Thursday, May 5, 2011

Andy Kohut Thinks I'm a Solid Liberal

I was planning on posting earlier this week, but like many folks I was busy processing the news of Sunday night. Finding the proper balance between joy and Christian love is pretty hard. I did reflect on some generational aspects of the event you can see in my other blog.

So now I'm back to politics and civil discourse. The Pew Center for the People and the Press (led by pollster Andrew Kohut who regularly appears on NPR and PBS) just released results of a new study that suggests eight types of voters: Staunch Conservatives, Main Street Republicans, Libertarians, Disaffecteds, Post-Moderns, New Coalition Democrats, Hard-Pressed Democrats, and Solid Liberals (they also have a group that doesn't vote at all). There's an online quiz that's supposed to tell you where you fall. Needless to say, I came out as Solid Liberal.

It seems to me that there are three driving forces in the survey (which, as Niki says, forces unreasonable options -- more later). One dynamic involves a belief in the ultimate fairness or unfairness of systems. If you believe they're fair, you wind up in one of the first three categories. If not, you wind up Solid Liberal. A second dynamic has to do with economic well-being. Saying you're struggling puts you in either the Disaffected or Hard-Pressed category. The third dynamic has to do with social issues (primarily homosexuality and tolerance of the non-religious). Those folks are Libertarians or Post-Modern.

I actually like the three forces even if I think the quiz needs work. But the notion that people are locked into these philosophical positions strikes too close to home when one sees what's happening in Washington. In the long term, we need a long-term approach to deficit reduction that will actually work instead of playing to political posturing. In the short-term, the debt ceiling needs to be raised.

So what do we do? Well, the House passed the Ryan budget that has no chance of passing the Senate or getting a presidential signature. Harry Reid suggested making a test vote in the Democratically controlled Senate. The House just passed HR3 to forbid abortion funding (on top of the current bans on abortion funding). It has no chance in the Senate and won't be signed.

Why do we do this? Because political campaigns have taken over the government. HR3 had a two-fold purpose -- let the base know that they were heard (to keep them interested and invested) and, more importantly, to create a public record that will show up in grainy black and white commercials in 2012 ("Rep. XXX voted to allow federal money to kill babies".) I don't mean to only focus on the Republicans. Reid was willing to call a vote on Ryan's Medicare proposal for the same reasons ("Senator XXX voted to take health care away from your grandma".)

This is not how people live. It's not how we solve problems on a daily basis (you know, "how families deal with household issues".) Tom Toles of the Washington Post made clear today exactly how outrageous this behavior is:

Back to the Pew report -- We should be able to have discussions about reasonable regulation that protects the environment. Does this mean that snail darters win out over farmers? Not if we can demonstrate that there aren't unintended effects of losing the snail darters (Star Trek IV remains the quintessential example of unintended consequences!). In an emergency, do we break a levee and put fertilizer and other pollutants in the Mississippi? Yes, if the costs of not doing that are too great.  Can't we acknowledge, as I wrote in my last post, that racism has limited choices for people that still matter without thinking that means that folks are sitting around waiting for government handouts? (The OK state senator did back down from that claim but my point is that it didn't need to be said in the first place!).

I could keep doing this with the various aspects of the Pew quiz or with current policy options. Isn't it clear that we need an appropriate level of tax revenue to provide the right level of government and that maybe we could look at changing tax incentives for large farms, energy companies, multinational corporations, and maybe even limit (or at least means test) the home mortgage interest exemption?

I'm currently reading Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith of Calvin College. I'm only about a third of the way through it, but Jamie' s point is that the Christian College focus on "worldview" becomes an overly intellectualized argument that doesn't deal with the formation of heart or character.

I really am coming to believe that our focus on political philosophies, even those suggested by Kohut, is not productive. Like Jamie argues, it allows us to give the "right answers" but doesn't accomplish change. Perhaps if we were less focused on whose political view was in ascendancy and focused on rethinking our pragmatic strategies, we'd be further along. What if we defined our intended outcomes first (e.g., affordable health care for senior citizens) and then consider all the possible means to get there?

This has been fun to write. In spite of my quiz answers, I'm no longer a Solid Liberal. I'm a Radical Pragmatist. I think I can live with that quite happily. Maybe I'll work on a survey.

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