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What’s Not to Understand About Politics?

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The Obnoxious American, in a recent article, Democrats: I Just Don't Understand expressed bewilderment over the things that Democrats say and do and claimed not to understand them. Personally, I think that Obnoxious probably does, but is just too polite and sensitive to say so. There is, doubtless, comparable bewilderment over the things that Republicans say and do. This bewilderment is understandable but there is a cure.

Elitism

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it ain't easy being elite. According to the Free Dictionary, Elite has the following relevant meanings:

1. a. A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: "In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them" Times Literary Supplement.

  b. The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team's elite.

It would be difficult to find leaders of either party – the elite, if you will – who would proudly proclaim their own inferior intellect or social status. While it would be in poor taste publicly to proclaim great wealth, it would be quite difficult to find any party leader of less than average income and wealth. The truly rich, I am told, say that they are “comfortable” rather than that they are “rich.” Few would stoutly deny being the best or most skilled members of the groups which they purport to lead.

However, a charge or even a veiled hint of elitism causes candidates' blood to run cold and mandates denial; sometimes in intentionally ungrammatical English. “I done come two fur and done wurked to hard too be tarred,” or words to that effect. This, of course, is not intended to suggest that the listeners are themselves of inferior intellect or incapable of understanding grammatically phrased statements; it is intended to suggest that the candidate is one of them, and not one of the wicked and supercilious elite; that he knows how they feel and will help them overcome the misery inflicted by the other party through greed, elitism and callousness, probably intentionally.

In reality, it would be very difficult to find significant numbers of voters who would want to have Joe Six Pack who flunked out of high school as their president (no disparagement intended; I too enjoy a good cold beer; even several). During the Bush – Kerry contest, President Bush was disparaged, not to put too fine a point on it, as “stupid.” Kerry tried to position himself as far more intelligent – but not, of course, as a member of the elite.

No matter how great it would be for everybody to be above average, that is mathematically impossible. We all hope for candidates who are, at least a little bit, above average. We may even want them to be “elite.” That is very different from “snob,” which the term has, unfortunately come to connote.

Lack Of A Coherent Substantive Position

In a heterogeneous country the size of the United States, there are many constituencies and the candidate who best pleases the most, wins. The only way to do that is to offer inconsistent solutions and hope that their incoherence is not noticed. No more drilling for oil, no more refineries, lower fuel prices, no more nuclear power plants, “green” sources of power, lower food prices, continued subsidies for leaving agricultural land fallow, superior health care and superior education for all, better national infrastructure, full employment, no more outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries, lower taxes (except for the very rich who don't count for much), as well as world peace, freedom for all, not to mention sugar, spice and everything nice – all paid for by someone else.

No serious candidate is likely to jump off a cliff by saying, “listen, folks, I know that we all want superior health care and superior education for everyone, but everybody is just going to have to cough up the money to get those things; even that probably won't work very well, because the medical functionaries and teachers' unions like things the way they are. Merely taxing the wicked rich people out of existence to throw their money at complicated problems like these certainly won't work.”

Distortions of Statements by the Opposition and by the Media

These are things with which all candidates have to live, and there is no known way to get around it. It has always been a part of the political process, and always will be. Even the most precisely crafted statement can easily be taken out of context, and will be. I understand that it says in the Bible, “Cain slew Abel . . . . Go thou and do likewise.” Anyone who bothers to go to the original text would understand what was meant and how the distortions are just that; many of us blithely accept as correct the characterization by Candidate A of a statement by Candidate B, simply because we like Candidate A and dislike Candidate B, for other reasons.

The Government Does a Pretty Miserable Job of Whatever It Sets Out to Do, So We Want it to Do More

Among the great puzzles of life is that hardly anyone credits Government with doing things well, and very few look inward on the off chance that their own actions may have contributed to the problems which Government is expected to fix. Those who complain the most vociferously want Government to do even more – just better than it did under the auspices of the other party, and without any behavior modification on their own part. Typically, the way to accomplish this is to give the Government more of other peoples' money and to change the party which is to spend it.

This generally does not work, for multiple reasons beyond the inherent inability of any Government to fix many of life's problems. The government of any really big country with pretensions to freedom and democracy can't just say “Let there be universal and superior health care” and expect it to happen. Even if the President, all members of the Congress, and a majority of the Supreme Court were in total agreement, it still wouldn't work. There are 2,700,000 Federal employees, of whom most are in the Civil Service. The Federal Government is the largest employer in the U.S., with about two percent of the work force. The average annual compensation, including pay and benefits, is $106,871. Of those in the Civil Service, the vast majority are at GS 15 level or below, and thus cannot be fired for political reasons. Many of them are in policy level positions, where they remain regardless of which party is temporarily in power. Just as the Navy is said to be run by Chief Petty Officers, the Government is largely run by civil service employees. This cannot be changed; to try to do so would have horrible consequences; still, they have the power and the ability to advance their own causes, and to retard causes which they find disagreeable.

Victory Has Many Fathers, While Defeat Is An Orphan

There is a widely held belief, with which I disagree, that the War in Iraq has been lost and that we gotta get the hell out of Dodge right now. Regardless of whether this belief is legitimate, the war in Iraq is an orphan, and it is very difficult for a candidate to treat it otherwise. So was the “conflict” in Korea and the war in Vietnam. Victory in the First, and particularly in the Second World War, on the other hand, had many fathers.

Prospects for defeat and victory are easy to detect after the fact, and those who had to make the decisions to fight or yield become toast if they get us into what becomes an orphan conflict.

At the beginning of this article, I promised a cure for the inability to understand not only Democrats but Republicans as well. It is a simple cure but not a very likable one. It requires recognition that what candidates say to their various constituencies will have little impact on what they do if elected because they can't make consistent promises to all. It also requires a recognition that even if a candidate were consistent in all of his positions, and were to do his “elite” best once elected, it probably would amount to very little because of the structure of government. This is certainly true of those elected to lower office, but also of whoever is elected to the presidency.

Instead of paying too much attention to the words candidates speak, look to the manifestations of character and intelligence which they can neither exaggerate nor conceal.

Do they deal kindly and fairly with their subordinates and others, while providing effective leadership?

Do they offer basically the same persona to divergent audiences?

Do they merely twist the truth a bit instead of fracturing it?

Do they acknowledge that even with a congenial Congress they won't be able to accomplish everything they claim to hope to?

When wrong, are they sufficiently humble to admit to having erred, and sufficiently intelligent to do so promptly – perhaps before having the error blasted by others?

Such observations, perhaps visceral reactions, would go a long way toward overcoming bewilderment over the statements of candidates; it would also help in deciding which is the best candidate or, at least, which is the lesser of the available evils.

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About Dan Miller

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I don’t think I’ve ever run across someone with a more healthily balanced set of opinions, Dan – and the cogency to argue them honestly and well. And you were a lawyer??? 😉

    Too often we make the mistake of expecting our leaders to be superhuman; and they too often make the mistake of trying to be.

  • Baronius

    Dan – The Free Dictionary defines elite as you said. It defines elitism as:

    1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
    2. a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class. b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.

    These two words have been used interchangably on Blogcritics lately, including in this article. You touch on the difference when you mention the snobbish connotation of the word. I’d say that the elitism is snobby, but the elite are not necessarily snobby.

    I realize that elite/elitism isn’t the heart of your argument, but we’ve got to be more careful when we use the words. It’s been affecting some of our threads.

  • Dan Miller

    Doc

    Thanks for your kind words. Actually, I consider myself a recovering attorney.

    Dan

  • Dan Miller

    Baronius,

    Thanks. I recognize the difference, but don’t really understand it. Elite is something one either is or isn’t, and that’s OK. One can suffer from elitism, or be accused of it, and that’s not OK. I guess being an elitist, or being accused of it, is not OK either.

    Words are strange things, but we are stuck with them. I did an article on words a ways back, and probably should have included elite and its various variations.

    Dan

  • Baronius

    Dan, it’s kind of like race and racism. I wouldn’t be upset if you called me a member of the white race, but I would be if you called me a white racist.

    An elite is a person who is better by some objective or subjective standard. An elitist is someone who thinks that those elites should have some greater say. The opposite of elitism is populism.

    This leads back to the flag pin, the San Francisco “bitter” statement, and a lot of other things. In fact, it’s been argued that a lot of the problems the parties are facing has to do with elitism vs. populism. The Dems are said to be cultural elitists and economic populists; the GOP is culturally populist and economically elitist. At least, according to Thomas Frank, in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”.

  • bliffle

    “Elitism”?

    Well, I happen to know exactly where this charge comes from since I was part of the movement in the 50s. As a YR and YAF and charter subscriber to NR, I was there. We pioneering conservatives were tremendously upset by C. Wright Mills (who we always referred to as “see wrong mills”) book called “The Power Elite”. So we set about to use every opportunity to shift the “elite” charge to the liberals. Actually, it was a pretty good book.

    And so it is that down through the last 50 years people who acclaim themselves as ‘conservatives’ use every opportunity to call liberals elitists.

    This gets pretty comical when David Brooks and Laura Ingraham proclaim Obama an elitist. But all’s fair in love and war (and politics).

  • Dan Miller

    Baronius,

    Yes, I know. That is why the last part of the article is, to me, the most important:

    Instead of paying too much attention to the words candidates speak, look to the manifestations of character and intelligence which they can neither exaggerate nor conceal. . . .

    Sometimes, I think that my dogs and horses communicate better than many people. They don’t know how to lie and don’t have very many complex thoughts to express. Yet they can express affection, hate, fear, anxiety, pain, playfulness, and a slew of other emotions very well through their facial expressions and body language.

    We have all experienced this in interpersonal relations as well.

    Actually, I think one of our dogs, a female Akita pup, would make a better president than another bitch now seeking the office. Unfortunately, she (the pup) is not a native born U.S. Citizen and hence would not be constitutionally qualified.

    Dan

  • The Obnoxious American

    Nice article Dan.

    The point has been made before, and I agree that elitism isn’t a bad thing in a president. That said, why is a big city liberal mindset considered more elite than any other?

    I agree that there are a myriad of reasons why candidates have to contort themselves in order to be all things to all people. You’re right, I’m not bewildered, but rather exasperated by it. I tend to favor candidates who, like your criteria at the end, have a track record, credibility and consistency of character.

    Of course, looking at the three candidates via this lens there’s only one obvious choice, and regrettably, it’s not the one that everyone is swooning over.

  • Baronius

    Dan – I’ve never worked with an Akita, but I’ve said more than once that my home town would be better off run by a border collie, and I don’t mean that as an insult to our mayor.

    But doesn’t this come back around to the role of leaders? A good dog can keep order. A leader has the vision to choose the right direction, as well as the honorable character of a good dog. It seems like you’ve given up on vision, and are barely hoping for character. That’s bleak – maybe realistic, but bleak.

  • Dan Miller

    Baronius,

    Yeah, it is a tad bleak, and I am open to being convinced that I am wrong.

    As to Akitas, for my money they are the best dogs ever. Highly intelligent, extremely loyal, and they seem to sense my moods and what is going on around them. I have learned how to interpret their barks (and those of our other four dogs) and generally have a pretty good idea of what they are trying to say: friendly intruder, unknown intruder, possibly hostile intruder, and all that sort of stuff.

    Actually, I wouldn’t want Sunshine (our Akita pup) to become president. Going to Washington would probably ruin her presently beautiful doganality.

    Best,

    Dan

  • Dan Miller

    Obnoxious,

    You asked, perhaps rhetorically, why is a big city liberal mindset considered more elite than any other?

    First, as I mentioned in a previous article, I neither understand nor like the way in which the word “liberal” is commonly used today and try to avoid that usage; accordingly, I shall put the word in quotes when used in that fashion. Here are two people, both of whom I much admire and consider to be liberal and elite: Bill Buckley and Bertrand Russell. On most substantive issues they were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both were very well educated, came from wealth — Buckley from much more than Lord Russell, who actually had to work for a living — and were prolific writers. Most importantly, both seemed to enjoy lively debate with those holding opposing views. Coming from even moderate circumstances is not the sina qua non of receiving a good education, but it helps. So does coming from a family which, even if not well educated, respects education and strives to help its children to obtain it.

    As I recall, both Buckley and Russell had presences in the city and country. Russell, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, commented that when he was young, two little girls from Estonia lived with his family and had plenty to eat. They nevertheless spent their leisure time visiting neighboring farms and stealing potatoes, which they hoarded. Their mindset was one of extreme poverty, and even when they no longer faced poverty, they retained that mindset.

    All of this begs the question about a big city mindset, and why it is considered more elite than any other. Possibly there are more “elite” people in big cities than elsewhere, because that’s where they can find congenial employment and the cultural amenities they enjoy. Perhaps since they live in big cities, they become more aware of the problems there (which are generally not the same as the problems faced elsewhere), and conclude that Government is the best solution to them. It is easier to pose governmental solutions, because that puts the monkey on someone else’s back while still generating a feel-good sensation. The solutions don’t necessarily have to work to generate that sensation, or to be transplanted to places which are not big cities. When those solutions fail, obviously more of the same is called for because of their mindset – not unlike the poverty mindset of Russell’s two little girls from Estonia.

    “Elite liberals” also seem to be attracted to (and created by) large universities, which tend to be located in large or at least mid-size cities, and such places more often than not are hotbeds of “liberalism.” We have all seen statistics and read anecdotes about how difficult it is for “conservatives” to exist at most large universities. Having tenure at a prominent university and writing books and articles give prominence to the views expressed by the “liberal elite” authors. The views may be those of an elite vocal minority, but they tend to be better and more frequently expressed than those of others not similarly endowed. The views of those “elite liberals” gain a certain currency, and are frequently seized upon by folks in government, who like to consider themselves fellow members of the “liberal elite” club. Many members of the press do the same, perhaps for the same reason.

    These are the best answers I can think of at the moment; they certainly are not the only answers, but I think they are significant ones. Quite possibly, they may throw a bit of light on the origins and persistence of “political correctness” as well.

    Dan

  • Clavos

    That comment’s worth an article, n’est-çe-pas?

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Clav – ahem…

    1. No cedilla under the c in ce, only in ça. (It denotes missing letters – it’s a contraction of cela.
    2. No hyphen necessary between ce and pas.

    You’re welcome!

  • Clavos

    OK, Doc…

    What have you done to Akismet?

    I had a great reply for you, but Akismet says it’s spam!

  • Clavos

    Second try:

    Doc,

    Right on the second count, but:

    (Ahem…) only partly so on the first: en Français it’s a cédille, and,

    From Aboutdotcom:

    The cédille ¸ (cedilla) is found only on the letter C. It changes a hard C sound (like K) into a soft C sound (like S), e.g., garçon. The cedilla is never placed in front of E or I, because C always sounds like an S in front of these vowels.

    Aaaaahhh…strolls into the sunset, a self-satisfied smile (“smirk?”) lighting up his features…

  • Dan Miller

    Clav, re #s 12 – 15

    I was turning it into an article, but one of the dogs ate my copious Amazon links and a horse pooped on the subhead. Just then, I got an urgent request from the Nigerian financial institution and internet cafe where I am setting up offshore accounts for my Temple, see comment #6 to the cited article. They needed, ASAP, the addresses of all of my e-mail correspondents in order to check my references and those of my Temple. Although I had yours readily at hand, I realized that compiling the others would require much loving labor. Not wanting to delay the work to which I have been called, I had no choice but to drop everything else and set about the work of Mani, may his holy name be praised. Hence, the comment rather than an article.

    You and my other correspondents should be very pleased to learn that my good friends and co religionists in Nigeria will soon be favoring you with a stupendous financial opportunity, beneficial to my Temple as well as to you personally in exchange for your favorable references.

    Yours in the holy name of Mani, may his blessed name be praised.

    (Bishop) Dan

  • Clavos

    Did one of you guys guarding the wine cellar fall for the Bishop’s tired old story about sacramental wines again???

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Mister Clavos the Mexican Viking:

    I realized after I’d posted my response that the cedilla (and yes, if I’d been responding to you in French rather than merely correcting your French I would have called it a cédille) denoted a soft c rather than missing letters. As you know, being the assistant comments editor I can go back and fix any such bollocks I may spout; I was, however, in a hurry, being summoned as I was to clean the patio and plant the two dwarf citrus trees we just bought.

    So, here is my revised correction: the cedilla denotes a soft c before an a, o or u where it would normally be hard (ça, Besançon, perçu). In front of e or i it is always soft and no cedilla is needed. (The hard k sound before those letters is always written qu.)

  • Clavos

    As you know, being the assistant comments editor I can go back and fix any such bollocks I may spout…

    But you, like Brutus, are an honorable man, and therefore would never do such a scurrilous and dishonorable thing.

    Would you?

  • Clavos

    BTW, Doc,

    Did you ever grok the meaning of my cryptic little inquiry that looked like this:

    Doc,

    RK?

    If not, it is of little consequence, as I was able, in the end, to determine that your answer (had you indeed grokked), would have been:

    Yup.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Why does the word “cedilla” not have one?

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Clav.

    Yup… now I’ve got to figure out what ‘grok’ means…

    Matt:

    Because the c before e and i is always soft, as I explained above. Pay attention at the back there!

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    What if the word “cedilla” is dissected by the International Dateline between the C and E?

  • http://bloggingontheedgeofsuicide.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    Grok is a Trekie term from the 60s. “I grok Spock” or I like Spock or I dig Spock.

  • http://bloggingontheedgeofsuicide.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    God knows what sinister thing it means nowadays

  • http://bloggingontheedgeofsuicide.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    Is it legal to circumsize a cedilla on the international date line without a permit?

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Sounds like the noise our cats make right before they throw up on the laminate flooring…

  • Clavos

    No, that’s more like:

    KAAAAAAAAAK!…….HAAAAAK..PTUI (at least, that’s how my Miami Latino cats sound).

  • http://bloggingontheedgeofsuicide.blogspot.com/ Jet in Columbus

    You know “Bloom County’s” Bill the cat???

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Clav,

    If they’re Latino cats, shouldn’t that be:

    “¡KAAAAAAAAAK!”?

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Grok is actually from Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.”

  • Alessandro

    #7 – Funny. I thought we already were already chirping and barking. After a while, listening to candidates sounds like, “Bar, bar, bar…” Now I know what the Romans felt when they first met the Germanic tribes.

    Chivius I: “What the fuh? Why do they speak like they’re from Saskatchewan?”

    Flivius: “Move along. I don’t like the look of these guys. Head for the forest.”

    As for elitism, I was an elite once. I played AAA/Provincial soccer.

    Insert Vaudeville cane here.

    Great article.

  • Dan Miller

    One of the points I should have made in the article is free trade. It is an important topic, and one being watched with interest in foreign countries, including of course Colombia and Panama.

    Here is a link to a very poor, internet-computer generated, article in today’s La Prensa, one of Panama’s leading daily newspapers.

    It is interesting, because it shows substantial awareness of what is going on in U.S. politics, and points out the stupidity (a word I rarely use) of it.

    Dan

  • Dan Miller

    Re #33: If you go to the cited link, you first have to find “Perspective” and then, once there, go to “No, We give Him back to Colombia.”

    Sorry about that, but it is an interesting article and one well worth reading.

    Dan