Monday, December 8, 2008

Politics Ain't Geometry

Nope, politics ain't geometry. I mean two things by this:

1. Truth and justice do not lie, symmetrically, in the Center of what we are told is Left and Right.
2. You don't have to be an expert or a policy wonk to be "into" politics, because politics is fundamentally uncomplicated. (I'll explore this second point in a future post. For now, let's focus on the first point.)

I've met a lot of people who treat finding their political identity as simply an exercise in symmetry. From what I can tell, their thinking boils down to something like this:
"Well, we have Republicans on the right saying this and Democrats on the left saying that. They are probably both wrong by equal amounts in opposite directions. The truth must lie in the middle."
Symmetry is simple and beautiful and, therefore, enticing. Sadly it does not hep us understand politics.

Why Does Symmetry Make Bad Politics?

Because the "Center" is an artificial creation. We know that both of the major parties are disproportionately controlled by corporations and the wealthy. So, it's inevitable that both parties--in their philosophies and in their governance--tilt toward the special interests of corporations and the wealthy and away from the interests of workers, consumers, and the non-rich. In other words, both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party tend to skew toward the narrow interests of a small minority and away from the common interests of the vast majority of Americans.  

  • Democrats and Republicans are not "wrong, by equal amounts, in opposite directions." They are wrong, by different amounts, in the same direction. Both parties are too elitist, too corporatist--and so is the enticing Center that you will find between them.

Because it discourages dissent. Left-Right thinking falsely places both parties on opposite sides of the "mainstream." So, if you are left of the Democrats or right of the Republicans, you are by definition an extremist. Even if you stand squarely with one party, Left-Right thinking makes you believe that most Americans are further Right or further Left than you. You can see how, according to this reasoning, the most comfortable position is in the perfect Center--the Center which we have already said is inordinately defined by the specific interests of those with great amounts of money.

Because it ignores power. The analogy of politics as a spectrum from left to right (a horizontal scene) implies that we are all on the same level, that we are roughly equal in influence, and that we simply differ on our ideological preferences--the same way we might differ on other preferences, like choosing our favorite soda or musical artist. In fact, we are not on the same level. Those with great accumulations of wealth tower over the rest of us in our collective decision making. By simply placing corporate titans and money barons on "the Right," we ignore the tremendous power they wield and, therefore, submit to it.

Because it wrongly distributes your cynicism equally between the two parties. I've said that the two major parties are wrong, by different amounts, in the same direction. But it's important to know who's less wrong, who's more wrong, and why that's the case. Because the Democratic Party's coalition includes organized labor, environmental groups, civil rights organizations, and grassroots progressives, the party is--thankfully--more closely tethered than the Republican Party to the needs of ordinary Americans. In other words, the Democratic Party is the more democratic party. And because the Republican coalition is so thoroughly dominated by big business, the GOP sticks much closer than Democrats to the narrow, specific interests of wealth and power. In other words, the Republican Party is the more special-interest, extremist party.

A Better Spatial Analogy for Politics

Maybe we just love geometry. But if we are going to think spatially about politics, I'd like to propose some new shapes.

Instead of a horizontal spectrum, we need something more vertical that reflects the unequal political power caused by the vast differences in wealth among us. We also need something that demonstrates what we all intuitively know: that both parties are just off somehow. Finally, we need a new spatial analogy that shows that although both parties tilt toward the rich, the Democrats are closer than Republicans to the vast majority of Americans, the non-rich. 

Here is a better way to view our political landscape. (Bear with me. I drew this in OpenOffice.)

There's a lot to quibble over on this chart, and there are several caveats that I'll just skip for the sake of space.

But the chart above accurately demonstrates the following:
  • Both parties are disproportionately influenced by and representative of the wealthy,
  • The half-way point between the parties is still too rich-oriented,
  • Democrats are closer than Republicans to representing the needs of the vast majority of Americans,
  • Even the Democratic Party needs to be less wealth-powered and more people-powered, to represent a greater number of Americans.
According to the chart above, both parties need to be pulled "down," closer to the needs of the great bulk of the American population. We need to take bold steps to limit the undue political influence of corporations and the wealthy. And we need to take equally bold steps to empower those of us who do not own large companies or inherit large estates. We need to spread the power around.

In the short term, this means that we need "more and better Democrats." In the long run, it means that we need to pull the entire political debate down to the level of of the people.


Laurel said...

I like your drawing -- very neat and easy to understand! Boy, I had no idea symmetry was playing such a joke on us all. I like how you write; I'll be staying tuned!

Camp Papa said...

I'm looking forward to a discussion of American politics without the usual "geometric" challenges.

Stephanie said...

Huh. Your chart looks a lot like Idaho. What are you trying to get at? Oh my god! The ultra-rich mostly reside in Idaho. I get it!

Amy said...

Wow, Dave. Good stuff. Can't wait to read more!

Hootie said...

Eager to read more... great jumping-off point for discussion, BTW.

Sara said...

Definitely looking forward to more.
Does it have to be one or the other? I mean, what about a third, better party--why hasn't that worked?
And loooooved the sweatshirt.

Better Than Machines said...

Stephanie, you're right. It does look like Idaho! Maybe that's why we hear so little about the state. Because the super wealthy are hiding there!

Sara, the question of third parties is an interesting one, and I plan to write a future post or two about it. On one hand, I get frustrated with fellow Dems who treat it like, "My party, right or wrong, love it or leave it." On the other hand, for some things I think we gotta use what we got, and we definitely "got" the Dems more than the Repubs. Either way, activism can't be strictly an electoral, partisan thing. I think elections are just one part of the solution.