January 20, 2005

Sense Sensibility

Brian wrote an entry on his blog about his ideas for a moderate party stance in response to a comment I made to him on an earlier post of his.

I don’t fancy myself much of a political strategist or political scientist. I’ve got a general knowledge but do not consider myself exceptionally knowledgeable about history. I offer this caveat just to put my comments in perspective as exploratory rather than an attempt at being authoritative.

It sounds like Brian wants to adopt a very liberal philosophy for running the country, but wants to approach it differently than the Democrats, who have been in a shambles lately regarding their ability to articulate and provide clear leadership. (I don’t think the Republicans have been much better at providing leadership, but they have clearly been better communicators). Kudos to him. “Sensible” has its own problems as a name (remember “Brights”?) but I think what he’s articulation is a frustration with the polarized nature of the debate in this country.

But let me take a closer look at Brian’s post for a moment. I wanted to see, in his examples, how the extremes compare.

[Religion has] always been a tricky gray area, but people tend to fall out on the far ends of the spectrum. On the one end we have people who want creationism taught in the schools. On the other, we have people who get angry when someone says Merry Christmas to a mixed group of people in a corporate setting.

In this example there are 2 extremes. One wants creationism taught as science in school. Public school is clearly an area in which government is involved. So this part of the example is about how the extreme has an effect on government. The other extreme in his example is a disagreement about how a private social situation is handled. Since no one is suggesting that the government step in to prevent people from saying “Merry Christmas,” it has no parity with the other example which seeks to use government to push religious dogma.

His example about abortion exhibits the same phenomenon. The social conservative extreme is described as wanting to stop (presumably via the government and its laws) “any abortion under any circumstance or any acknowledgement of birth control.” On the left, we just have the extreme behavior of T-shirt wearing and a particular attitude about abortion. Again, there is a parity gap here.

This is completely unintentional on Brian’s part, but what does it mean? I can’t read Brian’s mind, but it would seem to me that a liberal is going to consider the opposing party’s effect on the government as “extremism” while simultaneously being annoyed that some actual extreme and marginal factions of his own wing are exhibiting behavior that undercuts his desire for the liberal position to be taken seriously.

That’s my read. And lest this post be perceived as my picking on Brian, I want to say I agree with his sentiments and his central idea.

Lately, I’ve been trying to check in with Left2Right , and academic group blog with some pretty intelligent liberal minds trying to find ways to reach the right. (their self-description is here)

Personally I think it’s a more complex question than finding a middle. For me it is. Maybe that’s why I’ve tried to start reading more about liberalism, libertarianism, the left and traditional Democratic issues. There’s an interesting series of posts on Left2Right called “Letting Roe Go” (third installment here, with links to previous ones).

I don’t have any simple suggestions. Before you can compromise, you have to know what you stand for. It’s not a simple thing to go through all these issues, come up with opinions and then try to gether them under the umbrella of a unifying philosophy. Individually, it can take a lifetime. The Democrats need to find a unifying philosophy. I’m trying to do it personally.

The left do not “stand for” pride in abortions. We do not define ourselves by the folks who are upset by a quasi-religious holiday greeting.

We might be proud to live in a country that allows women some control over the reproductive workings of their bodies. We might be proud that we don’t force all people to celebrate at Christmastime. But the extreme application of the freedoms we stand for is not the focus.

Think of a full pint glass of beer as freedom for everyone. To fill a beer glass completely, sometimes you have to spill a little foam over the lip of the vessel. Better that little foam be spilled than to hand someone a slightly empty pint glass. Think of the extreme folks wearing T-shirts as that little bit of foam which ultimately is of no consequence.

On the other hand, there is a perception that these extremes are representative. This is a real problem. More thoughtful discussion on strongly held beliefs is great, but people in T-shirts makes good TV and will supersede a hundred discussions. Even here, I choose to entertain myself and my readers with an occasional extreme because it’s fun. So, maybe the first step is to be able to distinguish political discourse from blowing off steam. Talk radio has blurred that line if not completely erased it.

Blaming talk radio will get us nowhere. We have to be for things. We have to be strong in our beliefs, the roots of our beliefs and the reasoning behind them. “Protecting the rights of all people” as Brian begins, is, indeed, a good place to start.

Posted by James at January 20, 2005 12:09 PM
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Good response, James. Thanks for taking some time to think it through. I miss having these discussions in the great room over an IBC in front of the fire while the children scream in the background.

I think what you say down the bottom comes closer to what I am feeling in my examples. The majority of liberals may not stand for things in the examples, but the perception out there is that they do. The foam is certainly of consequence when it is plastered everywhere as representative of all beer.

As to my religion example, the point I was trying to get across is that the Right seems to want to wield religion while the left wants to exorcise it. And they don't just want it cut from the government. There are people on the left who feel religiously persecuted if there is a Merry Christmas sign at their office without a nod to their holiday, regardless of the beliefs of the company owner. They complain and call it discrimination. That's where I feel the parity is between my examples.

Let's take abortion again for a minute to try to look at the stance on the left a bit more. I'm anti-abortion but pro-choice. Consider this scenario. A woman has four abortions in a three year period. While her personal life is not my business, there is a part of me that feels we should try to understand why this has happened. Perhaps there is something we can do working with her so she doesn't feel that she needs to choose an abortion again. Is that an anti-choice stance? Anti-privacy? I'm not sure myself, but it doesn't FEEL compatible with current liberal ideology.

Thanks for the pointer to Left2Right. This sounds exactly like what I am looking for.

Perhaps I am a liberal trying to make my left views seem centrist? Or perhaps I have not yet figured out a way to adequatley describe the two sides.

Posted by: briwei at January 20, 2005 9:52 PM

I think you are a liberal, but you balk at some of the extremes. And I think that makes perfect sense because you're a person who cares about reaching a sensible compromise and you know that a sensible compromise is in jeopardy when a few marginal extremist views are mistaken as being widely held.

Most people (even the most liberal people I know personally) would think that four abortions was a problem. But even though I would like to reduce the number of abortions as much as possible, I couldn't call myself anti-abortion because I know there are inevitable cases in which a mother must be allowed to choose her own reproductive destiny if we are to be able to say we are protecting the rights of all people.

Yeah - it's difficult to come up with descriptions that articulate the subtleties.

My big fear with centrism is that we may elevate compromise as a virtue above what we hold to be important. That's why I was glad to see you start your post with "protecting the rights of all people."

It's got to be tough to start a new party. Why haven't philosophical libertarians had any luck organizing? Is it just that there aren't many of them? I don't see them flockign to the Libertarian party. Right it suggests to me that there is some dynamic in organizing a party that gets in the way of gathering liberty-minded people together in a time when people feel their freedoms are protected enough.

I think some compromise is going to be in order on some issues, because when you compromise a little in key areas you can strengthen your message. However, it's parties that should be compromising. It's up to us as individuals, I think, to just figure out what we're for... what we think is sensible.

Posted by: James at January 21, 2005 9:19 AM

Good points all around. I suppose I am not strictly anti-abortion. I'm anti-abortion-as-a-substitute-for-taking-responsibility-for-ones-choices. But that is a bit long to say. :)

Posted by: briwei at January 21, 2005 10:11 PM

Wow, I misused "it's." Once again. I thought I had that licked. But my writing in comments and on my weblog has been horrendous lately. Ack.

You're goign to have to abbreviate your opinion. Maybe an acronym?


Tough to pronounce. Oh well. But I get what you mean, anyhow.

Damn this starting a movement thing is hard!

Posted by: James at January 21, 2005 10:41 PM

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