Monday, February 21, 2011

A taxonomy of American politics

The weak are inescapable. Live long enough? Probably weak. Child? Weak. Wrong genes? Not so strong. Blacksmith post-horses? Tribe out of power? Parents not wealthy? Don't own a Senator? Organic in the machine age? Ok, so you get it.

In America weakness and poverty trend together. and, to a first approximation, American political tribes can be classified by their attitudes to the weak...

Branch I The strong should help the weak because ...

  • I need help -> Weak person, not in denial
  • My religious tradition tells me I will be rewarded for compassion -> Theist
  • Seeing suffering makes me feel bad -> Normal human
  • I choose to assume this obligation because ...
    • I am perverse [3] ->  liberal secular humanist
    • Some of those I love are weak -> Social interest
    • I may be weak some day -> Rational self-interest
    • I favor civilization and prosperity -> Rational social interest
    • My tribe is defined by its service -> Noblesse obliges

Branch II The strong should not help the the weak because ...

  • I am strong because I am of the strong tribe, non-tribe is non-person -> Weak person, in denial
  • Misfortune is the will of God/The Market which I must support -> neo-Calvinist [1], Marketarian
  • I am strong, and the weak serve me -> Authoritarian
  • I don't care about the suffering of others -> Sociopath
  • I like seeing others suffer -> Psychopath
  • Obligation is an infringement on my liberty ->  Libertarian
  • The health of the tribe requires the sacrifice of the weak -> Social Darwinist [2]
  • Charity makes people weak, for weak must win or fall on their own -> Tough Lover

I guesstimate that about 70% of Americans belong in Branch I and 70%of them vote Democrat. Of the 30% of Americans in Branch II about 95% of them vote GOP. Branch II defines the heart of the GOP, though Branch II alone can't win elections.

Of all the twigs of this tree there are three that are in play during elections.

  • non-Calvinist theists can vote Democrat or Republican. They are why we can have a Black President, but never an atheist President.
  • GOP voters who are weak,  but yearn to be of the strong tribe. They may realize they are dupes, that they are sheep funding wolves. They can then change sides. (Today many of these are Beckians.)
  • The Tough Lovers

The last are the most interesting. From my secular humanist perspective, they have a point.

Sure, some TLs are just sociopaths in denial, but most of us are capable of more than we, or others, imagine. Sometimes hunger or homelessness helps someone overcome a social phobia and accept an unpleasant public facing job. Sometimes loss of child care benefits leads to rational choices about contraception. Parents in particular know that children love to win by their own ends against the odds (although we rig the game in the child's favor).

Tough love has its limits though. Sometimes people break. They become homeless. Their dependents suffer. This is why Food Stamps are usually a very good thing. Even the core GOP voters of Branch II often support some sort of publicly funded education, thought they want it to be locally funded and thus favor the strong [5].

The trick for those of us who want to help the weak be stronger, but also recognize that humans are not not rational actors, is to fake "Tough Love". We need systems and solutions that allow the weak to seem "win on their own" , perhaps by rigging the game in a way that seems 'fair'. So instead of doing affirmative action on the basis of ethnicity, we achieve similar ends to by providing affirmative action on the basis of poverty. Instead of directly subsidizing employment, we make it easier to create a viable startup company.

Political systems are good at finding solutions like these, which is why politics is the worse form of governance save for all the alternatives. We'll need to get very good at this form of kindness, because the 21st century will soon be seen as the age of mass disability, when fewer skills are needed, and more skills are as redundant as blacksmithing in the age of the automobile ...

[1] Calvinism is the best "Christian" example I know of, but this is common to many traditions. It is perhaps the only rational answer to the "problem of evil" in a religious tradition.
[2] Apologies to Darwin, who was a remarkably compassionate human being.
[3] It's a "worker Bee thing". Some are programmed this way. It isn't perverse if you think as humans as bipedal naked mole rats.
[4] It's been a long time since I'd given this much thought. I'm indebted to a substantially younger person for refreshing topics I'd internally settled long ago. 
[5] Note to foreigners. Americans typically fund education through local property taxes. Shocking, isn't it? The most shocking thing is that Americans think of this as a good idea.

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