Monday, January 12, 2009

Tribal Loyalty

Consider the following facts:

The Clinton administration ushered in Nafta, balanced budgets, welfare reform, and occasional gratuitous bombings, and governed during a time that gave rise to massive corporate scandal. The Bush administration, in contrast, created a vast new prescription drug entitlement under Medicare, spent billions in foreign aid for Africa, signed campaign finance reform, and prosecuted all the corporate crooks of the 1990s. During both administrations, the economy grew along trend (Bush’s lower growth rates are on trend given the aging of the American population), but income inequality continued its increasing trend of increasing. Others things happened during both administrations, of course, but you’d think the mob that wanted Clinton’s head would prefer to take Bush’s, and vice versa.

A lot of the satisfaction and dismay that stems from political races is entirely unwarranted based upon a rational assessment of what any given election is likely to change, or not change, whatever the case may be. But nevertheless the irrational dismay on the other side and the equally irrational joy still apply when our guy gets elected. That this is the case stems almost entirely from what tribe you belong to in the culture war. Compare what we truly know about our guy, who in truth is a stranger to us, to what we think we know about them. Our picture of any President, because very few of us will ever have any direct personal knowledge, is for the most part a picture we fill in based upon what we are predisposed to want to believe about them. And our predisposition is based entirely upon our tribal affiliation with our guy.

Theodore Dalrymple describes the more general shift in moral judgment that correlates well with this phenomenon:

"At one time, a man probably felt most morally responsible for his own actions. He was adjudged (and judged himself) good or bad by how he conducted himself toward those in his immediate circle. From its center rippled circles of ever-decreasing moral concern, of which he was also increasingly ignorant.

Now, however, it is the other way around. Under the influence of the media of mass communication and the spread of sociological ways of thinking, a man is most likely to judge himself and others by the opinions he and they hold on political, social, and economic questions that are far distant from his immediate circle. A man may be an irresponsible father, but that is more than compensated for by his deep concern about global warming, or foreign policy, or the food situation in Africa."

In forming our opinion about Clinton, or Bush, or Obama, most of what we actually know is the guy’s opinions on political, social, and economic questions. But people are not content to judge a guy based upon his opinions, they want to go further to form an opinion about the character of the man. Having no real basis for doing so, they fill in a picture that is consistent with the judgment that stems from the policy opinions.

So a conservative looks at a guy like Clinton, sizes up what he regards to be the guy’s policy opinions, predictably condemns them, and then fills in the rest of the story – this guy must do very strange things with cigars and have no real regard for maintaining clothing purchased from the Gap. Turns out they were right about that, but perhaps only by luck. A liberal looks at a guy like Bush, predictably recoils at his silver spoon life, goes out and rents that movie where Chris Farley is the partying frat boy heir apparent to a fortune, and there they have their story.

We are told about how ideological the Bush administration is by the opposing tribe, and to the extent that those on our side might agree it is because they rightfully consider the ideology very friendly to big government. This would presumably be the ideology that the other side would be rooting for, and yet it is clear they use the term prejoratively. We are also told about how divisive the Bush administration has been from a tribe that has fantasized about his assassination in books and films, accusing him on the basis of nothing other than their “gut” that Bush has routinely lied and embarked on a war to settle a family score, and yet his proponents question repeatedly why he doesn’t respond forcefully to the low blows thrown at him on a daily basis. His approval among Republicans stands today at 54 percent, and I would say that the bulk of the disapproval stems from the laundry list of new spending that the left should applaud.

The new administration comes in the applause of a media that is as tribally loyal to the Democratic party as is possible, and it will obviously show in their coverage of the Obama administration. Whereas Bush was a cocky cowboy – i.e. exhibited an unwarranted confidence that was off-putting to our allies, or so the narrative went – Obama, who is as equally self-assured with perhaps less basis given his resume, is instead cool and unshakable.

But in the face of what? Obsequious press coverage that, whenever faced with inflammatory facts or associations (Rezko, Wright, Ayers) that they could have easily stoked into a bonfire, instead did their level best to dampen. Let us see how unshakable he is when the weight of popular opinion is against him – as it was for Bush when he orchestrated the successful passage of the surge in a Democratic congress that unashamedly pinned its hopes for electoral victory on failure in Iraq. Ask the Iraqis who has been cool and unshakable in a real test. Not to say that Obama will not be; that remains to be seen, but there are many who believe, on the basis of tribal affinity to the man alone, that it is already manifestly true.

This is precisely where the tribal loyalties of the press will effect the narrative of the coverage of Obama, as opposed to that for Bush; put simply, Obama is innocent until proven guilty, whereas Bush was presumed guilty. It is far easier to go back and connect the dots as to where something goes off the rails than it is to predict how they might go off the rails in the first place. You can connect the dots after the fact and claim that such problems could have been predictably avoided. Alternatively, you can point out the many variables and unknowns that exist at the time a decision has to be made, and point out that a good decision is often the most desirable of several undesirable options, and that there is always a probability that even the best decision could lead, with some probability, to the least desirable outcome.

The press will re-discover nuance in its coverage of Obama. Whereas a tell-all policy memoir by a former Bushite that settles internal scores is treated as a balanced assessment of the Bush administration, the same will be viewed as sour grapes for a former Obama official. The truth is that any such tell-all might be balanced and fair, or it might be sour grapes, but with only one person telling the tale, there may be no way to know for sure, but this doesn’t stop the press from treating it on a prima facie basis as one or the other as it suits them. So a bad outcome under an Obama decision will be an indication of the difficulty of the times, where even the most considered of opinions and actions can end badly, whereas a bad outcome of a Bush policy will be highlighted as entirely avoidable by finding the Richard Clarke in the room who has a score to settle.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

True Believers

So I’ve been reading a little Kierkegaard. Sounds like a really bad pick-up line meant to be delivered to a philosophy major coed, and of course it is. But it’s even a worse line for that purpose when you garble the pronunciation of the name. Trust me on that one. But I digress. Kierkegaard was an existentialist, but not a brooding atheistic one like Sartre; he was in fact a Christian. Accept he didn’t much like Christianity per se; he spent much of his time issuing bromides against the Church in Sweden.

Here was his issue – in his view Christianity required that you be contemporaneous with Christ – that you suffered the same doubts and struggles in accepting the faith as you would have if you had walked the earth at the time of Christ and believed then. He believed that the immediate reaction to a humble Jew calling himself God should be offense – offense at the notion that an all-powerful God wouldn’t adorn himself in at least as much bling as Deion Sanders sported on his first SI cover.

So he talks about the potential reactions one might have to the living Christ during his lifetime – reactions along the lines of cautious endorsement of His good works, which are only tainted by His wild claims of being the Son of God. It’s hard to read the descriptions and not find in one or more of them your own likely attitude toward Christ had you actually been living at the time. But of course with each passing century, up until maybe the last Century, belief in Christ was a sign of bourgoise respectability. It was the easy choice to go along if you wanted to get along because of its power and reach. Gone was the leap of faith required to get beyond the very rational doubts that you would have had had you been alive at the same time as Christ. You might say to yourself in 1500 that of course it has to be true, otherwise how could one man living 1500 years ago have so transformed the world? But that wasn’t a proof Christ could offer to the first Christians.

So Kierkegaard’s main problem was that Christianity makes it all too easy to call oneself a Christian, and as a result people are missing the point. It’s truly a crazy leap, and his point is you cannot do it without radically changing every aspect of your life because, if you lived contemporaneous with Christ, it was not possible to do it halfway. But if the status quo allows you to check the box on Church on Sunday, confession once a year, etc. without otherwise experiencing any fundamental and radical departure from societal respectability, then you are too likely to attach yourself to the things of this world rather than the next. Either you believe or you don’t, but the difference in how you live your life should be radical.

I bring this up to draw a parallel with environmentalism. I would suspect that for some environmentalists, there has to be the same frustration, that people can softly claim the mantle by recycling a bit, turning off a light here or there, driving a Prius in the city, etc. Either you believe we are headed for an ecological apocalypse, or you don’t. But if you believe it, how do you justify not going Ed Begley on the world? Isn’t anything short of that just moral posturing, a mere expression of tribal loyalty with others who are similarly right thinking? I know a lot of liberals who believe it’s all going to happen, and very little in their lives changes. They may espouse an attitude toward government that tolerates the possibility of much greater coercion of others with respect to economic freedom, and presumably would willingly tolerate such restrictions if they became policy, but nevertheless would not dream of actually radically changing their own lives voluntarily.

Now, the truth is that is a very rational move if you ask me, so I am not saying that it is hypocritical. I am only saying that it has got to be really frustrating to the true believers, the Ed Begley’s of the world who know that probably half of America nominally believes the same things, but won’t let it get in the way of a good road trip.

I’ve heard it said among Democrats that the Republican party is cynical in its pro-life stance – that a pro-life triumph would be disastrous for the parties electoral chances going forward, presumably not because of any backlash related to that issue, but instead due to taking the one issue that accounts for much of their loyalty off of the political table. I happen not to agree with this, but I take the point. With the new Obama administration, I think we will see something similar with respect to environmentalism. We’ve been told by Al Gore that it is a moral problem rather than a political problem, that we face cataclysmic consequences to inaction, that the changes that are necessary can be made without economic pain, etc. All convenient things to say when the other guy is in power. It is worth remembering that the Kyoto accords were rejected in the late 1990s by all but one Democratic Senator (if memory serves).

Here’s my prediction – the Obama administration will do very little in connection to the environment. There will be some payola to the parties that benefit from the alarmism created by the wild claims, enough perhaps to keep them quiet. I would say it will take very little to keep them quiet once Obama is in office, and in fact a little extra their way will have them lauding the policies of Obama even if in fact they are mere lipstick on what we’ve been told for eight years is a pig. (I suspect he may go a little too far and choose a policy that reaps great economic harm without any real prospect of confronting seriously the devestation we are told is imminent.) We’ll see, in short, if Al Gore really drinks his own kool-aid, and I suspect that he doesn’t. If he is honest, the policies he will see should make him the Kierkegaard to Obama’s environmental church, but something tells me he will quietly glide into the pew and keep quiet in exchange for the promised donuts in the parish hall. At the end of the day, it will be a moral posture that is good for business and the Democratic party, and nothing more. Like homeless people circa 1992, environmental problems will largely disappear.

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