Talking About the Same Thing

Professor Joseph Wagner of Colgate University, one of the three professors who most influenced the development of my early political thought, was fond of saying that the venom associated with certain issues was because the opposing parties “are not talking about the same thing.” For example, opponents of Roe v. Wade couch their arguments in terms of defending life, while proponents of Roe v. Wade couch their arguments in terms of defending choice – both important values that almost all of us hold dear.

In so doing, the two sides refuse to address the other side’s arguments. This refusal simultaneously allows the side making the argument to more or less credibly  cast the opposition as “anti-______” (where ____ is a fundamental cultural value shared by almost all), while also permitting the opposition to argue, again credibly, that the arguing side is unconcerned with arguments for the other _______ (where the other _____ is also a fundamental cultural value) and is therefore opposed to ________.   In a way, these attacks wind up not only being credible, but also accurate – in refusing to even address the implications of a policy for value ________, a side effectively casts that value as not only irrelevant to the specific issue at hand, but as completely devoid of consideration as a legitimate value at all. 

As a means of inciting supporters of one side or another to activism, this is terribly effective; as a means of finding an actual answer to the problem or persuading fence-sitters and opponents, it is almost entirely without value.   It also has another effect: by casting each side as fundamentally anti-_______, it calcifies attitudes between the two sides on other issues that involve value _______ but that are otherwise irrelevant to the specific issue already under debate. 

Scott’s exceptional post this morning, about which I cannot say enough good things, along with Kyle’s excellent response, goes a long way towards advancing this more or less self-evident concept to an understanding of “good” versus “bad” forms of partisanship.  Better, I think it hints at a way out of this morass.  It also explains why I’ve come to hold President Obama in a higher regard than the vast majority of politicians I’ve heard in my lifetime. 

In particular, Scott writes:

Right relationship of partisan tendencies is born out of a respect for the elements of an issue that a particular ideological perspective is best able to hit upon and articulate.  Liberals, conservatives, progressives, and libertarians all emphasize different elements of different issues precisely because there is generally something important about the element that each grasps on to as its “first principle” on that front. …

What we seem to be fighting then, is the calcifying tendencies of partisanship. How we do that is not to strive towards some point in time where partisanship no longer exists, but rather to cultivate a greater dexterity in our partisan maneuvering. Which is to say that right relationship of partisanship requires participants who not only steel against the calcification of their own necessarily perspectival take on a particular issue, but who also consciously seek out the articulation of other perspectives and then apply a certain adeptness at “seeing” what those articulations are describing.

Yes, yes, and yes! 

At their best, the various major Western political philosophies/ideologies all mostly agree on the legitimacy of certain core values or first principles; perhaps amongst others, these first principles would be things like the sanctity of human life, the sanctity of the exercise of free will, a healthy respect for cultural traditions, and the desirability of social mobility.  Where they generally disagree, however, is in the prioritization of these values when they come into conflict. 

There are generally two ways of dealing with such conflicts.  One is to reflexively deny that the conflict exists at all, or worse to deny that such conflicts are even possible.  This is the easiest way to deal with the problem.  It is also terribly dangerous, poisoning legitimate debate.  Specifically it ignores the fact that, as Kyle wrote, “the world we live in relies more on empirical data and real world accounting than faith. ”  Although it is certainly impossible to empirically prove whether a particular first principle is more important than a rival first principle, it is absolutely possible to prove empirically whether a particular policy or event helps or hinders the advancement of a first principle, and therefore whether a conflict of first principles exists. 

By reflexively denying the existence of a conflict without any attempt at a good-faith exploration of the empirical data, a party in effect denies the legitimacy (or at the very least will appear to deny that legitimacy) of the supposedly threatened value and thereby ensures a particularly nasty debate full of accusations of bad faith.  It also ensures that no acceptable solution will be possible, because only one party is acknowledging that a problem even exists.

The second, healthier but far more difficult way of responding to conflicts between core values, is to view our ideology as a way of resolving doubt, or better yet, as a set of rules of construction.  So conservatism becomes defined not by a dogmatic resistance to all change but instead by an effectively Burkean attitude that holds “when in doubt about a value’s primacy, err on the side of tradition”; libertarianism and classical liberalism becomes defined not by a reflexive opposition to all government actions but instead by a “soft Hayekian” (“actual” Hayekian, as I would call it) attitude that holds, “when in doubt of a value’s primacy, err on the side of free will”; and progressivism becomes defined not by a reflexive trust in the competence of government but by an attitude that holds, “when in doubt of a value’s primacy, err on the side of the least powerful.” 

Looking at ideology through this lens is critical to honest and open debate, I think.  It acknowledges that it is impossible to empirically prove the primacy of a particular value to the betterment of society (after all, how do you prove whether one imagined utopia is better than another imagined utopia).  But at the same time, it acknowledges that one must at some point make a decision as to which value ought to take primacy in a given situation… a decision that must often be based on  a certain form of faith.

Importantly, this way of viewing one’s ideology leaves one open to persuasion through reasoned argumentation or through objective review of empirical evidence.  It also allows one to argue on terms that the opposing party can understand by arguing either:

1. There are legitimate flaws in the other party’s argument such that the position the other party is arguing does not, in fact, advance the principle that other party considers primary.  Simultaneously, we leave ourselves open to persuasion as to whether our opposing position helps or hinders our own primary principle.

2.  The other party’s arguments may well be correct; however, even if they are correct, the implications of doing as they suggest would have too much of a detrimental effect on another culturally accepted core principle because it would also do X, Y, and Z. 

or 3.  The other party’s arguments are correct and the implications of doing as they suggest would have sufficiently minor impact on other culturally accepted core principles that it is worth doing as they suggest even if you hold those other principles as generally primary. 

Simply put: viewing ideology as a rule of construction allows us to “talk about the same thing,” and thereby to arrive at solutions that, to the extent possible, are tailored to advance one or more core principles without hurting other core principles.  At root, it ensures that we continue to recognize that other core principles are legitimate and important elements of our society and cannot simply be shunted aside.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that my hope for Obama rests almost entirely in the fact that he has mostly (though not entirely) convinced me that he is one of the rare modern politicians who actually seeks to define his ideology in the latter way.  This hope is what animated my fairly strong support of him during the primary campaign, and is why I rooted for him to win the general election even though I voted for a third-party campaign.  Few things are more emblematic of why I have mostly come to this conclusion than this little nugget from Zach Wamp about Obama’s meeting with Republicans over the stimulus package:

This was not a drive-by P.R. stunt, and I actually thought it might be. It was a substantive, in-depth discussion with our conference, and he’s very effective. He knows that the debt and the deficit are huge long-term problems as well and he made a compelling case. He sounded, frankly, a lot like a Republican.”

A President who can sound like a Republican in a meeting with Republicans without giving much ground on substance is a President who understands the importance of talking about the same thing.

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2 thoughts on “Talking About the Same Thing

  1. “viewing ideology as a rule of construction allows us to “talk about the same thing,” and thereby to arrive at solutions that, to the extent possible, are tailored to advance one or more core principles without hurting other core principles. ”
    But this is simply impossible when one side’s arguments are not based on logic and reason, but on superstitious belief and the historical right of imposing those beliefs on other citizens.

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