Are you a tax-raising, soy latte-drinking, Prius-driving, New York Times-reading, Daily Show-watching, corporation-hating liberal?
Our topic this week is the psychology of partisan politics. To appreciate how divided Americans are about politics, we might start with god, guns, and sex. Some Americans view gun ownership as a non-negotiable, an almost sacred right, and view homosexuality as an unholy abomination. Other Americans see guns as one of our greatest social ills and see differences in sexual orientation as no more significant than differences in eye color. But, of course, those are intrinsically emotionally charged issues, so you might expect deep divisions in such domains. But Americans are also deeply divided over things like the environment, the economy, and education. We all profess to want clean air and water, good schools, and a thriving economy. But we don’t agree at all about how to achieve those things. Americans fight pitched political battles over things that you might think would cause very little division. We’re like warring tribes that just refuse to get along and let old wounds heal. Health care is, I think, a perfect illustration. Every advanced industrialized democracy has had some form of universal health care for a very long time. But we have had to struggle to achieve even relatively modest healthcare reform in this country. And although nobody was really proposing a complete government takeover of either healthcare system or the health insurance system, you wouldn't have known that from the recent debates. Those who were opposed to universal care, acted as if were drifting into Stalinism.
Now it may sound like a pretty partisan assessment of the opposition. And I do have to admit that I personally found it pretty hard to stomach the Republican Party’s implacable opposition to universal care. And it was just about calling people who support universal healthcare “Stalinist.” That was out of bounds, but it missed what seemed to me to be the real issue -- which seemed to me a pretty straightforward one. As I saw it, the question is whether we should collectively guarantee everybody equal access to a basic level of health care, independently of ability to pay. And the obvious answer, it seems to me, is that yes, of course we should. It’s a simple matter of fairness and common decency, on my view.
Of course, left leaning people like me tend to think of fairness in terms of treating everybody equally, at least as far as basic rights and basic goods are concerned. The notion of fairness as equality warms the hearts of us left-leaning, liberal do-gooder types. And we tend to think that conservatives reject arguments based on fairness out of some basic aversion to fairness and equality. Oh, they might talk about fairness. But for them fairness is a matter of me getting mine, you getting yours, and the two of us screwing everybody else.
But I have to admit that it is not entirely fair to conservatives to think of them as mean-spirited and greedy people who care not a whit about fairness. They just think of fairness in differently than left-leaning people do. For folks on the right, fairness isn’t so much about equality as about desert. Things are fair, by the conservative measure, when everybody gets what they deserve – no more, no less. Fairness means that everybody pays their fair share, nobody freeloads, and hard-working, talented people get to reap the fruits of their talents and their labor.
Now I think it is important to grant that there are there are notions of fairness. And it seems to me that reasonable people can disagree over which notion of fairness to apply in which situations. Is this a situation calling for fairness understood as equality or a situation calling for fairness understood as desert? That strikes me as an interesting and deep question. It’s the kind of question about which one could have extended philosophical discussion and debate.
Though Plato dreamed of a more reasoned and, yes, more philosophical politics (and so, frankly, do I) --- I have to admit that in the real world political life has very little in common with what goes on in a philosophy seminar room. But maybe that's not surprising. There is, after all, a very big difference between philosophy and politics. In the philosophy seminar room, the only thing really at stake are ideas. No money is changing hands. No goods are being redistributed. The social fabric of everyday life isn’t being stretched and torn. In that context, people can afford the luxury of dispassionate debate and argument. But real life isn’t like that.
But what does that mean about our competing ideas – our competing philosophical ideas – about fairness. Is there any way we can calmly, rationally, and respectfully work out these competing idea? Are we even interested in trying? Or are both the liberal notion of fairness as equality and the conservative talk of fairness as desert, really just empty talk – something that each side trots out to paper over and disguise their real motives and interests when they are pushed to defend themselves? I mean if you really want to have it all, what better way to defend yourself than to appeal to fairness as desert. And if you really want to take something that belongs to somebody else and redistribute it, what better way to defend your self than by appeal to fairness as desert. It’s as if the interest comes first, and the justification in terms of fairness is thought of post hoc to disguise the real interest.
Unfortunately, I suspect that there is some deep truth to that disturbing outlook. I wouldn’t say that partisan politics is all based on pretense and false consciousness. But I do think that all sorts of hidden and subterranean motives drive us to do the things we do. And that’s why politics is so very unlike like reasoned philosophical arguments. So very, very little of it is completely above board and transparent. So very little of it deserves to be taken at face value. And that’s precisely why we need to into the dark reaches of the human psyche if we really want to understand how partisan politics really works.