Democracy, Current Events

The Presidential Candidates and Civil Discourse

Well the first debate is over.  There is no need to remark here about how crazy this election cycle is or how terrible the debate was.  US politics has gotten more and more divisive since 1988, when The League of Women Voters stopped sponsoring the presidential debates because of what they saw as the Democratic and Republican parties move “to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions” (here).

Rightly or wrongly, each of the last several presidents has been called “the most divisive” in history.  The divisiveness might not be as bad if the nation had been willing to engage in honest conversation about important issues facing us.  Instead, we get candidates who spout scripted lines, ignoring what their opponents say. There is none of the give and take that is the essence of genuine conversation.  Unfortunately, this is now true of the majority of political discourse—not just the debates.

Supporters of Hillary Clinton are simply astonished by the behavior of people at Donald Trump’s rallies.  Supporters of Donald Trump can’t believe how out of touch Clinton’s supporters are.  And neither group really listens to the other.  Neither of these candidates has the ability to end this cycle of failed communication.  The two party machinery won’t let them.  Fortunately, there is a better option available.

This year, with the stakes higher than ever, we have a candidate who is head and shoulders above the Democratic and Republican nominees in terms of honesty, humility, and integrity.  Gary Johnson, running with Bill Weld, wants your vote—and given the other options, voting for Johnson and Weld is far from a waste.  It’s a way to help improve the political dialogue and tell the Democrats and Republicans both that we need more civility and honest conversation about the issues that face us all.  A further step might be for the candidates to sign on to the standards of conduct proposed by the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Johnson is a libertarian; indeed, I think he is as close to a Bleeding Heart Libertarian as any national politician has ever been in my adult lifetime.  He wants to work for genuine criminal justice reform, to end over-incarceration, end the destructive drug war that ruins the lives of many people and their communities, streamline our immigration policy, reduce the size of the regulatory state, increase participation in the workforce, stop the US bombing of innocent people while maintaining the most powerful armed forces the world has seen, improve and extend cooperation throughout the world with genuine free trade policies, and balance the federal budget.  (Oh, and since people will ask: He takes global warming seriously, but is skeptical of the supposed remedies thus far proposed.  Clearly, he prefers–rightly–to reduce the interference of the regulatory state so as to unleash human ingenuity–which might help find a better solution than those currently on offer.)

Putting all of that in place will not be easy.  But Johnson and Weld have track records.  They were both successful governors (of New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively).  Both ran as Republicans in heavily Democratic states.  Both were re-elected by wide margins because of their success and ability to reach across the aisle to work with people from both parties.  Neither is Republican in anything like the way Donald Trump is.  Again, they seem to be BHLs, or at least kindred spirits along the same path.  Both favor social inclusivity along with fiscally conservative policy.  Both worked for the common good of their states as chief executive—something neither Clinton nor Trump can claim.  (Admittedly, Johnson doesn’t know the name of every town in the world, including one that is the center of much suffering; importantly, his policies should be what matter to you–and I would suggest that they are likely to result in fewer places where people experience that sort of suffering.)

Its time for a change, but a change with a real plan by someone with a history of getting things done.  I urge everyone to encourage the Commission on Presidential Debates (media@debates.org; 202-872-1020) to add a podium (correction: lectern) for Johnson at the next debate so more people can hear his views and I urge everyone to consider voting for Johnson and Weld in November.

If you don’t know enough about Johnson and Weld yet:

  • Add a lectern…
    You stand on a podium.

    • Andrew

      Thanks!

  • Sean II

    “…we need more civility and honest conversation…”

    Those two goods you want more of, they’re inversely linked.

    Civility is something you get by putting honesty on a leash. Honesty is the first thing sacrificed in any effort to be polite.( Obvious reason for this: the truth often hurts.)

    So either you want more civility or more honesty, but not both.

    • Lacunaria

      Criticism (whether true or not) does often hurt feelings, but that hurt can also often be ameliorated by giving a more balanced perspective, which is actually more true than a narrow criticism.

      But there are still a few problems:

      (1) It is far easier to be narrowly and deeply critical than it is to give a more comprehensive and balanced perspective with solutions.

      (2) As you imply, every constraint we add to our communication can weigh upon and compromise the others to some extent. e.g. We might articulate in a way that is less accurate in order spare someone’s feelings.

      (3) The well-balanced truth can be less convincing and less motivating than incisive myopia or exaggeration or even outright lies.

      Trump plays on this by being emotionally insightful (Bush is low energy, Rosie O’Donnell is fat — all true, but largely irrelevant) and self-contradictory / incoherent (truth is secondary). He both plays the PC card and violates it. He’s unnecessarily offensive, but sometimes that is effective.

      By contrast, for example, Milton Friedman was brilliant in his ability to kindly correct people (though he could be devastating in class). “What you are doing, not intentionally, but by misunderstanding, when you try to get equal pay for equal work law, what you are doing is reducing to zero the cost imposed on people who are discriminating for irrelevant reasons. And I would like to see a cost imposed on them. I’m on your side, but you’re not!”

      • Sean II

        I think that example rather cuts the other way. For all his genial manner, Friedman still ended up a target of hatred and defamation. Indeed it was only too easy for Naomi Klein – communication style: viciously uncivil bitch – to turn Friedman’s charm against him, by labeling it as just one more insidious trick in the bag of fascism. (“Naomi Klein” gets 427,000 hits on Google, by the way. “Milton Friedman” himself gets 477,000. Impressive when you recall that one is a Nobel prize winner, the other a college dropout.)

        But back to the larger point…

        I certainly used to think the nice approach sounded nice. How clever to say “I share your goal of [helping the poor, affordable child care, ending racism, whatever], but your statist method won’t achieve that goal, whereas my classically liberal one can and will…”

        Problem: it only sounds nice TO US. To them it just comes off like a convoluted, passive-aggressive way of saying “you’re wrong”.

        And there is no evidence the “nice” approach really gets through to anyone, certainly no evidence that it outperforms the standard treatment of saying “you’re wrong”.

        In fact there are good reasons to suspect it shouldn’t work. Left wingers don’t actually give a shit about their alleged goals, so they’re not going to be impressed by our embrace of them. What they do care about is centralized power – something they claim to seek as a means, but which is really an end in itself. That’s why they fall all over themselves laughing when Rand Paul or Paul Ryan comes around talking about how decentralization can make their dreams come true.

        Wrong. From Plato’s Republic to Feel the Bern, centralization is and always has been their dream. We’re not gonna trick them into forgetting that with a tidy anecdote about the failure of rent control.

        • Lacunaria

          Well, Freidman worked well to convince me.

          And broadly speaking, I’ve found that once people feel wounded emotionally, they reach for any weapon — insults, barbs, strawmen which lead away from apt, rational discussion. So, I still see geniality as a way of narrowing rational focus to avoid emotional distractions.

          People also need something to hold on to if you are challenging them to change, otherwise they panic and become belligerent when they feel unmoored. So reinforcing the validity of their moral core often does help.

          However, if we restrict ourselves to statists who ignore mountains of evidence, then I agree — I haven’t found genial truth to work very well, but I also haven’t found anything that does work well. Have you?

          And at this point we’ve switched from the inverseness or incompatibility of geniality and truth to the ineffectiveness of genial truth. And, notably, as I think you imply, it’s not the genial part that is the problem, it’s the truth part.

          What has amazed me in this election is just how inconsequential the truth is. Clinton’s vague geniality works for her followers as it makes her seem sane and Trump’s brashness works for him as it makes him seem honest. Truth doesn’t really play a big role here so much as feelings — and those are fractionizing and divisive even between the various stripes of statists.

          To be clear, I consider you to be more on the genial side in your arguments (which are sadly few and far between nowadays). Your articulate and humorous incisiveness make up for any biting I’ve seen.

          • Sean II

            Fair enough, but for every Friedman convert there must be four who came in through the Ayn Rand School of Hysterically Uncivil Overstatement. “It Usually Begins With…” So by the numbers, rude and crude seems to win out over soft and lofty.

            Of course my better example would be the triumph of the social left. Their record is: 50 years of increasingly aggressive rudeness which, far from turning people off, has won them near-total control of the culture in all vital institutions, the media, the academy, corporations, bureaucracies, etc.

            This I think is the key thing: most people are not ideologues of any kind. Most people, even most smart people, are not contemplative about politics. They just want to get on with their lives in peace and quiet.

            It’s not hard for such people to figure out who is dangerous, and who can be safely ignored. Blow off someone like Matt Zwolinski, and he’ll go home introspecting about how to better reach you tomorrow. But diss a guy like Paul Krugman, and he’ll go to work telling everyone how you’re just another RACIST! stooge of the neo-colonial Kochtopus.

            Sure, sure, I get the theory: all that name-calling nastiness is supposed to backfire one day, in a cultural equivalent of the Velvet Revolution. One morning we’ll wake up to the discover that the vulgar tactic of screaming “racist!, sexist!, __phobe!” no longer works, just as we were once stunned to find out how shallow went the imprint from 70 years worth of Soviet propaganda, among people who were never so fooled as they pretended to be.

            I’d like to believe that, but I don’t know. Some lies enforced by hissing social conformity have endured for a very long time. I don’t know what the ancient Egyptian version of winning argument with “Shut up, that’s racist” might have been, but whatever it was, it clearly worked.

            (Thanks for your comment at the end. Much appreciated. And not many people have noticed, but it’s actually pretty difficult to draw out my fangs. The big secret is: I get a little nasty when people quit a discussion by some means other than honestly tapping out.)

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