A Philosopher's Blog

Political Parties & Principles

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 16, 2016

While the United States does have numerous third parties and many voters now register as independents, politics is dominated by the Republicans and the Democrats. While there are independents in office here and there, independent voters still identify strongly with the two parties. They are also almost entirely limited to voting for candidates from these two parties.

My own party affiliation is Democrat, although it is a very weak affiliation. While I do share some of the values professed by the party (such as support for education and protecting the environment) my main reason for being a Democrat is that Florida is a closed primary state. If I did not have a party affiliation, I would be limited to voting between the candidates picked by the Democrats and Republicans. That is not acceptable and I regard the Democrats as less evil than the Republicans. At least for now.

While people do sometimes change parties (Reagan started as a Democrat and ended as a Republican, while Hillary Clinton took the reverse path) most people stay loyal to their parties. Trump has tested the loyalty of some Republicans, but it seems likely that most will vote along straight party lines. Likewise for Hillary and the Democrats.

Being a philosopher, I endeavor to operate from consistent moral, logical and political principles rather than merely embracing whatever my party happens to endorse at any given moment. Because of this, I could end up leaving the Democratic party if its professed values changed enough to be broadly incompatible with my own. This can certainly happen. As Republicans love to mention, their party was once the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. As they also love to point out, the Democratic party was once an explicitly racist party. Now, of course, both parties are very different from those days. Teddy Roosevelt would be appalled by the current Republican party and the Democrats are now regarded as a civil rights focused party that is very welcoming to minorities (and certainly welcomes their votes).

While political parties presumably provide some benefits for citizens, they mainly exist to benefit the politicians. They provide politicians with resources and support that are essential to running for office. They also provide another valuable service to politicians:  a very effective means of cognitive and moral derangement. Like other groups, political parties exploit well-known cognitive biases, thus encouraging their members to yield to irrationality and moral failure.

One bias is the bandwagon effect; this is the tendency people have to align their thinking with that of those around them. This often serves to ground such fallacies as the “group think” fallacy in which a person accepts a claim as true simply because their group accepts it as true. In the case of political parties, people tend to believe what their party claims, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is well-established that people often double down on false beliefs in the face of objective evidence against this belief. This afflicts people across the political spectrum. The defense against this sort of derangement is to resist leaping on the bandwagon and train oneself to accept evidence rather than group loyalty as support for a claim.

Another bias is the tendency people have to obey authority and conform. Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments in obedience purport to show that people are generally obedient by nature and will obey even when they also believe what they are doing is wrong. This derangement forges people into obedient masses who praise their leader, be that leader the objectively unfit Donald Trump or the morally problematic and Machiavellian Hillary Clinton. Since obedience is so ingrained into humans, resisting is very difficult. In fact, people often think they are resisting authority when they are simply bowing low to some other authority. Being disobedient as a matter of principle is difficult, although people such as Socrates and Thoreau do offer some guidelines and inspiration.

Perhaps the most powerful bias here is the in group bias. This is the natural tendency people have to regard members of their group as having positive qualities while seeing members of other groups as being inferior. This tendency is triggered even by the most superficial of group identifications. For example, sports teams stand for nothing—they do not represent moral or political principles or anything of significance. Yet people routinely become obsessive fans who regard their fellows as better than the fans of other teams. This can, and does, escalate into violence. Violence of the most stupid and pointless sort, but real violence nonetheless. In the case of politics, the bias is even stronger. Republicans and Democrats typically praise their own and condemn their competition. Many of them devote considerable effort scouring the internet for “evidence” of their virtue and the vice of their foes: it is not enough to disagree; the opposition must be demonized and cast as inferior. For example, I see battles play out on Facebook over whether Democrats or Republicans give more to charity—and this sometimes becomes a matter of deep rage that has ended friendships. Since I prefer to not let politics or religion end an otherwise fine friendship, I make a point of not getting engaged in such battles. There are, after all, only losers in those fights.

This bias is extremely useful to politicians as it helps fuels the moral and cognitive derangement of their supporters. The most pronounced effect is that party members will typically rush to defend their politician over matters that they savagely attack the other side for. For example, Donald Trump is, as a matter of objective fact, unrelenting in his untruths. His supporters who otherwise regard lying as wrong, rush to defend and excuse him, while bashing Hillary as a liar and a crook—despite the fact that Hillary says untrue things far less often than Trump. As should be expected, Hillary’s devout backers do the same thing—excusing Hillary for things they condemn about Trump (such as sketchy business deals).

As a matter of rational and moral principle (and consistency), a person who regards lying as wrong should take liars of both parties to task and criticize their lying appropriately. To do otherwise is to be irrational and morally inconsistent. The same should apply to other matters as well, such as sketchy business deals. To avoid this derangement, people need to train themselves (or be trained) to assess politicians as objectively as possible to avoid being morally and cognitively deranged by the undue corrupting influence of party.

This is not to say that a person should fall into the trap of false equivalency or regard any misdeed as equal to any other. Simply saying “they are all equally bad” when they are not is also a failure of reason and ethics. Using the example of the 2016 campaign, while Trump and Clinton both have their flaws, Clinton is objectively better than Trump in regards to qualifications for being president. As Republicans argued when Obama was running in 2008, experience is critically important and the presidency is not an entry level political job. Naturally, I expect some to lash out at me over such claims. Some will rush to praise Trump and tear apart Hillary. I also would expect Hillary backers to be displeased by my fairly negative view of Hillary (while Hillary haters will probably have the mistaken impression that I am all in for her). Such things will actually help prove my point: people tend to be ruled by their biases.

I am not advocating that people become apathetic or abandon their parties. Rather, I want people to hold all politicians to the same standards of criticism rather than rushing to defend their side simply because it is their side and bashing the other simply because it is the other. This would, I hope, force politicians to actually be better. As it now stands, they can be rather awful and simply count on the derangement of voters to work in their favor.

 

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  1. TJB said, on September 16, 2016 at 11:42 am

    Mike, since McCain was “objectively better” qualified than Obama can we assume you voted “R” in 2008?

    Of course you didnt, but I’d be curious to hear why it important in 2016 to vote for the better qualified candidate but it wasn’t important in 2008.

  2. David Halbstein said, on September 17, 2016 at 5:27 am

    When Republicans criticized Obama for his lack of experience, it wasn’t his lack of experience in government that was being cited – it was his lack of experience in actually running or managing anything. He was, and still is, an academic who had never been in charge of a state government or business – he had never managed a budget or met a payroll or had to deal with taxes either on the paying or receiving end. He never served as a mayor, a governor, a CEO or the leader in a military outfit. His experience in government itself is limited to a few terms as a senator, wherein he spent much of his time campaigning for a better position. He, like most senators, served on a number of committees but only chaired a single subcommittee, and independent analyses of his voting record and bill sponsorship classify him as a “rank-and-file Democrat”.

    While it’s true that Trump has no experience in government, I think that’s part of his appeal. He has certainly had first hand knowledge of how tax law and government regulation; he has succeeded and failed in business and has managed what some call an empire with over 15,000 employees and an economy larger than many countries.

    John McCain also lacks the same kind of experience as Obama – he has never run a business or a government. I would put his 30+ years in the senate as kind of a mixed bag of experience; as a senator he sits on committees, leads some, understands procedure and politics and knows how to make deals to get legislation passed – but has not managed or led anything himself. He certainly has a lot of inside knowledge of foreign policy and armed services, but has never had to make a decision that affects people’s lives. That may make him an adroit politician, but not necessarily a good leader. What qualifies him uniquely, in my mind, is his military experience and his first hand knowledge of the rigors of war, the international, domestic and personal implications of an ill-advised military excursion and the experience of the millions of veterans living in this country. Eisenhower was like that too – and Eisenhower had zero experience in government.

    Clinton’s experience in government, what many claim are her “better qualifications” for president, many others (including myself) see that as a huge negative. Her experience is in wrangling votes, playing politics, pandering to voters, and especially her uncanny ability to leverage her position of power in government to steer money into her own pocket and into the coffers of her foundation. The way in which she is able to blur the lines between her private foundation and the influence she has been able to wield is absolutely skillful, but in my mind unquestionably disqualifies her from the presidency based on lack of integrity, dishonesty, conflict of interest and thirst for personal power.

    Her greatest successes have been in this area. When you look at what she has actually done for the country, there is a string of failures. She was the author of the Iran nuclear deal. She was one of the authors of the Pacific Trade agreement, which she called “The Gold Standard” of trade agreements before she backtracked on that opinion for political reasons. She proudly held the “Reset” button with Russia, which Putin has laughed at as he ran roughshod over the Ukraine and Syria. She is one of the cadre of weasels who voted for the Iraq war with full and complete knowledge, then backtracked on that vote claiming she was lied to when it became politically expedient. With every passing day we learn about how our national security was compromised by her use of a personal server – which she continues to deny even as she smashes her iPhone with a hammer.

    It’s interesting to note that the president of the United States with the MOST government experience – 40 years serving in the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives, the US House of Representatives, Ambassador to Russia, US Senate, Ambassador to the UK, and Secretary of State, James Buchanan, is widely regarded as the worst president in history. Also interesting to note that none of the government positions Buchanan held were positions of leadership where people’s lives or livelihood stood in the balance of his decisions.

    • WTP said, on September 17, 2016 at 6:31 am

      Exactly. And if you look at Joe Biden’s career, he’s not that far off from paralleling Buchanan. A man, like Algore, who somehow managed to be on the “wrong” side in the three critical Iraq votes. Not to mention his many, many Palinish stumbles and bloopers.

      • david halbstein said, on September 17, 2016 at 7:15 am

        While experience in government can be a qualification for president, one has to look at what one does with that experience. Clinton is no doubt an experienced politician, but she falls way short as an experienced leader.

        I do agree with the heart of Mike’s post though – and in that I think it is an excellent observation. We are nothing more than cheerleaders in this race for power – joining ranks with others to support our “team” as though the presidential race were an NFL playoff game. We form opinions based on Facebook and twitter, and pre-formed sound bytes concocted by advertising agencies who are experts at directing public opinion.

        One of the most frustrating little internet shortcuts that I see today is “TLDR”. That sums it up. Political positions have nuance, they have depth, they have context. Americans prefer fast food, drive-thru, “tell me what I want to hear, but don’t use too many words”. TLDR is really, “I’m too lazy to consider any information that extends longer than the first sentence under a headline”. Shameful, really.

        I am a registered Republican for pretty much the same reason Mike is a registered Democrat, but unlike him, I live in a state where my vote does not count for the most part. Overwhelmingly blue, at least New York can serve as a proving ground for third party candidates, which is usually the way I vote. This year Gary Johnson is having an impact on the vote – the millennials who showed up in such great force for Bernie Sanders are now shifting their votes to him. He is also garnering support from would-be Republican voters who eschew Donald Trump. He has no chance to gain the presidency this time around, but his numbers are better than other third party candidates in modern history, including Ross Perot.

        I’ve said before that if we want the system to change, we are the ones that must bring about the change, but it won’t happen overnight. The more Americans become fed up with the status quo of our corrupt two party system, the more “outsider” candidates will have a chance to debate and make a difference. Maybe next cycle.

        • wtp said, on September 17, 2016 at 8:20 am

          We are nothing more than cheerleaders in this race for power – joining ranks with others to support our “team” as though the presidential race were an NFL playoff game.

          While I agree that it is quite banal, we get what we ask for. Plenty of other societies don’t even have that much influence. More on that below.

          One of the most frustrating little internet shortcuts that I see today is “TLDR”. That sums it up. Political positions have nuance, they have depth, they have context….TLDR is really, “I’m too lazy to consider any information that extends longer than the first sentence under a headline”. Shameful, really.

          Very much disagree here. Context of medium is important. And even more broadly, a writer/speaker has a responsibility to make their point clearly and succinctly. I understand that such is not always possible, but in the context of a blog or Facebook or similar, if you are rambling on and on it’s a good indication that you’ve ventured off topic. Keeping things short and to the point, as ronster pointed out on another thread, enables discrete and distinct analysis. Long screeds that bring in more issues not needed in reference to the point at hand do not get us anywhere. They become a distraction. Sometimes it seems intentionally so. Other times it’s an indication that the writer thinks more highly of themselves than their audience. Everyone’s time is valuable. It is the one resource you can never get back. A writer has a responsibility to recognize that fact.

          But more relevantly, if politics and by extension, law require so much context it’s a good indication, to me anyway, that the politics/law has become way too intrusive into modern life. The US Constitution is less than 8,000 words. The city charter for the town of approx. 20,000 in which I live is considerably longer. I’m talking just the charter here, not the ordinances. Not every action or interaction in life should come under the auspices of government.

          I’ve said before that if we want the system to change, we are the ones that must bring about the change, but it won’t happen overnight. The more Americans become fed up with the status quo of our corrupt two party system, the more “outsider” candidates will have a chance to debate and make a difference. Maybe next cycle.

          Totally disagree with this approach. Especially from a conservative view point. We have the problems we have because, in spite of what you refer to above (re cheerleaders, etc.), we actually do have a representative democracy. What those who bemoan our politics, from the left and the right, refuse to acknowledge is that the fault for this lies not in our politicians but in our selves. If conservatives want to make real change in the world, they need to get out in the world and work with the poor, the struggling, even the marginal struggling businesses which are not necessarily poor. To work with them to counteract the prevailing message that comes from the media and academics like Mike that they can’t make it without some big government/brother/”thinker” to “help” them. Otherwise we will snowball our way back into socialism or regency or caudillos or similar. This is the problem with the GOPe as well. They’ve fallen for this idea that people can be helped by pressing down on them from above rather than lifting them up from below.

          Sorry if that was TL;DR. Hope I got my point across, nuance and all…or lack there of.

  3. david halbstein said, on September 17, 2016 at 10:48 am

    For me, this was not “TL;DR”, but this is the kind of post that is just that for too many people. I’m not talking about multi-page ramblings, I’m talking about discussing a topic in several paragraphs that people are just too lazy to read. “Below the fold”, so to speak. While I agree that time is precious, I see a society who prefers not to waste time with discourse when they could be better spending that time scrolling through Facebook, playing Candy Crush, or looking at cat videos. For them, a simple “Hillary is a liar” or “Trump is a bigot” is enough to form their opinion – depending on which one o .

    Years ago a sociology professor I had once described the human mind as at once thirsty and lazy – needing to fill itself up but, once full, being reluctant to change. How many videos are there of reporters “out on the street” asking questions about candidates and issues, only to find out how little people really know? Too bad the real meat of issues lies beyond the 140 character limit.

    I also agree that we have a more representative government than most – but I prefer not to set the bar that low. That’s like excusing Obama’s behavior by saying “Bush was worse”. Not good enough.

    “the fault for this lies not in our politicians but in our selves. ”

    Exactly. I think that if Americans took a little more time to read the actual positions and records of the two running for president now, and took the time to read a little more news about what other options we might have, I think we’d see both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the upcoming debates and our representation would be that much broader.

    • wtp said, on September 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm

      I see a society who prefers not to waste time with discourse when they could be better spending that time scrolling through Facebook, playing Candy Crush, or looking at cat videos.
      See, this is the kind of false dichotomy that is popular among many in academia and those of us who pay considerable attention to politics, etc. People who take themselves a bit too seriously. Sure such silly diversions are popular. But even those interested in politics and national/world affairs and such can find time for FB and LOLKatz. Yet I would argue that those who spend too much time with them are self-selecting themselves out of the election process, Note, I said SELF selection, unlike what I felt that other commenter was alluding to. Whether consciously or not, they recognize that politics and such just isn’t for them. Some see that there are (supposedly) very smart people on both sides (“both” as in the the other false dichotomy that the media obsesses over) of an issue and thus who are they to know what is right. And to give you an example, a mea culpa…

      I think that if Americans took a little more time to read the actual positions and records of the two running for president now, and took the time to read a little more news about what other options we might have, I think we’d see both Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the upcoming debates and our representation would be that much broader.
      I know about Gary Johnson and have looked into him a bit. Followed him a little as governor of NM. All I know of Jill Stein is that she’s a greenie coming in from the left of the D’s. I am familiar with the Green Party in general. I think of them more as the Watermelon Party. Do I owe it to myself or as a proper US citizen to spend time looking into her specific background? No. I have the general idea. If there really is a there there I feel quite confident it will bubble up onto my radar screen and then perhaps I will look into her more. Perhaps this is where a good number of politically disinterested people are. I think this is where you missed my last point above. We need to cultivate a better understanding of economics, reality, and how the world works among those who play too much Candy Crush. If we do that, the politics will take care of itself.

  4. TJB said, on September 18, 2016 at 8:09 am

    I see a society who prefers not to waste time with discourse when they could be better spending that time scrolling through Facebook, playing Candy Crush, or looking at cat videos.

    You both have a point. We have plenty of *time* for a deep dive, but one of the effects of modern life is that it is increasingly difficult to concentrate for long periods of time.

    • david halbstein said, on September 18, 2016 at 11:43 am

      I think we are both saying the same thing. I don’t know if it is so difficult to concentrate for long periods of time; I don’t think the length of time is all that great to form an independent opinion based on facts – but one needs to be willing to potentially go against the flow. We are bombarded with implied criticism and affirmations constantly through our online interactions. To take a stance that goes against one’s friends and family or one’s “friends” on FB or the soundbites of celebrities we admire is a big social risk; it’s much easier to just jump on the bandwagon and say, “Yeah! I’m with them!”

      I have said before that I am no apologist for Trump, but there are things that he says – policy positions, economic theories or criticism of the status quo, that make sense – or would make sense if they were spoken by someone else. Yet there is very little discussion of these things – people have made their minds up that he is a boorish racist, a thought that is reinforced daily by the media – both mainstream and social – and will not open their minds to new concepts if they are voiced by him. The same, of course, is true of Hillary and her supporters.

      “if politics and by extension, law require so much context it’s a good indication, to me anyway, that the politics/law has become way too intrusive into modern life.”

      I don’t think it requires so much context. Ten or fifteen minutes to read an article a few times a week is not too much time. And it’s not the law or the politics that require context, it’s the issues. When 300 million people live in 50 states and hundreds of counties, towns, and cities of all sorts of races and demographics. The problems they face are nuanced and complex, and do not come down to simple one-liners like “Gun Control” or “Tax the Rich” or “Over-regulation is bad”.

      “Keeping things short and to the point …enables discrete and distinct analysis.”

      Very true. But that lies somewhere between a sound byte and a long screed, and even that is too long for too many people.

      ” I would argue that those who spend too much time with [FB, LOLcats, etc] are self-selecting themselves out of the election process”

      These people still vote. They are very much a part of the election process, and are what Mike was describing in the first place – bandwagon voters and team-players.

      • wtp said, on September 18, 2016 at 12:23 pm

        but one needs to be willing to potentially go against the flow. We are bombarded with implied criticism and affirmations constantly through our online interactions. To take a stance that goes against one’s friends and family or one’s “friends” on FB or the soundbites of celebrities we admire is a big social risk; it’s much easier to just jump on the bandwagon and say, “Yeah! I’m with them!”
        Most definitely. But to remain silent in the face of absurdities when constantly being presented with them enables their perpetuation. It’s a very delicate balance to engage and thus one must only do so when the facts are solidly on one’s side. It helps, some times, to give a little on a point one might otherwise argue, but even that in today’s conditions could be folly.

        there are things that he says – policy positions, economic theories or criticism of the status quo, that make sense – or would make sense if they were spoken by someone else.
        Agree very much. I felt this way about Reagan at times, but he pulled through. Not that he was anywhere near what Trump has been thumping on, either tactically nor philosophically. I see it as both a blessing and a curse that people don’t pay enough attention to these things. I am highly suspicious of Trump being something of a plant to discredit conservative values. I know, tin foil hat. But I can’t help but think that a rational anti-PC candidate would be running away with this thing, especially against such a disaster as HRC is. The Trump supporters (and former supporters) that I know expressed similar feelings.

        Ten or fifteen minutes to read an article a few times a week is not too much time.
        Well, then were talking about two different levels of immersion. Earlier this year I was at lunch with several of my more senior coworkers, all engineers in the defense industry, all GOP or GOP-leaning people. We were discussing the GOP primary candidates when there were still a dozen or so of them and I made a passing reference to George Soros. No one knew WTH I was talking about. When I tried to explain, I started to get the tin-foil-hat reaction. These are educated, knowledgeable people. Just not knowledgeable about much beyond the surface issues of US and world events.

        These people still vote. They are very much a part of the election process
        Voter turnout of the eligible voting age population hovers around 50-60% and hasn’t been over 2/3 in well over 100 years.
        http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/data/turnout.php

  5. TJB said, on September 19, 2016 at 7:49 am

    Have you guys read this screed by Nassim Taleb?

    View story at Medium.com

    • WTP said, on September 19, 2016 at 8:20 am

      Kind of agree with the commenter who said “There’s a point to be made but Taleb’s ego got in the way of it”. And thus he has to some extent damaged the position through poor communication and overreach. But I certainly recognize certain people in that screed. One stands out, specifically.


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