rulings.

You would think that pro-choice groups like the National Organization for Women would be challenging these laws left and right, and you'd ordinarily be right, except for one tiny little snag:

The risk of challenging these clearly unconstitutional laws and then losing at the Supreme Court is evidently so high, according to Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, that it's not worth taking. As she explained last week to Rachel Maddow, the fear that Justice Samuel Alito would vote to overturn Roe is so deep that reproductive rights groups may be opting to leave the state bans in place. And, as she conceded in that interview, wherever unconstitutional state abortion bans go unchallenged, they become law.

In 2004, Bush beat Kerry and won a second term. As a direct result, Bush was able to replace two liberal-to-moderate Supreme Court justices with Alito and Roberts. They are now the swing votes that could strike down Roe if a case ever came before them that gave them the opportunity to reopen it. Therefore, pro-choice groups are afraid to challenge these state laws. However, if they don't challenge them, then the laws stand, causing abortion to become completely inaccessible to many women.

I draw a clear, direct line between the victory of one political party and the massive curtailing of women's freedom. If you don't think that is a bad thing, if you disagree with me on this issue, that's fine; you are in category 1, and this doesn't apply to you. But if you are not in category 1, if you are bothered by this curtailing of these rights, then you should not see the differences between the parties as trivial on this particular issue.

The ACLU and you

Another example. Most liberals are with the American Civil Liberties Union on most issues that I know of. They're the ones who focus on separation of church and state issues, free speech rights, allowing accused criminals due process of law, and so on.

Every year, the ACLU puts out a position paper indicating which issues they care about. In addition, they examine which politicians voted the way that they would like on key policy proposals, and give a rating.

This is the ratings list for 2008, which I think is fairly typical.

Read that list and you'll see an obvious trend. Among 390 total House members, Senators, Governors, and executives, o
n issues that the ACLU cares about, 105 of them were on record as voting with them 100% of the time.

Those 105 were all Democrats. Every single one. No exceptions.

On those same issues, 160 politicians were shown to vote with the ACLU 33% of the time or less.

All 160 of them are Republicans. No exceptions. Count em.

If you have serious disagreements with my desired political outcomes, I'm not talking to you. You're right, the Democratic party does not represent you. Yes, yes, Obama hates your freedoms, everything Congressional Democrats do is a secret Muslim Communist Satanist plot, etc. Vote for someone else, or protest and don't vote.

But if you want the outcomes that I want, you can't continue claiming that the difference between the parties doesn't exist. It is objectively false.

Do Democrats, as a broad group, suck at politics? Yep, they do. Do they act like pussies when it comes to defeating a bunch of loud, angry bullies?
Repeatedly. Is it desirable, in the long term, to eliminate blue dog Democrats and bring in more liberals with spine like Bernie Sanders and Anthony Weiner? Hells yeah. And are there some Democrats who are genuinely more conservative than some Republicans? On an individual basis, there are a few.

Looking at the big picture as a purely statistical issue, though, party affiliation does provide a good indication of which side of the issues they are on, and it's clearly disingenuous to say they are the same. You can't teach statesmen the lesson that they aren't fighting hard enough for what you want, if your method is to sit by allowing the people to win who are actively fighting against what you want.


  1. Good post dude.
    I know you mentioned before about "vaccinating" yourself against different opinions on the AE blog and i totally agree with that but I find political debates a bit like flogging a dead horse. It's fun but it will get you nowhere.
    Conservatives stay conservative and liberals stay liberal.
    The problem in the UK is that the liberal vote is split between the liberal democrat and labour parties so the conservatives have a slight advantage when it comes to election time.

  2. And you think the atheist/theist divide is any different?

    My purpose when discussing politics, just as when discussing atheism, is not so much to "convert" people from the other side, as it is to embolden people from my side.

    A lot of recent elections in this country have been extremely close, such as the aforementioned Kerry/Bush race, which could have been determined with some slight improvements in Democratic turnout in either Ohio or Florida. This attitude by people who would otherwise vote liberal that "It just doesn't matter" is poisonous to the process.

    We've got loudmouths like Limbaugh, Beck, and O'Reilly broadcasting 24/7, and their message is that liberals are morally deficient. As you said, they don't "convert" anybody, but they do have the (intended) effect of depressing turnout and making liberals feel like it isn't worth it. I feel that it's important to voice the other side, because (IMHO) liberals do have the moral high ground.

  3. Anonymous6:39 AM

    Bernie Sanders for President!!!

  4. Well done. I've been reluctant to call myself a Democrat, although since deconversion I've shifted greatly from conservative to liberal. I've reasoned that calling myself Independent puts me above the fray of street-level politics, much like, I suppose, people say, "Oh no, I'm not an atheist, I'm just an agnostic."

    But since I've voted mostly Democrat in the last several elections, and since so much of what Republicans do appalls me, I guess I should get off the fence.

    And put me down for someone who can change his mind about political issues because of well-reasoned arguments.

  5. So...let me get this straight Re: the abortion issue.

    People are afraid to challenge unconstitutional state laws that violate Roe v. Wade because Roe v. Wade may be struck down, thus opening the flood-gates for anti-abortion laws in the states.

    Yet...if these laws aren't challenged constitutionally, the states making them will be able to simply continue to do so, which is the problem in the first place.

    Talk about a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. I guess on principle I'd say we (liberals...whatever) should at least go down fighting but...I dunno how practical that is.

  6. Sparrowhawk,

    Yes, and I think the hardest thing about politics is being able to make a distinction about what actions feel good on a gut level, and what works in a practical sense. Politics may feel like it's strictly a game of showmanship, and cable news certainly does encourage that image as much as they can. But it's important to remember that the ultimately goal of politics is to enact good, effective, and enduring policy.

    Ex-representative Alan Grayson is a good example. I love that guy, wish more people would yell out what I'm thinking on a regular basis. But the moment he became an ex-representative, he lost most of his ability to directly enact good policy.

    In the case of NOW challenging these amendments, I don't see a good option for them. Having a "blaze of glory" moment might be satisfying on some level, but I'm not convinced that it's a better choice than simply waiting for better SC justices to come along.

    The best solution, of course, is to travel back in time and prevent this situation from coming about in the first place.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I think it's easy to look at government, a body of people ruthlessly arguing with each other & say "this clearly isn't working." Many people don't even consider that the purpose of this body is almost 100% to ruthlessly argue with itself. If there were even the slightest possibility that we could all agree on any of these issues, we wouldn't need government at all!

    That is incredibly misleading. You might just as well say "The point of peer review in scientific publications is almost 100% to get reviewers to ruthlessly argue with one another."

    The purpose of peer review is to produce good and accurate science. The argumentation is a necessary means to that end, born of a recognition that individual scientists are going to be flawed and have their individual agendas; but the fighting is designed to winnow out the bad ideas and ensure that the good ones have been improved through the process of running that gauntlet. Anyone who said that the "purpose" of the fighting is to have people fight, would have missed an essential point of why the system exists in the first place.

    Likewise, I am arguing that the purpose of the legislative branch is quite emphatically to produce good and effective legislation, with the argumentation and debate intended as a step to further that end and block out bad, self-serving ideas. In the event that good legislation is not being produced, the system is by definition not working.

    Furthermore I can understand why people don't want their politicians in bed with interests other than their voters, but I'll never understand why they want them to be reasonable. If I'm paying taxes, I always figure I want to vote for the biggest, baddest. cut-throat a'hole we can find, to make sure that money goes where I want it to go. I want to vote for someone who knows how to be far less reasonable than me!

    Sounds nice in theory until you put it in practice and find that your unreasonable people have decided that the best way to respond to an attack on American soil by a band of terrorists is to launch a full scale, ten year war against a country that was in no way involved in said attack, thereby spending trillions of dollars, killing hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians, worsening the relationship of our country with most other developed nations, and paradoxically increasing the likelihood of additional future terrorist attacks.

    When it comes to actually defining what our policy should be, yes, please give me someone who is reasonable and correct of someone who is a bullying asshole for the wrong cause.

    Also, to argue with you on #2. I don't think many people see it as "punishing to people lower on the income totem pole." You have quite the loaded bias built into that phrase. ;-)

    Funny thing though... the fact that people who want to get rid of progressive income taxes "don't see it is punishing to people lower on the income totem pole" doesn't mean that it isn't. Reality is a pesky thing.

  9. The idea that deciding how taxes should be collected and spent is anything like science is ridiculous. The purpose of government is to discern & enact the will of the people.

    In fact, on your show, you're usually a fan of saying how unlike the two are.

    "Good legislation" is an OPINION! You point out yourself, pro-lifers & pro-choicers have completely different ideas about what good legislation should be. You yourself admit that there is likely no amount of arguing that can be done to get a pro life person to agree that your legislation is the right legislation.

    When the scientific community is said to reach a consensus, say on something like Natural Selection, it means almost all scientists agree it is the best known explanation; When congress passes a law that is good for people who may want to get an abortion, it in no way means that everyone in the country agrees that is the right way to go… Now you could expand on that & make the case that, well everyone in the country is not in a state of violent rebellion & therefore supports the government as a whole & therefore supports whatever decisions they come to… but that is so much more of an indirect support, I wouldn't even know where to begin.

    Politics will argue these issues indefinitely & never reach a consensus. One party may gain ground this year, the other may gain ground the next. The only way the will ever stop bickering is when a large percentage of the country changes their opinion to agree with the other half. & the politicians won't be the ones that change people's minds. They are merely representatives of minds. It is nothing like the scientific community.

    You're response of asking for someone reasonable actually fits perfectly with the article's stereotype of liberals. I'm saying elect someone who wants what you want but is willing to play hardball for it, rather than sit on the bench.

    Well, an unbiased way to state it would be to say that getting rid of progressive income taxes would result in less money in the pockets of those who make less money, therefore resulting in more financial struggle. I hardly see where "punishment" comes in. That's an opinion. What are we punishing them for? The perception that they aren't working hard enough or paying their share? Give me a break.

  10. I was pretty busy this weekend, so I hadn't gotten back to this thread as I intended, but here I am now.

    As Matt has discussed many times with respect to his "superiority of secular morality talk," it is absolutely the case that values are subjective; they are held by the person who holds them, and cannot be enforced on anyone else. For instance, "human life should be protected" is a value that is only of interest to humans. Other animals, or hypothetical aliens, gods, and intelligent robots, cannot be assumed to desire the same thing.

    But also, once we as a society can reach some kind of consensus on what our values are, it is by all means possible to observe different systems and identify which ones achieve the results we want better. Longer lifespans, more overall happiness, equal access to education and health benefits, etc. We already do mostly agree on many of the things we want, which is why we're able to standardize things like traffic rules that minimize deaths, and laws against theft and murder (which have nothing to do with the Bible, and everything to do with achieving desirable results in a practical way).

    Values can, of course, differ, and there's room to contest which ones are a priority to uphold. That's why I explicitly said that I'm not addressing this post at people who substantially disagree with my values on the "social" or "economic" axes. From everything you've said, it sounds like you are one of those people. That's fine, but those are different disagreements from the question "Does the party in power have any effect on which set of values are acted on?"

  11. "Here's my party affiliation in a nutshell. I am a liberal because I believe two things. First, people should have the right to do pretty much whatever they want with their private lives that doesn't hurt others. Second, it is a demonstrable historic good to have a social infrastructure that provides education, roads, a social safety net, and pooled resources for scientific research, among other things."

    This sums up my political position better than I could.

  12. I'm sick of having the idea of "tolerance" thrown in my face. I am gay and I don't care if anyone is "tolerant" of me. I do care that the laws discriminate against me. I do care that there is still a great deal of violence against people who don't conform to sexist ideas of how men and women should dress, act and live. But I don't really care if people think I'm stupid or wrong or going to hell. That's none of my business. I just wanted to get that off my chest. I almost never hear liberals discuss tolerance. Only conservatives who don't want to be criticized for being racist, sexist and homophobic. Did I leave out xenophobic. oops. My bad.