I do not support or endorse Barack Obama.
There. That wasn’t so bad.
This isn’t a topical piece. I’m not reacting to some shocking announcement made in the recent State of the Union address, like that the economy needs to be better or that education is good. He hasn’t done anything new to alienate or upset me.
I’m just doing my best to judge him by his track record. And, right now, I cannot support the guy in any meaningful capacity. Maybe after a bit more time spent at Less Wrong I’ll be able to go further than that, and with less temerity.
What’s prompted me to try writing this is a distressing incongruity I’ve been noticing within my squishy pink skull-contents lately. I value rationality a great deal, and am attempting to practise it more skilfully as an art, and one big honkin’ source of bias is lingering so resolutely that I really need to address it:
To a non-trivial degree, I still personally identify with the “liberal” or “Democrat” in-group.
In practice, what this means is that I have a distinct bias favouring the left and its members in US politics, regardless of any relevant facts I may be asked to consider. While I’m not above praising an individual Republican for something worthwhile, or condemning certain Democrats’ activities, I’ve definitely noticed my opinions starting to form simply based on the subject of a news story, or its source if their political stance is known to me. I feel myself getting either outraged or defensive, based solely on a headline summary, before analysing any of the facts. I seem inclined to presume either that those awful Republicans are being called out for doing something terrible again, or the Democrats are once more being unfairly smeared by some bastard Republicans, and I feel myself taking it personally.
It’s not that I’m a moron (I hope). I’m better once I have a chance to do some actual thinking, but this is about how my brain reacts before I’ve had that chance. And on some level, it still considers the Democrats somehow “my team”.
Which means that it’s easier to maintain and bolster the conceptions I have of what “my team” and “their team” are like. Republicans are homophobic and racist, Democrats are tolerant and progressive. Republicans are war-mongers, Democrats are against unnecessary military action. Republicans want to tax the poor more than the rich, Democrats have much more socialist policies that favour equality.
And while there may be some truth to all this in both their rhetoric and their policies, you have to cherry-pick very selectively if you want to conclude that it’s as easily divided as that.
And once you’ve pledged your allegiance on one side or the other, cherry-picking the data to confirm what you prefer to believe becomes a natural thing to do.
The overall state of US politics lends itself really, really well to this kind of black-and-white thinking and tribalism.
I’m mostly referring to the domination of these two camps, Republican and Democrat, who seem to be constantly at each other’s throats on just about everything, insist on aggressively competing against each other at every opportunity, and of which it’s assumed you must choose one to side with (although more people do seem to be rejecting that idea recently.)
But it’s also true that a lot of Republicans make it really easy to confirm my prejudices against them, and – if I’m not careful – reinforce my allegiance to their opposition.
I mean, Newt Gingrich is an obnoxious ass, whose cruelty and self-serving hypocrisy makes it very easy not to like him. That’s not just my anti-Republican bias talking. He’s terrible. He’s cheated on at least two of his three wives and how dare anyone bring it up when discussing his suitability to lead the country. Ugh. He is an awful man.
Mind you, how bad was it when George Bush was President? That guy who could barely string a sentence together, got the country entrenched in ludicrously extensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stripped away an unprecedented number of civil liberties with the Patriot Act? He was horrendous.
And then you’ve got Obama, who ran on a platform of change from what went before, who seems like a good guy, a smart guy, who says a lot of the right things, and who I really wanted to win in 2008. And who has reauthorised and expanded on most of Bush’s policies, signed the massively authoritarian National Defense Authorization Act into law, is keeping up the country’s traditions of selling billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia, has done nothing to prevent the indefinite detention of who knows how many innocent people in Gitmo, has had more innocent people killed in Pakistan by unmanned drone attacks than Bush ever did…
But, y’know. At least he’s not a Republican.
And it has been noted that a Presidential track record like Obama’s is exactly the sort of thing Democrats would leap on to argue the atrocious consequences of having a Republican in the White House.
If I try to ignore the labelling distinction between the two teams, and just look at what Obama’s done, matched up with how I’d want politicians to behave, there’s really nothing to justify maintaining any further support, allegiance, or tribal team spirit for Barack Obama or the Democratic Party in the USA. The only reason I feel inclined to do so is that their outward appearance, viewed through my established set of preconceptions, doesn’t make the bile rise in my throat the way it does when I hear the Republicans talk.
But I’m starting to think that it should.