Reader Request Week 2020 #1: Being Politically Persuaded

It’s time for this year’s Reader Request Week! Let’s dive right in, and why not dive into the deep end? GB Miller asks:

I think over the years you’ve made your political beliefs quite crystal clear. Have you ever legitimately considered/agree with any viewpoint that came from the other side of the spectrum?

I’m gonna argue with some of the particulars of this question, because a) I don’t necessarily agree that I’ve made my political beliefs “crystal clear,” and b) I don’t agree with the formulation of politics as being on a linear spectrum. So let me address both of those before addressing the heart of the issue: Whether I consider political viewpoints that are different from mine.

First: Have I made my political beliefs crystal clear? I have certainly made my political opinions of the day clear  — I have a three-decade track record of publicly talking about politics. But this is where I remind people that what I talk about publicly is not the entirety of my thinking, or of my action, and also, it’s important to note that people having positions on particular political topics does not in itself necessarily offer much insight into their political beliefs. Many liberals and many libertarians, for example, believe sex workers should be able to ply their trade openly and without social/economic/legal penalty, but the underlying beliefs that lead to that agreement are widely apart. And independent (heh) of political belief, there’s a fundamental difference between the position of “I should be able to work as a sex worker without penalty” and “I should be able to pay for sex work without penalty,” which leads two often very disparate cohorts to agree on the political topic of sex work.

If you know what I (or anyone) think on a political topic, what you know is what I (or anyone) think on that particular subject. Unless I delve deeply into the ethos and philosophy that led me to that point, however, you can’t say you know much of the underlying political belief. You can argue, with some justification, that there is a significant correlation between one’s thoughts on a set of political topics, and an underlying political ethos. But correlation is not causation, and one can be led astray.

Moreover, there’s a very large difference between how people see their own political beliefs, and how others often see them. I tend to think of myself as an inherently conservative person, motivated by an underlying philosophy of rationality and individual liberty, balanced by the practical issues of how to make a nation of 330 million as livable as possible for the largest number of its citizens. The Internet, on the other hand, often sees me a screaming socialist communist liberal who wants your guns and your freedoms.

Who is correct? Well, I live in my head, so I have a better idea of my own thinking. But I’m also human and prone to self-idealization. “The Internet” in this case is shorthand for people who superficially oppose my positions on political topics, and have the need to both gamify political discourse and simplify the world into “sides,” because binary systems are so much easier to deal with: Either you’re with us or against us. But again — hold a large enough set of personal political opinions, and the correlation with a “side” becomes stronger. So maybe these gamifiers and simplifiers aren’t entirely wrong.

Again, however, it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. It’s entirely possible that what I see as my personal inherent conservatism and belief in individual liberty within a system meant to benefit the largest number of people can lead me to espouse what are currently seen as (at the moment but not necessarily historically) intensely “liberal” positions. I am thinking of the cause of my political opinions; the Internet is seeing the effect of my political beliefs.

Second, and as a consequence of the first: Political sides are bullshit, and linear political spectrums are bullshit, and the fact that the political system in the United States has developed over the years to allow only two major parties at a time to control the discourse of politics is also bullshit, since it codifies “sides” to a vastly detrimental degree. We’re seeing the damage of that right now, as one of our major political parties has devolved into a tool of reactionaries who have almost no political philosophy other than cronyism, bigotry and a will to power. There is a philosophical reason I don’t belong to either major political party in the US, even if, as a practical matter, I find myself generally aligned to one of them and adamantly opposed to the current iteration of the other.

[Deleted: 3,000 word rant on this subject here, further expounding on the bullshit nature of “sides” and “political spectrums”]

There, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system —

— we can get to the question of whether or not I’ve ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that comes from a different “side of the spectrum.” Specifically: No, because as noted, “sides” and “spectrums” are bullshit.

I think the more useful question here, and the one that I think gets to the point of what was asked in the first place: Have I ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that is different than mine on any particular political topic? Yes, and primarily for two reasons:

1. I think it’s useful and necessary, as a politically acting and thinking individual, to understand the wider landscape of current political thought, specifically in the US (because I live here) and in the rest of the world to a lesser extent;

2. I think it’s useful to interrogate one’s own political positions and assumptions, and one of the better ways to do that is to find people who disagree with those positions and read what they have to say to see if it exposes flaws in one’s own thinking.

So, as it happens, I read and consider a fair amount of writing from people whose positions on political topics are different from mine. Do I ever find this writing persuasive? Sometimes! There have been times when I have been provided with a deeper historical or cultural understanding of a topic that has required me to incorporate that knowledge into my own thinking. Other times I learn that an understanding I had on a topic was based on an error, and I needed to re-examine my position based on that information. Sometimes with new information my position changed to a different position I felt was justifiable. And, of course, sometimes I went, “Oh, that’s interesting, but, yeah, I don’t find that reasoning compelling,” and kept my opinion.

Have I ever changed my mind entirely based on someone else’s viewpoint? Not generally based on a single piece of writing or argument, no; I would argue that my position on a topic would not be particularly strongly held if a single piece of writing could fundamentally alter my understanding on it. But a single piece can inform my thinking on a topic, and from there further reading/consideration can influence my thinking, alter it and over time change it significantly from where it was when I began thinking about the topic with any seriousness.

I don’t want to overstate my intellectual malleability, mind you. Because I have an underlying political ethos (as noted above), some aspects of my political thinking are more resistant to change than others, and it would take a lot of doing to move those. But there are topics for which I don’t have particularly strong opinions, or alternately new topics for which I don’t have a whole lot of information, where a single piece of argument, compellingly presented, can be significantly persuasive on my thinking and understanding.

Moreover, I don’t particularly find it difficult, or intellectually dissonant, to find common cause with people whose opinions on political topics I might otherwise generally disagree with. There are number of people in the US who consider themselves political conservatives who are (rightly, pun intended) appalled by the Trump administration and the GOP’s general willingness to abandon what are supposed to be its principles in order to dive head-first into the kakistocracy the current administration has wrought. Hey, we agree on this, and weirdly, for many if not most of the same reasons! Does this means we are now political BFFs forever? Nah. But on this topic I will take all the help I can get.

I will say that one of the things I do find tragic about the hazy electron shell of political positions that constitute the self-identified “right” in the United States today is that, while there is shitty political discourse all over the scatterplot of US politics, the shittiness of the discourse of the right is far closer to its mainstream than it is elsewhere — bad arguments abound and morally reprehensible positions are defended because, well, look who is in the White House, and authority must be defended, always.

Worse, much of this is by design — any organization that offers political opinion can offer up shitty hot takes on the topics of the day, but for places like Fox News and Breitbart and The Federalist (to offer three examples, each in logarithmically decreasing levels of respectability), being disinformative is the point — Sean Hannity and whatever poor desperate hacks the Federalist has sucking on its billionaire teat at the moment are not interested in sound argument. They want to muddy the rhetorical water and play as much “Debate: The Gathering” as possible because the destruction of clarity and logic in politics serves their purpose, or more accurately, the purpose of those paying them. Propaganda is not only the tool of the American “right,” as a quick glance through history (and the Internet) will show us. But the American right leads with it right now, because it must.

Needless to say, I do not find those “viewpoints” compelling. I find them disheartening, not only on the macro level of “what the fuck are you doing, Jefferson and Hamilton both would find common cause to kick your ass,” but also on the personal level of, when it turns out that one’s publicly stated political viewpoints are binned reductively on the “left,” it’s more difficult to find people on the self-identified “right” who can make a coherent argument on those viewpoints because “make a coherent argument” is not a priority in that sphere right now. That’s bad news for me, and much worse news for the country and planet.

What I’m saying is: I do consider viewpoints that are not my own. I wish right now that I was getting better arguments interrogating the viewpoints I currently have.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

73 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2020 #1: Being Politically Persuaded”

  1. Additional notes:

    1. As this is a political topic, play nice with each other, please — the Mallet is in its warming chamber.

    2. Please know that I have “BUT BOTH SIDES” bingo card at the ready and will be filling it in as I go along, the free space being that I’ve already told you that the “both sides” binary is bullshit and reductive.

    3. Not in the piece because it was already getting long but worth you knowing are two additional points: One, that my political views have not necessarily been static and unmoving over three decades of adult life; Two, that there are a considerable number of people who don’t think I’m particularly liberal in any way and who are annoyed/resent that I’m considered to be such. I do have sympathy for that viewpoint, as again, I think of myself as inherently conservative in many ways, and present generally as stereotypical petit bourgeois.

    4. I do not expect to convince some of you that I consider/evaluate other viewpoints than my own, but eh, that’s about you, not me.

  2. There will always be political parties. Always. The independents decry the “injustice” of Americas two-party system, but any change made to the system would simply result in more parties, not NO parties.

    I generally find the independent voters to be of some variation of “hipster” identity. The mainstream is lame and they cant lower themselves to be lame. Usually when the word “sheeple” is used in a political argument, i think it is most commonly used by independents and third party voters. Party-aligned voters tend to use disparging labels that attack the other party. “Sheeple” attacks anyone lame enough to join a party.

    I also dont think people’s politics are really all that complicated. Everyone thinks they the sophisticated on who sees the subtle and important nuances, but really most politics boils down to how much fear a person has. Fmri scans consistently show that people with large amygdalas (the fear center of the brain) correlate very strongly to being conservative. Lots of fear tends to push people to the party that wants unlimited military spending and fears people who look different. Its not that complicated.

    Right now, the political parties are aligned between whether you think the economy or human lives are more important, and whether you think science can predict better or gut hunches. What a person answers to these questions are most often decided by unexamined reactions that stem from the size of their fear response.

  3. As usual, I enjoy reading your opinion. My only add on is that the situation is so complex that no one thought can possibly be large enough to encompass something this complex. I guess that a corollary might be that what seems to be opposing opinions can both be accurate descriptions.

  4. IndigoTemple:

    “The independents decry the ‘injustice’ of Americas two-party system, but any change made to the system would simply result in more parties, not NO parties.”

    Oh, no, the horror of having more parties that would more accurately align to people’s actual political positions. The SHEER NIGHTMARE.

    I’m not a fan of political parties, but in this case more would possibly be better and not worse.

    Also, your condescension of both independents and voters in general is noted, thanks for that.

  5. I would find it quite unusual that all of person’s political viewpoints become etched in stone in their 20’s and never change over the course of a lifetime. It would indicate that the person is not really capable of learning.

  6. All through the Cold War we used to mock the one-party system of the Soviet Union. Nobody seemed to notice that two is very close to one. The idea that politics somehow naturally gives rise to just two parties is absurd. In countries where that is not baked into the process by legislation, it doesn’t happen.

    And in our system, there are many locations, such as my town, where one of the two parties does not seriously contest the election, other than at the national level – though they may or may not put up a candidate. If you want your vote to count for something locally, you have to pay dues to the local organization and vote during the endorsement process.

  7. Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate new information, compare it to what you currently believe or know, and adjust your thinking accordingly. Not unlike the scientific method. Politics is one of those areas where it is useful to apply, and I applaud anyone who can do that evenhandedly and realizing that it may necessitate tossing or adjusting some of your firm beliefs.

  8. Not an intellectual, and as someone who has always loved your novels, I continually find it amazing that we could have such differing views on the current Presidency. I feel compelled to tune in on your shared thoughts, now and again.

    You see buffoonery, I see a man strong enough to actually fight our corrupt system and win.

    Not much more we can say to each other about that, but I remain a strong admirer of your “work”.

  9. Riskographer2:

    “You see buffoonery, I see a man strong enough to actually fight our corrupt system and win.”

    I suspect you’re not actually looking closely at the people he’s fighting, then, nor the people he’s helping.

  10. [Deleted because having erected a condescending strawman with their “independent voter,” IndigoTemple wants to parade it around like it’s an actual real thing. Move along, IndigoTemple, you’re already tiresome — JS]

  11. I don’t know that having two parties is the problem. We’ve had two dominant parties for a while, but we seemed to tolerate more differences both within parties and between parties. I don’t know if the parties had more core principles in common, but they seemed to have (it’s hard to discuss ideas and act in concert and compromise if you aren’t concerned about the factual content of your speech, for example, or if only your people – the people you care about or agree with – matter). There seemed to more conservatism with respect to institutions – people wouldn’t break things unless they had a reasonable idea why they were bad and how – maybe – to fix them. I feel like I’m stuck in a marriage (not my real with) with howling insane people who actively want me and my world to die (and I’m not even a direct target – I’m playing on LDS), and we can’t get divorced and survive, and we can’t live together as we are. I have a hard time getting close enough to their point of view to understand, and I wonder at this point if I’m the insane one and not them (I don’t believe that, but I don’t have a better model to understand).

    I can read things that make think (like the claim/evidence that lots of mail-in votes are lost and thus mail-in voting is inherently trustworthy), but I have rarely come to agreement on anything from a piece. I can modify my thoughts based on things (The Righteous Mind by Haidt was something that affected me) but I don’t know that I’m very open-minded. It doesn’t help that we don’t trust in the same sources of information, but that insistence on factual evidence and not lying hurts there. Dealing with people on the Internet hurts, and dealing with them in person helps, but the things we believe and say there have consequences, as the Trump Administration seems to be proving. Lots of parties won’t make us any better at dealing with one other if there are no facts we have to acknowledge or our ideology is founded on ignoring things we don’t like (though good news! it won’t last for long and bad news! most of us probably won’t be here to see the results).

  12. We live in an age where mainstream media is, in general, owned and controlled by a small group of people whose interests are incredibly well-aligned. (And no, I don’t see much difference between the Washington Post and the Washington Examiner when both actively work to sabotage progressive voices. The only allowable debate is whether I want an America owned and controlled by the military-industrial complex with or without a veneer of social justice? Really?)

    John frequently appears to be a liberal because his opinions are based on fact, and an ethical standard that doesn’t bend in the wind. in an era when conservatives have frankly abandoned science and ethics in the name of opportunism. But I wouldn’t venture to predict his opinion on any issue, he’s probably done more homework than I have.

  13. “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.”

    – Robert Conquest

  14. I think one of the more destructive elements in American politics (sticking to that because it’s what I know best) is religion. I’m not in any way saying religion is bad. However, religion mixed with politics creates an environment where “my religious beliefs say *this* and if you disagree than you’re on the side of the devil and I can’t compromise with you.” This ends political discourse and creates polarizing forces that mere debate cannot resolve.

    And it’s not just a recent phenomenon. We did the same thing back in the 50’s with McCarthyism and the fight “against the godless hordes of the Communists”. But I think it’s become a more prevailing attribute of our politics in the last couple decades. It used to be that bills would go up before Congress and it’d pass with 70 or 80% of the vote. Or fail by that amount. Nowadays it’s 0%, 50%+1, or 100%. Compromise has become impossible because that would be giving in to “the enemy”.

    I agree that our two-party system is weaker than that of other nations because we create artificial binaries in topics that aren’t binary by nature. But it’s worse when the two can’t talk. Heck, at this point we can’t agree on visible, provable fact. Observable reality has devolved to where one person’s opinion is valued as much as scientific fact. And where do we go with that?

  15. My politics today:

    1. I hate political parties and wish they would entirely go away. They never seem to be out for the common citizen, but to solidify the party’s power. Give me a list of people, a website where they clearly list their opinions, an independent regional press to vet those candidates, and ranked-choice voting. That way nobody vote is ever “wasted”.

    2. That I am increasingly disgusted with any political “discussion” that does not consider the human toll of the action. If you refuse to act like your neighbor’s life matters to you. That only your selfishness matters, you are not worth my time.

    For example: the virus and the economy. I think there are a ton of really, really, strong arguments on the spectrum of decisions. However, I encounter far too many people on the “open up” side of the debate that completely disregard how their actions harm others. That their saying “if you are at risk stay home” is not a valid argument for when the fridge is empty. Or your kid has to go to school. If someone refuses to even listen to an argument about doing the bare minimum to protect their neighbor (wear a mask, socially distance themselves, etc.), they don’t value me as a human. So I just walk away from that discussion.

  16. “…that the ‘both sides’ binary is bullshit and reductive.”

    This, this, and this a thousand thousand times from the rooftops. To think that I have some ‘insert view here’ means that I identify with all the other myriad ‘views’ of said party is the definition of reductive. It is an impossibility to imagine that we could have enough parties to capture everyone’s ideology and identity perfectly, but that doesn’t mean we should be stuck with just choices and have to ‘bin’ ourselves accordingly.

    Our oldest did a project in junior high where they had to create new political parties, his group’s was called ‘The Middle Men’. There were I think 8 parties in total that all ascribed to some mix of the ideologies of Red/Blue, and shockingly the students found much more to identify with these more specialized parties.

  17. The likelihood of any two individuals having precisely the same opinion about absolutely everything? Rather low. The idea that there are two monolithic entities called The Right and The Left which are diametrically opposed to each other, and which contain within themselves no differences, no nuance of any kind? Preposterous.

    My Platonic ideal of political discourse is one in which all the participants act honestly and in good faith, and the exchange of views, even when not cordial, is based in logic and in fact. What actually happens falls quite short of that.

    Appeal to emotion: “Those rotten bastards on the other side of politics want people to DIE! They think that’s a GOOD thing!” Two-for-one bonus for strawman argumentation!

    Argumentum ad hominem: “What, you don’t agree with [insert minor point of doctrine here]? You are obviously an idiot!”

    OGH mentioned Fox, Breitbart, and The Federalist. I doubt even ~they~ sincerely believe half of what they publish.

  18. John, you must have changed you comment. When i replied, your comment started with “And?” which i was replying to. But i dont see that anymore.

    “Oh, no, the horror of having more parties that would more accurately align to people’s actual political positions. The SHEER NIGHTMARE”.

    Thats a strawman.

    I am not afraid of more parties if the underlying system is changed to actually support them. Instant runoff ballots for every office and in every state, a constitutional ammendment, would be a big requirement and we are nowhere near that.

    Our 2 party system is built into the design of our government from the ground up. Adding more parties to our current system is only adding spoiler votes and LESS representation, not more.

    Meanwhile if we want to discuss condescension, invariably independent voters call main party members like me “sheeple” for compromising, and they invariably describe my candidate as “evil”, dressed up as “lesser of two evils”.

    Meanwhile, EVERYONE in a democracy has to compromise, almost no one in a democracy gets to vote for candidates perfectly aligned with their views. But independent voters act like they are the sole bearers of that cross.

  19. IndigoTemple:

    Yes, sorry — I posted “Yes, and?” and meant to post more additionally but hit post unthinkingly. Then I grunted annoyed to myself and went back and wholesale edited. My bad for not noting I changed the comment, and I apologize to you for that.

    “Our 2 party system is built into the design of our government from the ground up.”

    That’s absolutely not correct at all; that was bolted on afterward. One does recall George Washington’s farewell address warning about the danger of political parties, the substance of which, as it turns out, is directly relevant today.

    You’re still trotting out the independent voter as a strawman, IndigoTemple. Speaking as an independent voter, I don’t care that you belong to a political party. Please come down off that cross you apparently nailed yourself onto when someone once called you a sheeple. Honestly, if you are giving serious consideration to anything anyone who non-ironically uses the phrase “sheeple” says, the problem is not with that dimwit. Also, I promise never to call you “sheeple.” Ever!

  20. I used to be a major fan of inheritance tax on assets passed along, until I came across the problem of family-owned farms (and other businesses that have a bunch of assets on paper, but not a high profit margin, and definitely not enough spare cash-in-hand to weather what I would consider a reasonable inheritance tax on, say, cash being handed down via inheritance). It really wouldn’t be okay, in my book, to make offspring break up the family-owned business, that they’d worked at and contributed to for most of their life, to pay inheritance tax on it. Then I also realized that family memorabilia could be valuable without the family having a bunch of money as well – an otherwise-squeaking-by family who has a portrait of one of their great-great-(etc.)-grandfathers who was in the Revolutionary War – do I want inheritance tax to mean that they have to sell that portrait because it has a really high auction value now? Or the home their great-grandfather built and that their family has lived in, multi-generationally, and repaired and stuff ever since? No, not really, to be honest.

    So now, I’m still in favor of inheritance tax on 1. businesses that the inheritors haven’t been at all involved in, that they’d just be selling as soon as possible, and 2. cash/stocks/etc. and 3. expensive things with no real attachment (so: you cannot just buy expensive stuff, stow it in a vault, and pretend it’s nostalgic so that your son gets a billion dollars worth of stuff that he doesn’t care about at all), but I have no idea how anyone would regulate that.

    I also used to think that fewer, but living-wage jobs, would be better for the workers than all those jobs being split into can’t-even-quite-scrape-by jobs (as per companies having two “part time” employees who wish they were full time but this way the company doesn’t have to pay benefits, etc.), but then a family member who knows some people who are *in* those can’t-even-quite-scrape-by jobs pointed out that they were better than nothing. So now I think that if a company is making more than X in profits, they should be required to pay their employees more and/or give benefits to part-time employees. Or something like that. But there are kind of a lot of these issues that look simple from how one political party represents them… and actually, they aren’t.

    (and then there are other things that are just indefensible. Xenophobia! Stripping healthcare from people who are poor to benefit people who are ridiculously rich! Honestly, doing *anything* bad to people who are poor to benefit people who are ridiculously rich!)

  21. IndigoTemple,

    I have a hard time with your statement that the two party system was built “into the design of our government from the ground up”. Our first President had no party. Since then, 6 different parties have had their candidate become President. Often in elections where more than two significant parties were running for the office.

    We don’t have the selection of a Prime Minister based on a coalition government but frankly we don’t need to have that in order to have a multi-party system where different alignments occur depending on the issue. Party A might work with B to get this issue through but work with C against B on this other issue.

    On the other side of the coin though (and working against my own argument), we live in a capitalistic system where the formation of monopolies is a common thing. Maintaining balance in a multi-party system where parties don’t get swallowed up by a larger party in the name of “having a larger voice” (read consolidating power), would be exceptionally difficult.

  22. IndigoTemple:

    Seems to me both parties are operating on fear… just different ones. The “Right” fears an economy in crisis. The “Left” fears the threat to human life, both to themselves and to society as a whole. For whatever it is worth, I fear both. The question is are both these fears mutually exclusive. Does supporting one hurt the other? Does ignoring one hurt both? Tough times. Tough questions.

  23. First-past-the-post elections strongly tend towards two parties because there’s literally no value in getting less than 50% of the vote. This tends to force the smaller parties to band together and eventually merge into a big-tent:

    There are places that resist this trend – regional parties come to mind, like the SNP in the UK – but even in the UK, there are generally two and only two contending national parties at any given time.

    The road towards more diverse politics largely begins with changing the way our elections are run – ranked-choice votes, etc. – but as with all changes that aren’t beneficial to the entrenched parties, we will have to push it through against their opposition as is happening now in Maine:

  24. “George Washington’s farewell address warning about the danger of political parties”

    Regardless of what Washington said, the constitution requires first past the post to win the presidency. That inherently encourages a two party system.

    Even if one state implenented an instant runoff presudential ballot and awarded all their EC votes to a third party candidate, the constitution turns that into a spoiler vote.

    If you want a true multi party system, the first past the post requirement in the constitution needs to be circumvented.

    Either ammend the constitution. Or possibly talk to the National Popular Vote people to change from a straight ballot to an instant runoff ballot for all states who sign on.

    I am not *defending* the current two party system. But invariably independent voters talk about “voting their conscience” and not doing anything to actually change the system in a way such that their “conscience” vote is anything but a spoiler. That is LESS representation, not more.

  25. Interesting read, thanks!

    As someone who grew up (and still lives) outside of the US, I mostly enjoy you talking about US politics. I have lived in Minnesota for a while though, and follow US politics, partially because it’s interesting, partially because I spent a bunch of time on the net and, well, it’s hard to avoid that topic there.
    We have more than two parties over here (thankfully!) and while that makes a lot of things better, it’s still mostly… meh. You are very likely to find one that mostly fits your values (I could list *three* parties from the top of my head I would generally agree with, but all of them are “yes, but” agreements), there’s the issue of some of the parties being too small, but mostly it will boil down to one of two points: Either a party is generally pretty good, but have one big point I disagree with and which is *very* important to me; or they’er generally pretty good, but also incompetent twats.
    For *local* elections (city and county level) having many parties is a blessing. For anything above that (state, fed, and EU level) it’s very much better than the US system but still not great. Although EU elections are a somewhat funny business, as a lot of parties tend to send both their best and their worst people there, making it a clusterfuck of chaos.

    I see another major benefit though: My circle of friends, including me – I’d count myself as a friend to myself – are all going in the same general direction, but with still vastly different views on many issues. It makes me happy to think, that all of us are somewhat well represented in the current system and all by different parties

  26. Our 2 party system is built into the design of our government from the ground up

    That’s a bad way to frame an essentially correct point: the government created by the Constitution has so many veto points that it is very difficult to get policy made and laws passed unless there is a relatively large organization that spans those veto points, and can get approval of a particular policy. Because the House and Senate operate by majority rules (well, mostly), two party systems tend to be able to make it work better and more effectively.

    (Multi-party systems tend to have trouble gaining majorities in legislatures and have have to concede a lot to the last few votes, frequently leading to extreme policies — witness Israel).

    Our first President had no party

    Every one of them since has, the early ones including many of the founding fathers themselves. The Democratic Party stretches its lineage back to Thomas Jefferson.

  27. IndigoTemple:

    “Regardless of what Washington said, the constitution requires first past the post to win the presidency. That inherently encourages a two party system.”

    However — gaaaaah! I’m being nitpicky! — that’s not what you said. You said it was “built into the design of our government from the ground up,” which it was not. It wasn’t built into the design of the government. It may be a consequence of the design, and an unintentional one (the Founding Fathers were working from scratch, they didn’t know what they didn’t know).

    Fun fact: The actual election that decides a president is not the national vote but the vote of the Electoral College (as you know), which takes place a few weeks after the national vote. If there were more than two candidates electoral votes after the national election, and none of them could get to 270 on their own, then what would follow would be a (heretofore unprecedented) negotiation where two of the three (or several of the more) parties started horse trading for electoral voters. Only one person would become president but presumably the other candidates could extract significant political concessions, allowing for one to become president. If you don’t think this could happen, please see the 1876 election, which was alllllll about the horsetrading for disputed electoral votes.

    (I suspect another side effect would be the abolishment of the electoral college, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    The point is: A two party system isn’t inherent. It’s just easy.

  28. petit bourgeois – I had to look that up and after spending a not inconsiderate amount of my working day going down that rabbit hole I can report that I am further along my path to enlightenment. Thank you for that bit.

  29. This is one of the best short explanations I’ve seen for being an Independent. I’m going to bookmark this and use it as an example of the reason why I’m an Independent myself (leaning libertarian/liberal (without some of the batshit crazy extremes the Libertarian party proselytizes (including my dad))).

    My dad used to say that “Both Democrats and Republicans are hypocrites. Democrats say that you can do whatever you want in your private life but will tell you how to run your public life. Republicans say that you can do whatever you want in your public life but will tell you how to run your private life. I want them out of my public life and private life. That’s why I’m a Libertarian. KYFHO.”

    KYFHO = Keep Your F***ing Hands Off. My dad got that from F. Paul Wilson’s LaNague Chronicles.

    My problem with the Libertarians is their faith in the free market to correct itself. The free market does not look ahead, it is all about “give me mine NOW!” Strong controls (including anti-trust & inheritance taxes) are required to keep the free market from destroying the goose. If there is one goose that lays golden eggs it will be fought over. If there are many geese laying sliver, copper, etc. eggs there will not be so much fighting and a fairer distribution of wealth.

  30. I would 100% vote to make changes to first past the post elections in this country. Maybe it’s time to get political here in my locale.

  31. I am thinking that, within some of our lifetimes, we will end up with one party and a huge mass of “No Part Affiliation” people. Then a new version of the Republican Party will rise from the ashes.

    This has happened before, so it isn’t all that much of a stretch and NPA is the largest growing political group.

    Maybe the Whig party will be resurrected. I was enamored with them at 17 and still like the platform they held, it is why I have always been an NPA. I just think the current Republican Party will bleed to death within three election cycles.

  32. Political parties were not built into the Constitution. The Constitution was in fact specifically written for a political system without parties – that’s why the election of 1800 was such a mess and why the 12th Amendment had to be passed to fix it. Parties were, as noted above, bolted onto it after ratification, and not comfortably.

    The short version* is that the Constitution is a document written in the classical republican mode of politics (which has nothing to do with the modern Republican Party – that comes later), which was the dominant way Americans thought about politics through most of the 18th century. In that way of thinking political parties were a sign of decay in a republic. Classical republicanism assumes a single, unified public good that all virtuous leaders will gladly sacrifice their petty private interests to achieve. To have parties – “factions” as the Founders usually referred to them – was a sign that the republic was corrupted by private interests and doomed.

    We don’t think that way anymore. Under Lockean liberalism, which is slowly emerging in the 1790s as the main way of viewing politics in the US and which will completely replace republicanism after about 1820, there is no such thing as a unified public good. There is only the sum of private interests. Parties are a way for people who share a private interest to work to achieve it, and therefore are necessary and healthy in politics. It’s a very different way of thinking from the one George Washington was talking about in his Farewell Address.

    *The long version was a significant chunk of my PhD in the political culture of the early republic. Given the usual responses I get when I go into detail on that, I’ll skip it here. You’re welcome.

  33. So easy to take the two party system for granted, as being natural, like driving on the right side of the road. But in Japan they drive on the British side, and have more than two parties. Look across the Pacific, look across the Atlantic, look south, look up into Canada. Everywhere more than two parties. Suddenly, America is not so natural.

    Sometimes, the comments here make me feel like I’m opening my mind in college again.

  34. “First kill all the lawyers.” Too many politicians, in Congress anyway, are lawyers. Their inherent belief is based on their training: that if you have two people arguing opposite sides of a given question, whoever “wins” the argument represents justice. They are disinclined to compromise with their opponents and have no compunction about presenting the truth as long as they can win the argument by lying.

  35. ““Our 2 party system is built into the design of our government from the ground up.”

    I’d argue this is accurate. It’s just that it was not INTENDED to be built in, it’s an effect of the structure they built. The system implemented absolutely does trend towards binary parties (not always the same two), There’s a fair bit of both political and game theory about why this happens, and it IS baked into the structure of the Constitution as written. You could mitigate it, but the DNA is there from conception.

  36. John: ” You said it was “built into the design of our government from the ground up,” which it was not. It wasn’t built into the design of the government. It may be a consequence of the design, and an unintentional one”

    If we want to throw vocabulary around, the two party system is an emergent characteristic of the system, which has been there from the beginning. I think if you simply want to get into a definitional argument, i am not sure how valuable that will be. I’ll take the first half of webster and you take the last half.

    Also, whether it was their intention or not is irrelevant. The nuts and bolts of it are clear: first past the post. The emergent behavior of this is a two party system

    “If there were more than two candidates… (a third party could have outsized influence)”

    To quote Sparta: “if”

    “If you don’t think this could happen, please see the 1876”

    How good is a political strategy if it is depending on something to happen that hasnt happened in a century and a half? And how much of this is simply a refusal to compromise in a system where everyone else is compromising?

  37. IndigoTemple:

    “Also, whether it was their intention or not is irrelevant.”

    Well, it certainly is to you, I will grant you that. I disagree.

    In any event, someone with a PhD just came in and agreed with me on this bit (and then appears to disagree with me in other places), so I’m gonna a) declare victory, b) announce that henceforth you should take up your assertion with him, since he’ll just say what I’m likely to say, but has a dissertation to draw from.

  38. The first past the post system does drive us toward having only two parties, each containing a set of people that feel like they share more common interests than they share with those in the other party.

    As a result, we’re gonna get two parties. But it doesn’t have to be THESE two parties.

    In the first century of the Republic, new parties with new names (Whig, Republican) ascended and became the opposition and/ or ruling parties, along with a bunch that never came to much of anything.

    But parties are not fixed constellations of factions; they can and do change, despite keeping the same labels. Look at white Southern voters. After the Civil War, they were all Democrats, villifying the Republican party of Lincoln that (temporarily) defeated their hegemony. They were aligned with populist interests, such as William Jennings Bryan. This continued through the rise of the labor movement in the US, although the Southern Democrats hated unions as instruments of Northern influence. This alliance formed the backbone of the New Deal coalition, lasting through the 60s and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. That realignment really got going during Nixon, and would have been completed quickly but for Watergate. Strom Thurmond is usually pointed to for this process, but I think that Richard Shelby of Alabama, the serving senior Senator, is a better example: he switched parties in 1994, right after Rs took hold of the Congress. He fit in with the Southern Dems of the 70s and the modern Rs as well.

    Same people, same party names, different allegiances.

  39. Scalzi: ” I’m gonna a) declare victory”

    If “inherent” is also required to mean “intentional” then i would agree. Your blog, Mr Scalzi, so you get to declare winners.

    Mr phd can answer the following:

    (1) Do we have a first-past-the-post method for electing presidents?

    (2) Is there any way to change this short of ammending the constitution or possibly by having states agree to something like the NPV, but award all EC votes to the instant runnoff ballot winner?

    (3) in the current first-past-the-post system, with 2 main parties holding roughly half the votes each, has a third party candidate done anything besides act as a “spoiler”?

    (4) how many times has a third party candidate won the presidency with our current fptp system?

    (5) in the current fptp system, how many times has a main party lost dominance to a different, previously small party that then grew to become a main party? Versus how many times does a party merely shift and adapt to a changjng electorate to maintain a hold on half the votes?

  40. The problem we have, though, is that a significant number of people don’t have a concept of fact or evidence or don’t seem to care that those concepts exist and have validity (they don’t think reality would deign to chomp on their nether regions). As long as that’s the case, it’s going to be difficult for them to talk to and negotiate with another set of people on policy, since the effects of policies depend on evidence and thus the decision process should (!) depend on it as well. If you don’t mean what you say or don’t care what you say as long as you get what you want, negotiation is kind of hard with other people as well. If you don’t care about the institutions you participate in or the other people with whom you might collaborate (and seem to actively bear them ill will) then negotiation is also going to be hard. None of these problems are solved by the presence of more parties.

    Politics is the art of the possible – everyone tries to get what they can according to their principles, but ultimately we usually have to settle for the best we can. Other countries seem to do it, but it seems likely smaller focused parties would tend toward ideological purity, which makes it harder and not easier to find consensus, Smaller parties might make it easier to suggest more ideas and make it harder to keep specific ideas from being dealt with, but if 40% of the voters decide that they want to drive you off a cliff, the tools available in a multi-party government aren’t going to save you from getting there.

  41. That’s Dr. PhD, thank you. If you’re going to give me attitude at least get the formalities right.

    You seem fixated on this first-past-the-post system as if it inevitably produces parties. And perhaps from your 21st century Lockean liberal perspective it does. But this doesn’t apply to the 18th century and it doesn’t apply to how the Constitution was written or meant to be applied, and your insistence on shoving 18th-century humans into a 21st-century box is not going to get you anywhere worthwhile.

    The simple fact is that the Founders did not think the way you think, and they would have ended up in a very different place.

    In a classical republican world there is one, visible, unified public good, and all virtuous political leaders would work toward it. That is the definition of virtue – the ability to put aside one’s petty private interests to work for that common good. In that world the thing that matters is character, not issues. So even in a first-past-the-post system, you would not end up with parties unless the republic were in grave danger of being subverted by people who would put their private interests above the common good. You’d end up with the leaders with the most virtue pursuing a policy that all could see was the common good.

    That’s how the Constitution was written. That’s why the vice president was originally the guy who came in second in the presidential race, after all – you got the second-most virtuous leader for the second-highest office. Throwing parties into that mix created a mess in 1800 – a mess you would not have gotten if parties were in the original design.

    But because Lockean liberalism was becoming more important in the 1790s, more and more people were thinking like you. This is specifically what George Washington was warning against, because he knew very well it was not how the Constitution was supposed to work. And yet we got parties anyway. This is a historically contingent development, not a mathematical certainty or a political inevitability.

    Your questions don’t lead to what I was discussing, which means their answers are irrelevant to my point. You can answer them however you please.

  42. I think one factor that has “locked” in the two parties is that those parties limited the number of seats in the House to an insanely low number.

    If we set the number of seats in the House to actually be representative of the people, say using the same ratio of seats to population that existed the first 100 years. Say 1 seat per 60,000 population. That would give us 5000+ seats in the House. You would have to make them all at-large. And use automatic run-off or party slates.

    But now you could have representation for pretty much any medium sized group. Just being able to have a rep for young vs old, white vs non-white, male vs female, etc, would be a huge improvement over the current bullshit.

    Oh right, and making them all at-large solves the whole gerrymandering BS.
    But where would they all fit? Auditorium. or they could all work from home.

  43. @HistoryDave I’d like to thank you for answering the question I was going to ask; if the Constitution was based around ideals where parties were unnecessary why did those same founders immediately bust out parties in the first real election? (as I don’t consider Washington to have actually dealt with a real election)

  44. @Aaron Doukas – you’re welcome! I’m glad you found it useful.

    You’re right about Washington – he never really faced a contested election for president, though if he had decided to run again in 1796 he might have. Things had changed by then. The politics of character that classical republicanism expects function best in smaller polities where people know each other well (this is why reputation, and by extension duels of honor, are so critical at the time), but in the early 1790s this style of politics proved insufficient to cover over the emerging splits at the national level. The key events were Hamilton’s Financial Plan (1791) and the radicalization of the French Revolution (1793/4) which created issues that couldn’t be bridged by character or swept under the rug of an obvious common good. By 1796 you’ve got a fair number of people acting in Lockean liberal terms about parties being good (or at least not evil) even as they aren’t sure if they should – the Lockean ways are strong enough to get a genuine election (Adams vs Jefferson) but republicanism is still strong enough that Jefferson serving as Adams’ vice president isn’t seen as bizarre. By 1800 the idea that Adams would serve as Jefferson’s vice president was not tenable. It’s a fascinating change from 1787 when the Constitution was written! I love this stuff.

  45. Speaking of changing polarized views, on today’s free BBC News website front page a meeting is arranged between a young person of color political activist and her hateful troll from social media. I learned interesting things, including, “but not limited to,” how social media has consequences, but I won’t blab what happened in case you google it.

  46. Dave: “In a classical republican world there is one, visible, unified public good, and all virtuous political leaders would work toward it. That is the definition of virtue – the ability to put aside one’s petty private interests to work for that common good. In that world the thing that matters is character,”

    We are men of action. Lies do not become us.

    These people you keep talking about with their virtue and character and common good? They owned half a million slaves. Jefferson raped his slave and sold his own children into bondage. The constitution danced around slavery trying to avoid the word but still ended up with the three fifths compromise. Hell, 12 of our presidents owned slaves.

    So, lets not oversell this whole “virtue/character/common good” thing. These men were flawed humans just like the rest of us. Its not like at one point, they embodied the platonic ideal, and then other people ruined it. They screwed it up all by their lonesome.

    They may have thought of themselves as valuing virtue, character, and common good. But they didnt actually demonstrate that consistently.

    Second, You think in that world, where slavery was already such a fractious issue, that political parties were anything but inevitable? Civil war was pretty much inevitable.

  47. Many thanks for answering my question. Perhaps using the phrase “crystal clear” was a poor word selection. Currently working for a government entity on the state level, one has to use those words or the equivalent thereof, so apologies on that point.

    You’ve definitely given me a lot of food for thought, and I thank you for that.

    I was once one of those so-called “Independent voters” back in the day, simply because I didn’t want to be bothered with any party affiliation. Once I did, I reluctantly listened to my parents and became a Democrat. Was one for about 20 years, but after seeing how much that party has relatively ruined my state’s economy, I switched. I still vary on who I vote for, mostly due to the tangible results that were delivered at a given moment in time.

  48. I would add to my Platonic ideal of political discourse: “Control the urge to kill or physically attack those with whom you disagree.”

    I concede, based on documented evidence over millennia of human history, that I’m in a minority on that one.

  49. Adam: “Our first President had no party. Since then, 6 different parties have had their candidate become President. Often in elections where more than two significant parties were running for the office.”

    The system does not mandate exactly 2 fixed parties. Instead,the president is elected by first past the post. This requires a candidate get more than 50% of the ec vote, which drives parties to try and capture 50% of the electorate, making room for only 2 parties. Over time, a party doesnt remain static. If the people change, the parties will try to shift and move to hold onto 50% of the votes. The Democratic party of the 60’s opposed racial integration. Now they represent most minorities. Reagan said things that todays republicans would label communist.

    If a party can, it will change to keep half the votes. And every once in a while, things change too much too quickly and a party cant remain viable, and quickly fades. We dont see anyone with the Whig party anymore.

    You can see the red and blue bars on this graph pretty much grow in sync with each other. They fight, shift, grow and move to try and maintain the 50% needed to win first past the post. The grey lines, third party votes, tend to be insignificantly small. There are exceptions, but thats the point. Large grey bars are rare, not the norm.

    Every pixel of those grey bars represents someone who threw their vote away. Those votes had no direct effect on who won. If one considers the spoiler effect, third party votes have a negative effect. Nader was politically closer to Gore, and if we had ranked ballots, most people who voted for Nader would have put Gore as their second choice. But with a single-vote ballot, a vote for Nader helped Bush. Third party voters are punished this way. This is how a two party system emerges out of a set of rules that dont explicitely state that only 2 parties shall exist.

    Ron: “Seems to me both parties are operating on fear… just different ones.”

    The litmus test for fear is violence. Which party constantly pushes for a larger military? For military intervention around the globe? Which party fetishizes guns? Which party has people protesting the results of our political process with assault rifles slung on their shoulders? Trump told people at his rallies to beat up protesters and he would pay for their legal fees. When Kathy Griffith released a picture of her holding what looked like a severed head of Trump, she was invariably shunned by Democrats.

    Fear leads to violence and it is pretty clear one party embraces the violence.

  50. IndigoTemple – you will never understand history if you insist on judging the past by the standards of the present.

    Also, I would strongly advise you to be very careful when you call people liars. It’s extraordinarily rude, and it’s especially so when your entire argument is based on an elementary fallacy unbecoming of a first-year student.

    You feel that slavery was morally wrong and a sign of bad character. I agree with you. But the point you’re missing is that the men who wrote the Constitution by and large did not. Therefore nothing in your argument is relevant.

    Yes, they were flawed humans. But that’s not the issue here and you need to stop moving the goalposts to suit your needs.

    Parties were not hardwired into the Constitution. The men who wrote the Constitution regarded them as fatal flaws in a republic and designed a framework of government that did not include them.

    What happened afterward does not change that.

    It turned out that parties did arise later and could be bolted onto the Constitution in some ways (though not all – it’s still an uncomfortable fit). But that’s not the point. That’s not how it was written. It turned out that we had an entire Civil War over slavery. But – again – that’s not the point. Slavery had existed in what became the US for over a century by that point without sparking a civil war, and the British abolished it in their Empire in the early 1800s without a civil war either. “Inevitable” is a word used by people who jump to conclusions and forget that history is contingent.

    I believe we are finished here. You may have the last word if you wish. It seems important to you.

  51. HistoryDave:

    “I believe we are finished here. You may have the last word if you wish. It seems important to you.”

    Actually, I’m going to make the ruling that this conversational thread is finished, without an additional last word from IndigoTemple. I think it’s gone as far as it’s going to usefully go, so any additional follow-ups will be snipped out.

  52. I started to read the thread, with the intention of piling up thoughtful rejoinders to other participants as well as to OP, and then realized I don’t really have time for that. And yet I feel an urge to make some opinions known.

    In RE: the “spectrum is bullshit” line of argument, yes, but. As a practical matter, the offices that count for national policy are going to be filled by members of one or the other of two parties. That’s a fact, and I believe fact-based reasoning is valorized here. Your values might or might not be aligned on some spectrum between the two, but unless you have a scheme to form a party that can be nationally significant to embody those values (or, probably easier, to take over one of the existing parties and remodel it so that your values are better reflected in its actions) you are stuck with the spectrum, and calling it bullshit has no effect on the world. Personally, I rather despise the Democratic Party in the incarnation that it’s had in my lifetime, but I’ve voted in every election since 1990 and have never not voted for a Democrat for any office, even going so far as to research the leanings of candidates for “nonpartisan” offices. Because it’s been clear to me that since 1980 at the latest, the Republican Party as an institution is devoted to minoritarian rule in favor of frankly immoral purposes, and to be a good citizen you have to vote against them all the time at every opportunity. So am I a Democrat or not? I suppose I have to admit, to my shame, that I am. In my defense, I’ve also tried to influence the Democratic Party, by being a member of some of its activist organizations, by meeting with officeholders to express views, by doing GOTV work so that the Democratic electorate can be bigger (and, I hope, more representative of my political values).

    As for the “if only we had more than two parties!” position, all I can say is “Look at Israel. How’s that working out for them? Or Italy in the ’60s-’70s?” Multipolar political systems can work, but I think there does not have to be a multitude of parties for there to be coalitions. It seems to me that we have coalition politics in the US: it’s just that the two parties are the coalitions.

    With respect to the “I wish we didn’t have parties at all” folks, please. We are social animals, meaning that we are wired to get together in groups to accomplish purposes too large for any of us to manage individually. Add that to the also-undeniable fact that some of us have different interests than others, and some kind of political factionism is the natural result. Freedom of expression + need to organize in groups to attain political ends -> formation of political parties, with the inevitability of day following night, and if you refuse to accept this you’re part of the problem. Thinking it could be otherwise was one of the more colossal blunders of the Founders.

    I see I have run out of time to address the dynamics of the two-party v. many-parties question, but invite interested readers to do a little research on the stability of the latter under various kinds of election systems. There is an argument to be made that with our method of determining winners, a three-or-more party system can exist only transiently, as in for example the period immediately preceding the Civil War. It may be (I fervently hope) that we are approaching the end of the Sixth Party System in the United States, and the Republican Party is about to disintegrate, though some successor organization might keep going under the old name for a while. So we might (if the Republic survives) see 3+ parties contending for national office for a while in the 2020s-30s. But after a few cycles there will be some shuffling and things will settle back to two.

    I followed the link to the gamification of debate item, and think that it accurately describes some phenomena in our politics. One thing that it does not make adequately clear IMHO is that the purpose of this gamification is to use the rules of debate to prevent debates from happening.

    On the general topic of views, beliefs, and the changing thereof by argument, I find OPs summary highly felicitous.

    P.S. @K.C. on inheritance taxes: do you actually know of any cases at all of family farms being under threat of being broken up to pay inheritance taxes? I suggest you are reacting to a rhetorical boogeyman, rather than to any actual thing that has happened in the real world. In any case, the right answer is probably the simplest one: pick some threshold above which the estate cannot possibly be a “family farm” under any reasonable definition, and exempt that much wealth from taxation. The purpose of inheritance taxes is not really to raise revenue but as a pure social-engineering measure to put a crimp in the rise of aristocracies of inherited wealth, and this aim is not incompatible with protecting the continued existence of “family farms” (whatever those are… there seem to be damned few of them left).

  53. Dave: “Also, I would strongly advise you to be very careful when you call people liars”

    “We are men of action. Lies do not become us.”

    Is a line from one of the greatest movies of all time. I mean, when i think of a phd history guy who insists on being called “doctor” instead of “mr”, the image of a swashbuckling man of action did not in fact spring to mind. I thought that would have clearly flagged the line as a joke.

    Have fun storming the castle, Vizzinni.

  54. I consider myself to be pretty far on the left (at least that’s what those political attitudes tests say), but I’m a big believer in coalitions. In fact, I tended to seek out more conservative individuals, on the grounds that if I could persuade them, it made my argument stronger (and of course, some of their arguments persuaded me).

    Parties make sense as coalitions. Being independent as a voter is entirely reasonable, but if you want to get something done, you must seek out others and build a consensus. One can rightly object to party machines and yet still not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  55. Roundup of responses to various people, as this thread has had a heck of a lot of well thought out content.
    1. (was going to be about the care and feeding political parties. But it’s Scalzi’s living room. I will abide by his wishes, and not. If I feel an urgent need to hold forth, I have social media of my own.)
    2. Steve C: People having their political beliefs etched in stone, or beliefs on any subject, is something I think deserves a lot of attention as a social phenomenon. I’ve come to believe that at a certain age, not by any means the same age for everyone, people’s thinking ‘concretes up.’ Usually in many subjects at once. And once that change has happened in a person’s mind, it’s *incredibly* rare for them to regain the ability to change their minds. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence. I also believe that if a person doesn’t want this to happen to them, their best course is to both (as Scalzi does) take in a wide range of points of view and also to study the process of critical thinking. I’m a couple of years older than Mr. Scalzi, and I don’t think it’s happened to me yet. But I wouldn’t think that, would I?
    3 Adam Schmidt: the change in how bills get supported in Congress, no more 70% or 80% approvals, came about quite consciously. It is a result of ‘The Hasert Rule.’ Originally put forward by a past Speaker of the House, but certainly the Senate now does it too. Here’s a bit of an overview. There are other things to dislike about Mr. Hasert, not related directly to his politics.

  56. This above is a series of fantastic examples of folks _not_ being politically persuaded.

    My (basic) understanding had always been that the two party system was ingrained. It’s delightful to hear History Dave (who I’ll politely refer to as Dr. PhD Man!) give quite a bit of nuance to that simplistic claim, showing how it was unexpected — neither expected nor intentional.

    And also, seeing how well he handles the attacks. Almost as if he’s had to defend against a committee.

    Thanks, History Dave!

  57. Dear William,

    Here, here! Another shout-out to HistoryDave, who comported himself with both humor and dignity in the face of an increasingly obnoxious and insulting opponent.

    It’s always interesting to see how people react when faced with someone who is has expertise in the field and doesn’t agree with them. Some people actually learn from the experience. Then there are others…

    pax / Ctein

  58. Wade: ““Look at Israel. How’s that working out for them?”

    Yeah, not so good. The way they choose a prime minister is similar to how Scalzi asserts we could have a third-party president: via the legislative branch, the knesset

    The problem Israel runs into is when there are so many parties (nine right now?), none of them can get enough votes to get the vote of confidence to get the job. So they will, as John says, horse trade.

    The problem with horse trading with a small group of people is that when you fall short, a tiny minority party will offer its support, but only if you support . Israel has had that happen and has ended up supporting terrible, cruel, extremist positions, just so someone can get enough votes from knesset to secure prime minister.

    This is entirely different from when an entire population votes on a ranked ballot. You have to rank your choices blind to whether your vote might be the last vite to put your guy into a win. If you KNOW your vote is the one to get the win, you are far more likely to ask for concessions far greater than your representation as one vote would deserve.

    Horse trading to elect a prime minister is exactly why Israel is just so messed up. Small extremist parties will withhold support until they get concessions that only a small minority extremists party wants. And then the whole country has to do what these extremists want.

    A third party US presidential candidate who caused the election to be turned over to the House of Representatives could be a terrible, terrible thing to happen. Horse trading rewards the extremists holdouts.

    But Scalzi talks about it as a feature, not a bug: “but presumably the other candidates could extract significant political concessions,”

    Yes, a candidate with some extreme view and a minority of popular support could still extract significant political concessions. And that is a terrible process ripe for abuse. Sure it seems great when you ard the minority view and you want goid things. But what if the minority is a bunch of bigots? What if they get significant political concessions?

    Taking the current US 2 party presidential system and jamming in third parties at best creates spoiler votes, at worst could create some horrifying horse trading in the House.

  59. Let me just put it this way:

    I have some American friends who currently live in Vietnam. Some of whom have lived there for almost a decade, and others who are more recent arrivals. Vietnam, mind you, is a poor developing country that is typically an afterthought for most Americans (unless the eponymous war comes up). They all love living there. The people are friendly, the food is amazing, and the local and national governments are professional, competent, and are happy to hear what they have to think.

    Mind you: Vietnam is a One-Party Socialist State of the old-school Marxist-Leninist variety. There is only one legal party (the Communist Party of Vietnam), and no other. There are red flags and Sickle n’ Hammers all over the place, and a bunch of statues and pictures of Ho Chi Minh everywhere you go.

    And you know what they think? They think that Vietnam is even MORE democratic than the US! For a one-party state, there is a LOT of overhead and checks on power that the Party works with. There are several independent news outlets, and a sizeable number of independent politicians in their congress (because you don’t have to be a Party member to elected). They have a thriving LGBTQ community, and an open and permissive political culture.

    (And keep in mind: One of these individuals is an Anarchist, politically, and even HE likes living there)

    So yeah, this should seriously make Americans ponder the nature of their current political situation.

  60. Ctein: “HistoryDave, who comported himself with both humor and dignity in the face of an increasingly obnoxious and insulting opponent.”

    HistoryDave, i hope it was clear the movie quote wasnt calling you a liar. It was meant to be a joke. Apologies if it wounded you. It was not my intent.

    If there is anything else you need apology for, please let me know. Ctein seems to be keeping score, and has a much higher tally than i counted. Perhaps he carries some points from elsewhere.

    Ctein: “It’s always interesting to see how people react when faced with someone who is has expertise in the field and doesn’t agree with them. Some people actually learn from the experience. Then there are others…”

    We didnt agree or disagree on anything. I asked HistoryDave 5 questions about the effects of the current political system, how it affects elections today, and how we could change it in the future.

    HistoryDave skipped my questions and discussed the intent of the Founders 250 years ago.

    The 2 party system is an emergent behavior. It is like an ant colony. The ants do not intend to build a complex colony. They contain basic, almost mechanical, rules they follow. But if you put a thousand of those ants together, a crazy complex colony emerges with tunnels and chambers with specific functions, none of which are in the ant.

    The intent of the ant isnt the colony. But the colony emerges out of thousands of ants.

    The intent of the founders doesnt matter because the 2 party system has always been an emergent attribute. Nowhere is it written we must only have 2 parties. And yet 250 years or so of history show that only 2 parties dominate most elections.

    So HistoryDave and I kept talking about 2 different things. I asked him about the features of the colony as it affects us today. He wanted to talk about some ants who lived 250 years ago.

    I am certainly not mad at HistoryDave, nor have I intended him ill will. We arent disagreeing on anything really because we keep talking about two completely different things.

    So again, HistoryDave if I have wounded you in some way, i apologize. It was not my intent.

    If something specific i said to you requires a specific apology, say the word and you shall have it.

  61. I live in a country with a multi-party political system, and it works well owing to a variety of factors not operating in the US: proportional representation, lack of political polarization, widespread interest and participation and trust in government, and the national habit of discussing (not arguing about) public policy.
    Like another commenter above, I am aligned with one US party because the other one is actively trying to kill members of my family and some of my friends.

  62. I neither think nor vote strictly along the blue line, but there are stances, policies and actions that are objectively wrong.

    1. separating terrified families and imprisoning them because brown skin/ Spanish speaking.
    2. Condemning women and girls to potentially deadly gestation and childbirth.
    3. Tacitly endorsing the lynching of unarmed/armed but compliant African American citizens at the hands of white private citizens and law enforcement.
    4. Gutting safety nets for the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society.
    5. Leaving innocent people to die in the aftermath of a major natural disaster because…reasons.
    6. Dismantling an agency specifically designed to deal with the outbreak of a contagious and deadly virus.

    And I don’t have to look very hard for evidence of inhumanity on the “other side.” One such example comes curtesy of YouTube. On the subject of infected meatpacking plant employees, a conservative declares, “We need to eat. Send in more workers. If it were up to me, I’d just gas all the welfare moochers in this country to death. Then reopen the economy.”

    From what I’m seeing, this particular stance/perspective/philosophy is not an outlier.

    Nor, mind you, are some of the other, more repugnant beliefs and behaviors.

    These people may be outnumbered, but their perceptions of people outside their circle of privilege is well represented in and by their party, even if conservatives don’t want to admit as much aloud.

    On a side note, the presumptive democratic nominee doesn’t exactlysay fantastic things about that “side” either, and for more reasons than one.

    To continue, why and how does the general you reason with people who are, in fact, advocating for the deaths of those who are different?

    As a member of many of the communities they want gone, why should I?

    I don’t think the sociopolitical situation in this nation is going to end well, because no one’s patience is endless.

    How well is Michelle Obama’s admirable strategy for dealing with those who “go low” going to work with genocidal, unapologetic social injustice warriors, ones willing to stay on top by any means necessary?

    You don’t ask these folks politely to consider others; you use voting power and the law to outline, in no uncertain terms, what being evil, sociopathic jerks could mean for them and theirs, because they never smell the shit they throw until it lands in their backyard.

    Sure, there may be those in the party who disagree with the more…outspoken and unapologetic voices, but they won’t do a thing to stop what they want done, so they go in the “basket” right along with them.

    Now, I can be critical of those wishing death on Trump and his supporters (I’ve done some of said wishing myself, right here on this blog) even as I argue that their words are an understandable response to what many would regard as evildoing.

    I am a permanently disabled woman of color living in a nation where the president and his supporters are working actively to eradicate me and mine. How am I supposed to feel?

    What possible reason do I have to empathize or engage in a dialogue with people who steadfastly believe that I’m a subhuman, useless eater who needs killing for the sake of them and theirs?

    The above isn’t a strawman argument against the other side but rather a response to what is evident, explicitly so, in most of their discourse.

  63. Point taken, Sarah Marie; an argument based in uncontested fact is, by definition, ~not~ a strawman.

    As you point out, it’s hard to reason with someone whose goal is extermination of entire categories of other people. I agree with you that support for rule of law and the exercise of the franchise are the starting points. From there, to exhaust all options short of outright bloodshed, such as coalition building, publicity campaigns, and the like. For sure it’s an uphill slog when the dead hand of historical injustice and ancient grievance weighs so heavily.

    That’s why I entertain myself with hypothetical scenarios where everyone acts with integrity, just because It’s The Right Thing To Do.

  64. Grievances, most especially those rendered transhistorical via the perpetual mistreatment of certain groups, still loom large, especially in an environment where those with the luxury of moving downwind of that dead hand are either too defensive of themselves and their people/culture/way of life or unwilling to check their privilege at the debate room door.

    Robin DiAngelo wrote an excellent book on the subject entitled White Fragility, one that should be required reading for those on the lower difficulty settings. It should definitely be required reading for anyone even considering entering politics.

    To continue, I certainly hope that my employment of metacommentary didn’t read like a misunderstanding of the logical fallacy in question; it was a response to your earlier implication that pointing out the very real genocidal intentions of a particular political party is always a valid example of such.

    Finally, I am in no way problematizing your form of entertainment.

    It’s just that I and others in my communities don’t have the luxury of engaging in that particular pastime, what with the ever-intensifying danger to our friends and families.

    Right now, as unarmed African American men are beaten by police for being bare-faced in public, bare-faced white men with guns get to storm capital buildings and intimidate elected officials into enabling the spread of a virus that is especially dangerous to people who look like me, and with the full throated support of the president and his party.

    Still others can hunt and lynch black joggers with impunity while triumphant racists celebrate yet one more “victory” amid a chorus of smug tweets and posts targeting the families of black and brown victims of covid 19.

    I would love to live in a nation where my political opponents’ policies and rationales were, at the very least, rooted in the notion that human rights and faith/immigration status/ethnicity/nationality/language/sexual orientation/economic status/sex/gender/physical ability would and could never be mutually exclusive concepts.

    I do not, and I doubt very seriously that I ever will.

    Because right now, they’re tired of talking, they’re coming for us, and much of the inevitable bloodshed will be ours.

  65. Ctein, If i have offended, I apologize to you as well. If i could take back any harm I have caused you, I would. All I have are some fairly flimsy words that say “I am sorry”, and hope you can forgive me.

  66. I miss that 3000-word rant. I think I would have enjoyed reading it as much as the rest of this essay.

    I find it interesting that you consider yourself “conservative,” especially considering how “conservatives” seem to want to define themselves today. But then, it’s not only beliefs that have a spectrum, it is the panoply of topics about which we have beliefs. Our viewpoints may be on various points on the belief spectrum for those different topics–and that makes it exceedingly difficult to be categorized.

    As a personal example, I’ll bring up a topic that carries an immense amount of emotional baggage: abortion. I believe that the ideal situation would be that no abortion happens, ever. I also believe that unless I am the biological father of a soon-to-be child, it’s none of my goddamn business how another woman handles her pregnancy. There are tons and tons and tons of more nuances for this topic. For example, those who use the term “unborn child” to color their views, asserting that some collection of living, growing cells entirely withing and dependent on another sapient, conscious human being is “life.” My reaction to that is that an adjective is forgotten here: “human life.” I mean, we kill life, or have life killed for us each and every day to survive; that which we eat was once living in some form. It reminds me of that line in “Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country,” when “Bones” McCoy contributes to the conversation at the dinner between Enterprise crew and Klingon representatives by asserting that the Federation has always been about the protection of “human rights,” and one of the Klingon officials quickly counters by asking him to listen to himself, pointing out that in that present company where they were hoping to be inclusive his default was limiting, to “human.”

    I think the point here about critical thinking is spot on, and I suspect it also implies that decent (and yes, I used that term deliberately) people make at least an effort to constantly self-analyze. They question and evaluate their beliefs, their prejudices, their ideas, and do so via critical thinking skills. And I think that’s an important, compassionate way that we grow as people. Sadly, the ability of schools at most levels to teach critical thinking skills has been eviscerated, mostly by the Religious Right.

    On that note, it has also been my experience that many people on that liberal-conservative spectrum move from left to right on that spectrum as they age. I suspect that in part happens because many of the ideas that drive liberalism seem to stem from inclusive, societal ideals, and as we gain life experience, we discover that life fails to live up to those ideals, and so we abandon many of them.

  67. Dear Indigo,

    No, you haven’t offended me in any of the posts. You were rude to HistoryDave, that was the sole message in my comment. (You may have thought it was humorous, but it didn’t read that way.) And somewhat obsessive, demanding that people argue with you bout hat you thought was important. (Did you think I needed to receive a near-verbatim rehash of what you’d already said about political parties several times previously, an argument I wasn’t even participating in?)

    Which is why I’m saying just let it go. Move on.

    pax / Ctein

  68. Sarah Marie: Thank you for mentioning DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”. Excellent book, and I agree should be required reading. May I recommend also Layla F. Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy”. I admit I haven’t seen the current version of the book, as I acquired an earlier version. The version I have is in workbook format.

    Chuck Martin: I’ve heard that canard too, of people drifting more conservative as they age. I can honestly say my own life has shown the opposite. I’ve become drastically more liberal/progressive as I’ve aged, am past retirement (to give a benchmark), and see the trend only continuing.

  69. @ Chuck Martin: “it has also been my experience that many people on that liberal-conservative spectrum move from left to right on that spectrum as they age”.

    I’d phrase it differently: that people either keep moving on to new challenges to their experience and biases (as you say) – as a result of which they keep developing and growing, becoming fuller versions of themselves – or they tell themselves they’ve gone far enough and decide to stay where they are. The latter seem to forget that the world doesn’t stop moving, so, rather than being stationary, they actually go backwards, ending up as caricatures of their earlier selves.

  70. @Laurie:

    I’ll add that one to my TBR list. Thank you. 😊

    I got the following list from a friend on GoodReads :
    Black and British by David Olusoga
    So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
    When They Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
    The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
    White Rage by Carol Anderson
    How We Get Free by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
    The Price for their Pound of Flesh by Daina Ramey Berry
    Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Edo-Lodge
    Well that escalated quickly by Franchesca Ramsey
    *Medical Apartheid by Harriet A Washington
    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
    The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
    Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble
    Black Resistance, White Law by Mary Frances Berry
    Sundown Towns by James Loewen
    Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis
    A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A Washington

    I’m especially interested in Medical Apartheid, given the current state of things.

    @Chuck Martin:

    It’s been my experience that people on the conservative spectrum move toward the left, in particular those who find themselves on the very fixed incomes and social programs they once disparaged.

    This is especially true of those whose bootstraps have snapped in their old age because they’ve developed work-related, career ending conditions or made “personal choices” that have contributed to chronic and debilitating illnesses.

    Suddenly, the “moochers,” “layabouts,” and “wives of the state” are sympathetic creatures who deserve to be protected against poverty by “those who have more money than they can take with them when they die.”

    Still more people jump the read ship in the wake of an especially terrifying bit of legislation; it’s terrifying because it’s either objectively wrong in their eyes or is ultimately going to negatively impact them or those they love/care about in some way.

    Which brings me to abortion, something that, all too often, suddenly becomes “right” and “critical to a woman’s safety and wellbeing” the very second one becomes “necessary.”

    Also, I think granting the biological father unregulated control of the body of a woman he’s impregnated is very dangerous.

    Should rapists get to continue the initial violation by forcing victims to nurture the product of their pleasure/domination?

    Should the father/uncle/brother/grandfather of an abused woman or underaged girl get to “continue the family line” in her body?

    Should a victim of intimate partner violence have to bear the mark of her abuser and be subjected to a condition that can hamper or prevent escape?

    I’m sure John doesn’t want this thread to devolve into a knock down drag out fight about this issue, so I’ll just leave it there.

    To continue, both conservative and liberal ideals can prove failures, depending on individual life circumstances and other factors.

    Ask the scores of unemployed college grads (pre covid, of course) about bootstrapping and you’ll likely get laughed out of their faces, no matter their chosen majors.

    You’ll likely get the same with adjunct professors, regardless of department.

    Finally, those who decide that racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism aren’t worth fighting anymore are welcome to defect, as are those who decide that combatting exclusionary and social Darwinist policies isn’t worth it.

  71. Dear Chuck,

    On your last observation (about people moving to the right), I can’t say I’ve noticed that trend among my friends and acquaintances. Not that people don’t change, but my rejoinder to the old, tired “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged,” has always been “A liberal is a conservative who got sick.”

    There’s also the matter of the moving target. When I started out as a (sex-politics) radical, 50 years ago, the notion of legal gay marriage was so far out there that we didn’t even try to discuss it as anything but a theoretical issue. Now, if you don’t support it, you’re in the most conservative third of the population, sexually.

    Similarly for race-politics. Back then, almost 2/3 of the population disapproved of “interracial marriage,” which didn’t go unnoticed by me and my never-going-to-be-mistaken-for-white first love. Yeah, we noticed it in pubic (speaking to the original topic of “thoughtlessness”), which we wouldn’t of had to had we been racially pure. Now the disapprovals are down to one in six, which puts them pretty solidly on the conservative side of the spectrum

    Black Lives Matter was an incredibly radical concept 50 years ago. Yes, we talked about it and supported it (in the language of the times which was very different and insufficient), but it wasn’t really real… until you were on the receiving end of it. I had a Goldwater-conservative friend in college who came back from summer vacation a flaming liberal, because he’d gotten clubbed by a cop in New York for no reason. Sometimes it depends on who’s doing the mugging. Now, approximately half the population supports it, it’s not exactly a radical thing.

    I’ll toss out a notion without evidence. For a lot of people, liberal vs. conservative is self-defined by a list of issues. Each side has its shopping list. For many (possibly most?) once the shopping is done, they feel done. Meanwhile, the world moves on and they seem more conservative, although their politics haven’t changed.

    For others, it’s defined by a process, there always being some struggle striving to be better (with very different definitions of what “better” means) with no final goal line. Those liberals/radicals tend to stay liberal/radical, ditto on the conservative side.

    Put out for what very little it’s worth.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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