Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bad Advice

I'm a retired, middle-class, middle American, white, Anglo-Saxon, college-educated, straight, law-abiding, tax-paying, monolingual, gringo male. The world is optimized for people like me. I’ve spent my whole life voting against my own self-interest and am damn proud of it!

I mention this because there’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately from my brothers and sisters on the left over how and why we lost the recall election that preserved Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in power for another 2.5 years (barring criminal indictment).

And I think the answer may be found in the mantra that arose after the publication of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. In it, Frank makes the case that the conservative movement gave people something bigger than themselves to plug into, notably the protection of the lives of innocent unborn children.

The left then decided it hadn’t been doing a good enuf job convincing people to pay attention to their own self-interest and started loudly proclaiming that they should do so. After all, it wasn’t our end of the political spectrum that crashed the economy; lied us into 2 idiotic, expensive land wars in Asia; shipped millions of jobs overseas; didn’t care about trashing the environment; whacked away at education; rolled back legal and health protections for women; corrupted electoral politics with unbelievably huge gobs of money; and demonized public workers and the valuable services they provide. We legitimately made the case that the average person benefits from all of the social policies that liberals and progressives favor, and which we’ve helped put in place over the years.

But it was a classic case of “What have you done for me lately?”. And, upon hearing the call to go out and vote for their own self-interest, Wisconsin citizens did so in droves: In the midst of a serious economic crunch, they voted for the guy who promised them lower taxes. That’s self-interest in the here and now, something that translates into spendable dollars in the wallet, regardless of the ill effects it may have over the long haul. ("In the long run we're all dead." —John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), English economist)

So is it that the message got garbled? Or was it the wrong message to begin with?

I’d like to advance the proposition that we should read Frank’s work in a different light. He is, after all, the intellectual heir to the observations made by longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer back in the 1950s, when he examined mass movements in his classic work The True Believer. The 2 main mass movements that concerned him were the recently defeated Nazis and the then-current paranoid demon Communists, but his observations apply across a much broader spectrum than that and help explain everything from early Christianity to cheeseheads.

The general idea is that human beings are immensely social creatures. We have a deep psychological longing to belong, to fit in, to go along. (“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”, according to the Japanese proverb.) This can be explained intellectually by evolutionary biology, but the day-to-day reality is nowhere near up at the conscious level. It comes from, as Stephen Colbert proudly proclaims, the gut. Hoffer seems less than charitable when he points out that plugging into some greater cause may be the only way that insecure and/or incompetent people have of finding anything at all to feel good about in themselves, but let’s not kid ourselves that those are the only people so affected. There are tons of psychological experiments in which individual subjects who know the right answer to a question posed to their group keep their mouths shut, or even change their minds, when the rest of the group (all plants) quickly coalesces around a wrong answer. It takes a bold person indeed to be the only one speaking out against the group consensus, even in an absolutely no-stakes experimental situation.

So people are predisposed to subordinate their individuality to the welfare (or at least the harmony) of the greater body. No less an authority than Star Trek’s Mr. Spock intoned "Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." Of course, we’d all like to think of the beneficiaries of our sacrifices not merely as the greater body but as the greater good, and certainly that’s the way it always comes wrapped.

So what we’re faced with here is a tug of war between individualism on the one hand and collectivism on the other. We’re never going to go to the extremes — the anarchy of complete individualism on the one hand or the termite colony of complete collectivism on the other — so it’s always going to be a case of finding the proper place to draw the dividing line between them, and reasonable people may reasonably differ on where that line belongs.

But I think the left needs to be making a stronger case for its own preferred flavors of collectivism. Yes, the preamble to the US Constitution speaks proudly of liberty, and that’s something we all support and all recognize as something that does (and should) accrue to each individual. But Jefferson’s genius did not stop at this paean to individualism. Look at it in full: "We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect UNION, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the COMMON defence, promote the GENERAL Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our POSTERITY, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." The core principles of the American experiment are absolutely riddled with the notion that we need to give a damn about each other.

As I said at the outset, I’ve been voting against my own self-interest my entire life and am damn proud of it. I’d like to encourage everyone else to join me. That’s the message I want the left to broadcast, not the plaintive lament “Why can’t these people see what’s in their own self-interest and vote accordingly?”.