Political InQueery: False Dichotomies in the Race for President
News of the early election season has been swamped by the stalled debt ceiling vote in Congress, but the proposals put forth by Speaker of the House Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Reid are sure to factor into stump speeches by the GOP candidates for president. And because this is my farewell in this series for Bitch Magazine's blog, I'd like to point out a few things regarding analyzing the rest of the early election campaigning. Like this: beware the false dichotomy.
False Dichotomy #1:—Taxing vs. Spending. Republicans would have us believe that the Democrats want the biggest, most bloated government possible, and the Democrats tell us that Republicans are so anti-tax they're willing to tank the whole country for their principles. Neither statement is exactly true. But we need to get honest about how the American system works best, at least in theory: with each class paying what it can afford, and with a responsible level of corporate taxes to keep business healthy but not unfairly low. Of course there are programs that each of us would rather not support, but as a nation we're a collective, so it's not all about any one of us, and we've been too entranced by media pundits who think individual entitlement trumps that collective need. Taxing and spending aren't polar opposites; they're parts of a process on which the government is founded.
False Dichotomy #2:—Morality vs. Immorality. Before the 1930s, cannabis was legal to produce and consume. Why? Because nobody deemed it a morally questionable activity. Once it became popular with white college students, legislators in Washington, DC criminalized the sale and use of the plant, originally brought to the states as a crop by the Spanish in the mid-1500s. Morality shifts over time, over generations, and when candidates for president talk about moral behavior, it's only to get votes on their side or away from their opponent. Because the religious right and the Tea Party right are not one in the same community, these moral arguments may get bandied about more than usual this primary season, strung along distinct lines of Christian values and the purpose of government, as each group tries to exert its influence over the GOP. I hope that such conversations will not cause any collateral damage, as often people or groups get caught up in the invective of these debates—witness what happened to Planned Parenthood's funding during the last budget debates.
False Dichotomy #3:—Real World vs. Internet. Having a foot in both camps for more than a decade now, I personally am exhausted by the argument over which is more important, or the idea that we can dismiss Internet discussions because they're not happening face-to-face. On the other hand, I can recall virtual arguments where my own bricks-and-mortar activism was dissed as an example of my privilege of not having a social anxiety disorder. It gets ludicrous fast, this dichotomy. We have Tunisia and Egypt as examples of how websites can be used as tools to bring about real world change, or how the insatiable information demands of the material world create the rise of the Internet itself. Once upon a time, the web was just a bunch of computers stitched together for the US Army. I bring this up in an election post because elections are another example of this breach between the two spheres. Online donations, online presence, blogs, discussion forums, endlessly streaming videos of candidates and around-the-clock campaign coverage: all of it has radically altered how politicians run for office, and as I've written about before here, has significantly upped the pressure on candidates. Just look at how Christine O'Donnell's 15-year-old statements came back to haunt her, all over the web, or how a joke about Rick Santorum still hangs around as a taunt more than five years after Dan Savage started it.
False Dichotomy #4:—Individual Rights vs. Special Interests. Americans love the story of the little guy up against the juggernaut, and triumphing against all odds. It makes for great movies. But the term "special interests" now means close to anything, not just powerful international conglomerates or spy syndicates. GOP members use "special interests" to include LGBT activists, or environment activists, Democrats use it to mean Ken Lay or big funders like the Koch Brothers, and radical progressives use it to mean almost everybody. Maybe such "special interests" support individual rights. Maybe people, again, shouldn't have so many entitlements that no matter what, they get deference over some group that is lobbying Congress. What group doesn't lobby Congress, after all? The point of a representative government is to listen to constituents and support them as well as possible and practicable. This dichotomy only creates an obstructionist atmosphere and makes it harder to identify the actual tensions at play in a specific debate or issue. And it overplays the rights of the individual over the country.
False Dichotomy #5:—Success vs. Doom. We're hearing this one a lot right now, as we head into the Total Final Destruction Sequence next week, when our debt hits the ceiling we've set for it. Since 9/11 the rhetoric has sounded the alarm, every election. David Vitter won his 2010 midterm election, and he had one of the most offensive, anti-immigrant television ads of the cycle, showing how the US was about to be overrun with Latinos sneaking across our borders. (See False Dichotomy #2.) We've heard that our demise is imminent at the hands of Arab terrorists, pro-choice activists, and gay people insistent on destroying marriage. But for our votes for candidate X, the US is about to drop into hell. It obviously isn't true, but it plays a powerful role in whipping up angry sentiment before election day, and it's almost certainly going to hit high gear once the general election campaign begins.
False Dichotomy #6:—Republicans vs. Democrats. There are notable differences along social programs and the way one undertakes in-party debate, yes. But until President Obama took office, both parties voted to raise the debt ceiling whenever it came to a vote. Both parties stood on the steps of the Capitol and sang "God Bless America" after the terror attacks in 2001. For decades they have swapped majority and minority status and worked across the aisle to greater or lesser degrees of success. And a lot of the differences they describe between them just isn't all that true even if the starkness of presumed mutual exclusivity is more newsworthy. More helpful to the country is an honest accounting of where the parties differ and why.
I'm tired of dichotomies because I'm tired of reductive, anti-intellectual thinking. I live in a small, isolated town in the remnants of the Old West, and as a born and bred Northeasterner, I'm used to people getting in my face and telling me what I think. Well, what I think now is this: we "elite" progressives and the "gun-and-god-clinging" rednecks have a lot of the same interests with regard to our financial security, physical needs, and want of happiness. I for one aim to find bridges to people who don't think the way I do and just leave the politicians out of it.
All my best to you all this and every campaign season. For more of me, please feel free to stop by my blog, Trans/Plant/Portation and say hello.
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