The Problem With Political Ideals

Last night, President Barack Obama won another term as President of the United States.  Although the enthusiasm going into this election was decidedly lukewarm compared to 2008, measuring by the electoral college results, it was a landslide.  Many liberals are rejoicing and perhaps breathing a sigh of relief, only to be met with indignation and cynicism from disaffected conservatives who thought that Mitt Romney might represent the potential for a “turnaround” of values in the United States.  Though the beliefs of many politically conservative Christians were challenged by Romney’s Mormon faith, many considered things like “family values,” a pro-life ethic, and fiscal conservatism as being best represented by Romney and his running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan.


By contrast, most liberals and many independents saw the Romney-Ryan team representing something else entirely:  instead of family values, they saw forced conformity; instead of a pro-life ethic, they saw an attempt to control women, coupled with ignorance about women’s reproductive systems; and instead of fiscal conservatism, they saw only cuts to valuable social programs coupled with breaks for the wealthiest and ramped-up defense spending.  Romney’s offhand remarks about 47% of Americans implied that he saw half of the population as lazy and entitled–which only further damaged his image with those who already felt he only truly cared about the wealthy.

But just as the perceived virtues of the Romney-Ryan team appeared garish when viewed through the lens of liberal analysis, so did the perceived virtues of the Obama-Biden team wither under the heat of conservative principles.  Where liberals praised Obama for “coming out” about his support for gay marriage, conservatives saw a degradation of the family.  Where Obama was seen as championing women by defending Sandra Fluke, conservatives saw tacit approval of sexual promiscuity.  And where liberals hailed Obama’s success in achieving comprehensive health care reform through the Affordable Care Act, most conservatives balked at the looming expansion of government resulting from it; which expansion represents less individual freedom.

The rhetoric on both sides centered on “values.”  For conservatives: belief in God, freedom from government, and “personal responsibility” are the main themes.  For liberals, “equality” and addressing systemic injustice are the main motivators.  And holding to these principles, the candidate that signals them the most draws those voters.  While I believe that principles are paramount, I think that often focusing on these broad ideals prevents us from thinking and reflecting well on the policies being advocated.

On the liberal side, I find the concept of “equality” to be problematic–if only because it remains undefined.  There’s a website I’ve come across that poses a pop-up quiz every time you visit.  One question: “Do you support equality for all?”  My question in response is “Equality of what?”  We live in a society that has many “inequalities”–our tax system is progressive, meaning that the some people pay a higher proportion of tax on their income than others.  There are inequalities in professional status, salary, discretionary income.  There are inequalities of status under the law based on one’s criminal record and even mental capacity.  Clearly to simply speak of “equality” is not enough.  What “inequalities” are people willing to accept and why?

On the conservative side, “patriotism” can be another principle that’s hard to pin down, particularly when it is so often closely tied to military endeavors.  Does love of country demand that we not question its actions?  Does love of country mean that we believe that our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren are more valuable than the lives of those in other countries?

My point is that broad appeals to lofty ideals are often used to  justify without qualification policies and actions that–on their own, we’d have good reason to question the goodness or merits of.   A good book on a similar theme is War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by journalist and war correspondent Chris Hedges.  The overarching theme of the book is that, through war, the noblest ideals are drummed up in society’s mind–and by emphasizing those ideals, actions are undertaken that can perpetuate injustice, destruction, immorality and the like.  But because the ideal has been invoked, all those things done in its name become acceptable.

During the election, the candidates drew supporters around them by appealing to the ideals that tug the heartstrings of those wanting to hear it.  But kinda like I wrote in the post “Don’t Convert Me!”, goodness is not ideological.  It transcends our ideals and they can only serve it.  We have to work for the best outcomes regardless of whether the policy needed to do so fits with our pre-formed ideas of how society is supposed to be.