Saturday, January 10, 2004

A discussion the other day with a fellow Cal Blogger got me thinking. I was arguing that debates about public policy and ideology are important and that they have a strong effect on politics. He was arguing that strategy is more important and that, for the most part, people don’t change their minds once they’ve decided their position. He went on to argue that since people weren’t going to change their minds, discussing public policy isn’t a fruitful. At the time I hesitant to cede his point about people’s hardheadedness, but I upon further reflection, I have to admit that yeah, people are pretty dogged in their beliefs and there’s not much you can do about.

Why then, do I bother arguing about for example, whether people are right to celebrate gay pride parades? The reason is I think that while people may not change their minds, hearing a countervailing opinion may dull the edge of their political will.

It all goes back to feelings vs. beliefs. Although a lot of people would have you believe that feelings and beliefs often contradict, I posit that they less often in conflict than they appear. More often than not, if someone feels that (again, for example) it’s ok to cheat on a test, when asked they’ll say, “Really, I know it’s wrong… but I feel like I have too. I’m so conflicted!” What they actually mean “Really, I don’t believe it’s wrong, but let’s just pretend, OK?” They want to appear conflicted so they don’t have to feel the societal pressure of disapproval. This is why, though more people at my high school probably cheated then were Republican, the Young Republicans had a club and the cheaters did not.

This faux-conflict is crucial. Since an individual’s interests will never be perfectly aligned with society’s it makes sense that society needs a way to dull the collective power of selfishness. Politics then, is not so much a battle to change people’s minds, but to change “society’s” mind. When a policy analyst tut-tuts Bush’s incoherent economic policy, she is not aiming to convert anyone. She is trying to introduce doubt into the mind of those with whom she disagrees. To turn them from a cohesive group who can organize and take affirmative action on their feelings, to a disorganized group unwilling to act collectively for fear of societal pressure.

Regardless of how many people agree, if no one is willing to defend the ideology, or if the only people willing to do so are clearly fools*, then no effectively led movement can form.

In Politics then, it pays to be able to justify your feelings. The Communists knew this and so they funded communist groups all around the world when they had the power to do so. In most of the developing world (where people had a real emotional hatred for the changes capitalism could bring) Communism was an acceptable school of thought, like any other. After the USSR fell, and the money dried up, these groups pretty much disappeared except where they had become part of the local power structure. It’s not like a bunch of hard core communists changed their mind the day after the Soviet collapse. Unable to socially justify their hate for capitalism, they slunk back into the shadows.

Republican’s know the value of having a good argument, too. That’s why they’ve (or rather, their many rich, rich benefactors) spent billions supporting think tanks, policy forums, and whole media enterprises in order to come up with some logic behind their… well, I guess I’m partisan now, so I’ll say it: the logic behind their anti-social agenda. After all, you know and I know that it’s wrong to steal from your children to pay your own debts, but if you have someone muddle along while occasionally saying the words "supply side economics" for half an hour, it suddenly seems to be a matter of opinion. It’s all a struggle to take ideas that would never pass the giggle test (like the idea that businesses can regulate themselves) and make them socially acceptable.

This same system can work in society’s favor as well. If the Republicans (with a little NAFTA help from Bill Clinton to work the tough crowd) hadn’t done a good job pushing the logical reasons for free trade, the US would have missed out on the economic benefits and opted for protectionism and stagnation instead.

This effect isn't the whole story. Given enough time people actually will change their minds, but in the meantime, it is my honor to participate in this contest of ideas. Now, if only I had a dependable intelligent and respectable opposition.

* Tommaso’s favorite blogging moment of 2003: Capitalist Worker referring to Petty Bourgeois as a “researcher in the field of Chicano nationalism”.

Update: fixed some gramatical errors and enahnced USSR section.


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