Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

01 September 2008

Twenty Reasons to Vote Democratic in 2008

[For a shorter list for 2010, click here. For comment on the Republican Convention, click here.]

Two years ago, before the mid-term congressional elections, I published a similar post under the title “A Dozen Reasons to Vote Democratic.” As the 2008 presidential election nears, it has been getting more hits.

But now there are far more than a dozen reasons. Labor Day is a good day to review them all, since many affect our workers and our troops. Here they are:
    1. To restore our nation’s competence: its rational, pragmatic and evidence-based approach to solving problems.

    2. To stop gambling on simplistic ideology.

    3. To focus on real issues that matter in people’s lives—energy, health care, education, economic justice, and infrastructure—rather than divisive “cultural” concerns.

    4. To elect leaders who care as much about real people and the future of our country as they do about abstractions like free trade, taxes, corporate profits and ideology.

    5. To break the logjam in Congress and get something done.

    6. To refocus our “war on terror” from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan before the Taliban establish permanent enclaves there and give Al Qaeda free rein.

    7. To get religious folk and environmentalists working together again, as they should, to restore the Earth as God made it.

    8. To halt our steady march toward an imperial presidency and one-man rule.

    9. To restore America’s leadership in science and fact-based research and reaffirm science’s leading role in promoting our health, wealth, welfare and strength.

    10. To put people in charge of education and research on energy, space, biology, climate, evolution and stem cells who understand and respect science and appreciate all it has done for us.

    11. To face natural disasters like Gustav and Katrina with leaders determined to make government work, rather than ones who believe government is incompetent and are eager to prove the point.

    12. To restore constitutional government and the rule of law, reinstitute checks and balances and renew public accountability.

    13. To rebuild international alliances based on cooperation and mutual respect, and begin talking with our enemies, as we did throughout the Cold War.

    14. To renew our social compact with our troops, giving them competent civilian leadership while on duty and the health care, education, and retraining that they earned when they come home.

    15. To tilt the Supreme Court’s precarious five-four balance in favor of women’ rights and workers’ rights and against the greatest threat to our liberties: our own imperial presidency.

    16. To quell the politics of fear, smear, and frat-boy “chops.”

    17. To recognize that we’re all in this together, sink or swim, regardless of group identity.

    18. To elect leaders who will tell us honestly what they see, hear, think and know, not what their party leaders tell them to say.

    19. To get a complete accounting of the lies, blunders and crimes of the worst presidency in American history.

    20. To give the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt time to restore its honesty, honor, integrity and competence and the motivation to do so.


The Alpha Tribe

(5 September 2008)

Anyone who thinks we humans didn’t descend from apes hasn’t watched the Republican convention.

While that remark might sound like a cheap, Republican frat-boy “chop,” I don’t mean it that way. I do believe we descended from apes. And I think the Republicans designed their entire convention to exploit that fact, subtly playing on circuits hard-wired into our brains through the very process of evolution that many Republicans deny.

Reason is what distinguishes us from apes. But if you looked for an appeal to reason during the past three days, you wouldn’t find it. The Republicans tried to tell us that the very same people who voted and spoke in lockstep with Dubya for eight years will bring “change.” Yet when McCain laid out his programmatic points, they were the exact same list of tired platitudes pushed by every Republican since Goldwater.

Here they are: more drilling, nuclear power, lower taxes, smaller government, less government spending, getting government “out of the way,” keeping more of “your own money,” providing a choice of schools but not abortion, and a muscular, militaristic foreign policy utterly devoid of specifics. The only remotely credible “new” point was a vague promise to give redundant workers some ill-defined wage subsidy during their retraining for new and better jobs. Even McCain’s strongest and most passionate pledge—to play the maverick, fight Washington, and stop corruption—took the form of cutting earmarks and using the veto power in order to reduce government spending.

If you think this is a new program for Republicans, then evolution has passed you by. The New York Times’ David Brooks, dean of conservative pundits and an honest man, may win a Pulitzer Prize for understatement for writing that McCain “did not lay out a new doctrine to give shape to his administration.”

The Republicans’ approach to campaigning is also nothing new. They haven’t won an election on reason during my lifetime, and I’m over 60. They ignore the cerebral cortex and go straight for the amygdala—our evolutionary seat of emotion and alarm. Now they want the pundits to believe they are positioning McCain reasonably as a maverick and change agent. But their real goal is much more basic, as it has always been. It’s to convince voters that they are the alpha tribe.

Go back and read McCain’s speech last night. Or, better yet, watch it. If you watch it through the lens of logic, none of it makes sense. How can a guy claim he’s a change agent and then recite the very same list of policies and values his party has pushed for half a century? How can he claim the mantle of heroism for declining early release from the Hanoi Hilton and, in the very next paragraph, admit that the North Vietnamese broke him and that his buddies saved his life by feeding him when he couldn’t feed himself? How can he take pride in leading the effort to reconcile with Vietnam despite his personal mistreatment and then, a few minutes later, imply that he will beat Russian adventurism and Iranian nuclear ambitions by “standing up” to our enemies where others won’t?

From the standpoint of reason and logic, these are not just minor inconsistencies. They are bald contradictions. None of them makes the slightest sense.

But now hear his speech with your amygdala, not your cortex. Then the message is clear, consistent and strong:

“I may be old, but I’m grizzled, tested and tough as nails. Nobody’s been through what I’ve been through, and I never quit. Don’t mess with me, and don’t even think those evil Russians or Iranians—far less those gridlockers and spendthrifts in Washington—will mess with me. If you think I’m about to croak, look at my 96-year-old mother, who’s still here and still has all her marbles. I’m the alpha male, I’m still strong as a bull, and you’d better follow me if you know what’s good for you.”

Lest anyone miss the alpha male message, McCain repeated the word “fight” so often that he began to sound like a chimera of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

That message, or something similar, has put Republicans in the White House for all but twelve of the last forty years. It helps if they have a real enemy, like the Soviets or Al Qaeda. But even if they don’t, they can exaggerate an adversary, such as Iraq or China. Or they can make one up, like Willie Horton or the “Islamofascists.” The Republicans are masters at playing the alpha tribe and drumming up fear to make us follow the leader.

What’s new this year is an alpha female. Sarah Palin didn’t even try to say anything programmatically sensible. The closest she came was mentioning how Iran, Russia and Venezuela might deprive us of “our” oil. That gave her an entrée into telling how she bested big oil and her own party. She even compared her experience as mayor of a town of less than 7,000, plus her year and a half as governor of one of our least populous and most remote states, with Obama’s experience: eight years in the legislature of one of our key industrial states and four years in the U.S. Senate.

None of that made much sense, but it didn’t have to. Sarah Palin’s real message was much like McCain’s:

“I may be female, bespectacled and pretty, but I can shoot straight, and I can field dress a moose. For you city wimps, that means I can skin and butcher it with a hunting knife, out in the wild, wiping the blood and gore from my hands on the grass. The corrupt bastards in my own party crossed me, and they are toast. I’m the alpha woman, so don’t mess with me. And don’t even think the bastards who’ve got you down will mess with me, either.”

To further establish her alpha credentials, she verbally “flipped the bird” to the press, the Democrats and Barack Obama, in that order.

None of this appealed much to our faculty of reason. It didn’t have to. Primates don’t establish dominance by reasoned debate.

Republicans take primate dominance rituals seriously. What else is Dubya’s habit of giving everyone on his staff a demeaning nickname? On the Democratic side, General George Marshall (of the Marshall plan) cut short that ritual by insisting that FDR refer to him respectfully as “Mr. Marshall.”

Democrats think you have to earn dominance through wise judgment and action over a period of years. Republicans think you get it the same way as on a grammar-school playground or in a fraternity house. Get the herd to follow you by zinging your rivals, and you win.

It’s going to be hard for Barack Obama to establish his alpha male credentials. He’s the most highly evolved politician on the national stage in my lifetime. He personifies cool reason, not primate dominance rituals. That’s why I and many other educated professionals support him, and that’s why so many Republicans reject him. He’s also learned to cope with white fear and suspicion by, as he wrote in his autobiography, making no “sudden moves.” So he may have to rely on Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to do the alpha bit for him.

Despite many Republicans’ skepticism about evolution, this election is an exercise in evolutionary biology. Whether viewed from the perspective of our Founders’ belief in reason and our national ideals, or from our long tradition of “throwing the bastards out,” it makes absolutely no sense. But in the light of our primate origins, everything about it becomes clear.

Our obsession with Senator Clinton’s gender addressed whether a female can play an alpha male’s role. Sarah Palin has managed to short-circuit that debate with her history of hunting, fishing and besting the old boys at their game. The obsession with Barack’s race addresses whether African-Americans are members of our national tribe, members of another tribe, or members of a tribe within a tribe. Tribal identity still matters. The media’s obsession with frat-boy “chops,” cuts and ripostes and other gossip is just other apes observing whether a contestant for tribal leader grooms his rivals or makes them groom him. Even the flag-pin controversy makes sense: flags are potent tribal symbols.

So what’s at stake in this election is not whether electing an African-American as president is consistent with our traditions and national values. Of course it is. So is electing a female vice president (or president, had Hillary won the primary).

What’s at stake is something much more basic. Will we act like Homo sapiens or our forbears a bit lower on the evolutionary ladder? The Republicans are counting on evolutionary recidivism, which seldom has let them down.


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  • At Thursday, September 11, 2008 at 7:29:00 AM EDT, Blogger Z said…

    Jay, if you're able to generate a storyboard with the most appealing/short reasons why we shouldn't vote republican, especially with palin on board, you can be the inspiration for some youtube videos that will attempt to reach across masses. not everything has to be top down. let's do something for Obama.

  • At Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 10:48:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Wingless Angel31,

    I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. The problem is that McCain and Palin are such moving targets. They try to redefine themselves every week or so, as Rove’s disciples test every conceivable campaign strategy and find none works.

    Over the last four months, they’ve changed most of their substantive positions on issues, from abortion, through the war in Iraq, to handling of the economy. From a lifetime of opposition to regulation of anything, McCain is suddenly in favor of regulating our financial system, but he wants a committee to tell him how. The only constants in their campaign are machismo (especially from the lady) and not “blinking”—a mantra they picked up from Dubya and Rove.

    We are really in John Stewart territory now. The best response to the McCain/Palin campaign is ridicule. I can’t create my comparison chart until their positions settle down, lest I seem unfair to them and miss the chance to persuade undecided voters.

    But I promise to post something by early October, a month before the election. I hope by then their twisting in the wind will have subsided enough to see in what direction they are pointing.



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