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So a lot of Republican politicians are hypocrites.

I forget what prompted me to bring that up. It’s the kind of self-evident truth I think it’s okay to just throw out there, and take it as a basic, axiomatic principle. Saying “citation needed” seems redundant over something so blandly obvious.

With some regularity, some Republican politician will do something pretty messed up in a tiresomely familiar way. One thing that often happens, while their fans are busily sweeping it under the rug or denying its importance, is that their detractors will point out how much of a fuss those same Republicans and their supporters would be making, if it had been a Democrat pulling this kind of shit.

The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter. A governor buggering a bridge in revenge at a mayor. A committee on reckless spending blowing $10,000s on a cocaine and strippers party. You know, normal politician stuff.

And the whole “you’d be throwing a fit if the tables were turned” argument often looks pretty sound. Republicans grabbing any opportunity to score petty political points over the supposed misdeeds of their opponents? Once again, citation surplus to requirements. But people mostly seem to draw entirely the wrong conclusion from it.

Because the accusation tends to be hurled at the opposing team in exactly the kind of point-scoring tactic supposedly being decried. Not nearly enough blame is apportioned to the tribalistic party political system as a whole, in which we’re urged to pick a coloured hat to wear, fanatically join forces with anyone else wearing the same colour hat as us, and dedicate ourselves to proving the superiority of our particular colour of headwear. This last duty is generally engaged with more zeal than we end up applying to the job of representing the people, or doing anything to improve the world.

Observing that “Republican politicians suck and are hypocrites” is not especially challenging or interesting. Refining your observation to “Republican politicians, finding themselves quagmired in the system we’ve currently decided to use to make our decisions, are massively incentivised to rationalise ludicrous double-standards and to defend their base at the expense of any kind of logic or basic decency, if they want their careers to survive” is a slight improvement.

As soon as you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you start veering toward these kind of defensive thought processes. You start giving your in-group the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the worst of the outsiders. You start filtering what information makes it through to your consciousness, until it becomes easy to believe that some bunch of assholes got together over there and decided just to be bad, you guys, not like us nice folk over here, who are very similarly entrenched on the other side of the battlezone but are good for totally legitimate reasons that don’t require any selective or motivated reasoning whatever I’m sure.

Once you pick a side, that’s the path you start going down. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person. You’re smart and witty and thoughtful and you look great, you’ve been working out, I can tell. It’s because this is how humans are hard-wired. There is no escaping these traps. The best we can do is to be consciously aware of them, and notice when they might unconsciously be swaying us.

Yeah, you’re right. Republicans probably would have gone crazy if a Democrat had pulled that kind of shit. That’s what you get when a species that’s been building these patterns of behaviour into our brain for millions of years insists on still living in tribes.

People are not generally the antagonists of their own narrative. Very rarely do you find a group genuinely comprised of self-identified baddies intent on committing foul villainy upon the land. Only one springs immediately to mind – and whatever you might like to think, the GOP is not Slytherin.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Why’d I have to pick the Republicans as the purported antagonists here? Isn’t that too easy and crowd-pleasing? Aren’t I giving away my own tribalistic biases there, as I denounce them in others?

2. So what’s the solution, if we don’t like the two-party system? Just add more tribes? Isn’t that just going to distribute the problem over a wider area?

3. Honestly though, can you think of anything to spend $10,000s of taxpayer money on that’s better than a cocaine and strippers party?

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I often remind myself, these days, of how recently it was that I generally bought into the Democrat/Republican good-guy/bad-guy narrative. Remembering that I meant well, and wasn’t simply being vindictive or a complete dumb-ass, is what stops me getting as cross as perhaps I should at a lot of people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and others with whom I’m of a like mind on many things.

But look, people, progressives, sensible liberal types who want to help everyone and think that government is an important tool for doing that: you really need to look at the tribalism on your side of the aisle, as well as just denouncing it when you correctly spot it on the other.

Sometime in November, I tweeted something to the effect of:

“The wrong person won the election and now THE WORLD IS DOOMED!!1!” – crazy Republicans. Also most of you if the numbers had been a little different.

It’s not that the people who saw Obama’s re-election as the moment their country was lost to an Islamic socialist conspiracy aren’t comical. But the number of people with whom I share almost all my values, and yet who cheered Obama on and would have declared the US a complete lost cause if Romney had won, gave me an irony headache.

The idea that, because of the obvious stupidity and meanness of the American right, supporting the left means joining forces with progressive freedom fighters of tolerance and equality, is entirely misguided. You really need to realise that Obama is not your friend.

Before the recent US election, there was a lot of speculation on the left that the President would really start getting things done in his second term. Things he wanted to do, but which wouldn’t have been politically viable for him while he was still trying to get re-elected. This is troublesome for a number of reasons.

It surely indicates a catastrophically broken system, if you’re saying we can’t trust anything a President says or does in his first four years in office. That’s a long time for them to hold the most powerful political position in the world’s primary superpower, while having to prioritise their own popularity above the things they were elected to do.

Lawrence O’Donnell, a man who had hundreds of reasons to vote for Obama in November, made it clear that the President had “absolutely no intention of having that discussion” (about the war on drugs he totally plans to end) until he was re-elected. So if Obama thinks it’ll hurt his political career to talk honestly about his feelings on the important political issues facing the country, he’s just going to keep quiet until he’s in the clear.

That’s coming from someone firmly on Obama’s side. In the face of his failure to do what they want him to do, and act according to his own alleged conscience, their defence is to say “It’s okay, he’s just lying so people will vote for him”.

When it comes to that, you really need to ask why he’s worth defending at all.

Especially when it becomes apparent that he has no goddamn intention whatever of suddenly becoming the liberal Messiah everyone seemed to think he was four years ago. He’s not leading the way in some gloriously progressive, tolerant, loosening of insane drug laws and ushering in a new world of relaxed attitudes to personal use of enjoyable substances. He’s entirely failing to keep up with the pace of public opinion, and in fact is actively struggling against it.

Colorado and Washington both recently voted in favour of legalising recreational marijuana use. In Colorado, legal pot got more votes than Obama did. But the only news about his administration’s changing attitudes to the drug war implies that he’s considering efforts to step it up, and will be going out of his way to enforce federal laws to overrule these few democratic victories.

For some time now, Obama’s been stepping up harassment of even medical marijuana dispensaries, let alone people who just want to get high and have some fun and do things with their own bodies which they should be entitled to.

People such as himself. Obama’s own history of drug use is well recorded. He’s never been cagey about the fact that he smoked marijuana in his younger days, and stronger substances too. But, of course, he stopped, because he wanted to make something of himself someday, and he was concerned about the negative effects. He’d seen what regular use can do to people, how it can damage the intellect and blunt the senses. Drugs are bad, mm’kay.

What we’re supposed to take from that story is that drugs are a scourge which destroy people’s lives, and it’s just as well Obama overcame that temptation, so that now he can fight to stop others indulging in something so potentially damaging. What I actually take from it is that Obama used drugs when he was young, never got thrown in jail for it, made his own grown-up fucking decision to stop, and now he’s the goddamn President.

And now he doesn’t want other people to have the chance to make the same decision and take the same life path that he did. If he’d been subjected to the law which he’s now forcibly and expansively trying to implement, he’d have been a black kid with a criminal record for drug offences and a history of jail-time. Legally interfering with his life would have ruined it. Leaving him the hell alone let him become the most powerful man in the country.

Obama is not your friend, progressive liberal sensible nice people. He’s not the good guy. He’s not on your side. I’m not saying you should forget that Mitt Romney is appalling or that Republicans seem to say something new and moronic about rape or abortion on any given day that ends in a ‘Y’. But that doesn’t mean the other guy is the one you want. Don’t let the inane, two-team, pick-a-side mentality of US politics blind you to the fact that, if you’re in favour of cannabis decriminalisation, this President might be the worst in history on that metric. Stop fixating on the inanity of the Republicans who oppose him; look at the shit he’s actually pulling.

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You’ll have already seen this picture. Wil Wheaton tweeted a link to it the other day, which I think officially makes it mandatory viewing for anyone on the internet.

It’s a handy, pithy, lightly humourous, serious-point-making chart of some of the differences between the two upcoming Presidential candidates in the US, comparing Obama’s generally progressive stance with Romney’s own comically backward positions.

Four years ago I would’ve been all over this shit. And I’m still not completely out of that mindset. Significant parts of me will be profoundly depressed if Romney wins the election. It’s just an instinctively, viscerally appalling thought, in a way that Obama’s continued presidency just isn’t quite yet.

But the seemingly high probability of Obama’s second term is scant comfort. And the graphic above is a fine example of what I refuse to find comforting, this time around, about the idea of a Democrat (phew!) who isn’t George Bush (mercy of mercies!) in the White House.

“Not hard enough on Wall Street” is a nice downplaying of the fact that Obama’s been about as good a friend as the super-rich could have hoped for. The mostly empty rhetoric about having billionaires “pay their fair share” was enough to get him branded as a despised socialist, by people who have no idea what actual socialism looks like, but he’s done very little to stop corporate power and wealth creeping every further toward the top.

“Took a while to warm up to gay marriage” means the government he’s in charge of still routinely discriminates against same-sex couples. Look, it’s nice that Obama doesn’t seem to actually have much of a problem with gay people, the way Romney pretty clearly does. But public opinion has been massively shifting in tolerance’s favour, and Obama’s views are a symptom of that, not a cause. Gay rights are obviously winning, and their victory is about people getting it right, not governments passing laws. It’s nice when they do pass the right laws, obviously, but given what Obama claims to believe about equality, he gets way too much credit for not being quite as oppressive and discriminatory in his policies as he could be.

“Continuing the drone strikes”? Well, that’s a lot of dead children you’re euphemising away there.

A lot of the statist left arguments focus on how much worse things would surely be under a Republican than a Democrat, which encourages this kind of brushing away of minor niggling points like the mass murder of foreigners. They’ll admit that Obama has some flaws, hasn’t achieved as much as they’d hoped, does some things they wish he wouldn’t. But look at the alternative.

I was convinced, in 2008. I stayed up on election night watching the news until fairly late here, when the first results were starting to trickle in. Then I spontaneously woke myself up at around 5.30am, turned the radio on just in time to hear a news update with the announcement of the winner, and went back to sleep with an immense sigh of relief. Finally, the nightmare was over. Bush was out, and the sensible, progressive, nice one was in instead. Everyone knows Democrats are at least better than Republicans. They might not be great, but at least they’re not awful.

And during Obama’s first term, he signed the National Defense Authorization Act, giving the government unprecedented authority to detain basically anyone they like without trial or legal recourse, and he deported more immigrants than Bush did in the same time-span, and he stepped up raids on legal marijuana dispensaries, and he granted fewer pardons than any other president, and he just kept on droning the fuck out of brown people, and it’s getting really hard to even see him as the lesser of two evils.

(By the way, if you acknowledge that Obama is the lesser of two evils, and think this is a reason we should vote for him anyway, but you still do so with enthusiasm – or really anything other than weary, disgusted resignation – than you need to look up “evil” in the dictionary and give yourself a reminder.)

The assumption, which still pervades a lot of my own thinking, that things will necessarily be massively worse under a Republican President because the Republicans are obviously terrible, really doesn’t seem to stand up as well as it used to. And I’m finding it harder to see Obama’s continued supporters as being as well-meaning as I thought I was, four long years ago.

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Hey, people very keen that one political party win and the other one lose in the big upcoming political event:

Remember not to let the wrong side win.

You can imagine the kind of thing they’ll get up to if they aren’t soundly defeated. They’re already misrepresenting the whole political debate – from the way they talk sometimes, you’d think they were the right side, and ought to actually win. As if the things they want to do with political power were better than the things you want to do! The nerve!

So, don’t let them win. This is very important because politics.

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An interesting exercise in political framing.

The lesson seems to be that the other side are always going to be creatively dishonest and manipulative in their use of political language, so you might as well get in on that too, but do it better.

This kind of thing – knowing what hot-button terms to avoid, and what more voter-friendly turns of phrase to couch your ideas in – dominates so much of political discourse, while having nothing to do with actual policy. I think it’s another reason why democracy in general is making me bang my head against more and more walls lately.

The site linked above provides a progressive attempt at a response to a rather odious leaked Republican playbook, but I don’t think either side of the aisle is left with much moral high ground to enjoy, if these are the word games they both find themselves forced into playing.

Never say Entitlements. –Instead, say Earned Benefits.

People don’t like you as much if you’re entitled as if you’ve earned something, you see, and “entitlement” is often used by the right as some kind of smear. But this doesn’t mean that this redefinition is necessarily a more accurate one. It could be argued that somebody with a life-long disability has done nothing to earn the benefits and assistance to which simple human decency nevertheless entitles them.

Never say Government Spending. –Instead, say we Invest in America.

Does that include the trillion-dollar wars? When do those investments start paying out?

And so on.

You can see why everyone in politics wants to reframe the issues in ways such as these, of course. It’s in the nature of the system. When the world is no longer run by politicians who are powerfully motivated to be weaselly, the world will be a very different place.

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In modern American politics, what’s “left-wing” and “right-wing” – or even what’s a Democratic policy and what’s a Republican one – is so malleable and changeable as to render the concepts all but pointless.

That’s what I’m taking away from this article, which looks at the changing attitudes of leading political individuals and parties over the last few decades. But while the policies listed here are surely just a small sample of those which have swung back and forth between being identified as a “right” and “left” idea, the author notes:

I don’t particularly mind flip-flops. Consistency is an overrated virtue. But honesty isn’t. In many of these cases, the parties changed policy when it was politically convenient to do so, not when conditions changed and new information came to light.

It’s not simply the fact that people change their mind about what they believe that’s the problem. It’s that they’re not doing it because they’ve encountered some new information and a rational assessment has led them to conclude they were mistaken in the past. They’re doing it because they’re on one side, and their political opponents are on the other, and they’re strongly compelled to believe whatever seems to be the message from their team at the moment, because they’re the good guys and they’re supposed to win.

Here’s one particular example of how people on both sides have significantly changed their opinions about something, based only on their own position in the political system, and what is politically expedient for them in the immediate future:

Favoring an expansive view of executive authority between 2001 and 2008 put you on the right. Doing so since 2009 has, in most cases, put you on the left.

Now, I wonder, what major political event occurred around 2008-2009, which might have radically shifted Democrats’ and Republicans ideas on executive authority? Oh, right.

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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.

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