More proof that the L- and C-words have lost their meaning

January 20, 2006 psipsina

I played a simulation on one of my company’s political science web sites yesterday.  (Unfortunately, I can’t post a link to this here, because it is proprietary information that can only be accessed for a fee.)  The player is presented with an issue and arguments on both sides of the issue and asked to make a choice.  The simulation then assigns the player a liberal or conservative rating.

For all but one issue, I picked what I thought to be the liberal position.  (For what it’s worth, I decided to keep my sweatshop-made shirt, because I was trying to play with an open mind, and I felt that the no-sweat argument was not presented as compellingly as it ought to be – for one thing, child labor was not mentioned.)

Anyway, I got a flat-in-the-middle-of-the-road score.  If I picked four out of five liberal positions, how is it that I didn’t score “slightly left of center”?

This is because the site authors view opposition to the war in Iraq and the WTO as the conservative positions.  The war in Iraq was a change to the status quo and threatened the stability of political systems in the Middle East, according to the authors.  And the WTO is a threat to states’ economic sovereignty.

I recognized these arguments as oversimplified – and in fact, I was interested to note that on the immigration issue, there are conservative and liberal arguments both for and against – but it occurred to me once again how useless these binary categories really are.

On that note, let me put in a plug for a swell, slim, inexpensive book published by my company.  Culture Wars? by Morris Fiorina et al. argues rather persuasively that it is not the American public that is polarized; it is the political classes – professional politicians and activists and amateur but committed partisans.  The crux of the argument is that there are two phenomena that can generate a 49%-49% distribution in election results.  One is if the electorate is extremely partisan.  The other if the candidates are extremely partisan and the electorate is middle of the road and more or less flips a coin.

So two things I’ve concluded from the book:

  1. Nader had it backwards:  the party leaders are farther apart than ever.  It is the public that persists in having relatively similar opinions, otherwise known as being able to see the nuances of issues.  Fiorina’s chapter on abortion illustrates this very clearly.
  2. Bush is largely, though not wholly, responsible for the appearance of the divide by campaigning to his far-right base.  Had he run on a more centrist platform, it would not have appeared that the country is composed of right-wing nutcases and left-wing bleeding hearts.  Instead, Bush pulled the most extreme issues out of his bag of tricks (the war in Iraq, gay marriage) rather than more centrist issues, like the economy.  The statistics in Fiorina’s book clearly support the conclusion that Bush is a divider!

One more thing that I should make clear:  I do not suggest that, just because the majority agrees on an issue, that the majority’s opinion should always become codified in law or policy.  While this country is founded in great part on the principle of majority rule, it is also founded on the notion of individual rights: no majority, however big, may infringe upon the rights of any minority, however small.

However, it is reassuring to learn that the fistfights in the American political arena are not happening on Main Street, but are largely confined to places like the mercifully deceased slugfest TV show Crossfire.

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