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– As originally published on AllSides.com
What does freedom mean to you? Do you think we should be free to speak our minds, or do you think we should we be free from hearing opinions that insult our beliefs?
Are you willing to give up the right to express yourself if others find your thoughts offensive?
In a satirical short video by movie producer Ami Horowitz, students at Yale University were asked to sign a petition to repeal the First Amendment. In under an hour, Horowitz was able to collect signatures of 50 students who would gladly give up their right to free speech.
“Hurting someone’s feelings should not be protected by free speech,” Horowitz contends to the students. “You shouldn’t have to be exposed to things you don’t want to hear.”
Many concurred. Sensitivity is generally a laudable goal. But students missed the irony that, in the drive to be considerate and tolerant, they were willing to curtail the freedom of those with whom they disagree.
In other words, they’re being intolerant.
It’s easy to offer free speech to those with whom you agree. True tolerance, however, can be painful and difficult. For example, if you’re a heterosexual who has no problem with gay marriage, you’re not being tolerant by allowing a homosexual a voice: you both see eye to eye. Tolerance in this case would be acknowledging the right of a religious conservative to argue why same sex marriage should be illegal.
The problem is, allowing someone the freedom to express a controversial point is always distressing to someone. If we tried to shield everyone from every opinion that went against their sensibilities, there would be little left to say.
Acknowledging that everyone, no matter how abhorrent their opinion, has the same right to free speech as you doesn’t condone their viewpoint in any way. You may find no merit in their perspective, but the fact that their arguments may be wrong or upsetting to someone isn’t just cause for silencing them.
College campuses used to be known as a place for robust debate and the exploration of new ideas. But the tide has shifted. A drive to be highly ethical and compassionate has created a new priority on campus: protecting students from being made to feel inferior or marginalized. However, these protections are usually only extended to particular groups. But who gets to choose which groups should be afforded this protection?
For example, conservative speaker Suzanne Venker preaches the benefits of being a stay-at-home wife supported by a husband’s income. Her invitation to speak at Williams College was rescinded when feminist groups complained that her message was insulting. The invitation was eventually reinstated amid controversy. When we don’t have the chance to hear opposing viewpoints, we have no opportunity to question what we’ve been told, says Venker. “It should tell you something if you’re afraid to engage or hear an alternative view… People aren’t thinking critically.”
Safe spaces and hate speech have been hot topics in the media as well as on college campuses. Safe Space Network describes a “safe space” as a place to “fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability…and strongly encourages everyone to respect others.”
It’s fine to create a place or an organization in which like-minded people can support each other and their mutual ideas. And in general we want to encourage a civil society where people don’t callously insult one another. But there’s danger in trying to designate a whole campus or the general public as a “safe space.”
We may find that the power to silence others can also be turned on us.
Feeling “uncomfortable” is very different from truly feeling “unsafe.” Conflating these terms is deceptive and confuses separate issues. We have laws against slandering and threatening others. But we shouldn’t be forbidden to publicly disagree with others, even with their most deep-seated beliefs. There’s a big difference in saying you believe a religion or ideology is flawed and declaring you think Muslims or Jews should be beaten up. Blurring these concepts can lead to undue censorship.
“Strongly encouraging everyone to respect others” is a two-way street. For example, some people passionately believe abortion is murder. They liken the morality of their anti-abortion stance to the anti-slavery movement: they are protecting innocent victims who can’t protect themselves. They consider discussion of the pro-choice stance as painfully marginalizing their fervent opinion. So by the safe space reasoning, any discussion that supports abortion should be silenced.
If everyone is entitled to be shielded from negative speech, everyone can use censorship and hate speech laws to their advantage. In New York, the police have registered as Officially Protected Victims by filing hate crime charges against a woman who wrote anti-NYPD graffiti. A group defending “White Pride and a safe place for White students” at the University of Illinois has turned the tables on Black Lives Matters, labeling the group as “terrorists” who “disrupt student daily life and activity far too much,” marginalizing white students. These groups have made the case that because they feel uncomfortable, such protests should be considered hate crimes.
When a society doesn’t allow everyone the right to peacefully voice their opinion, we allow an environment in which others can bully us into silence. For example, pro-Israeli as well as pro-Palestinian groups have accused each other of hate speech to prevent the other from expressing their views. “When I speak on campus in favor of Israel, I need armed guards protecting me,” says Alan Dershowitz.
The truth is, only free speech will save us from being oppressed and marginalized.
As the mock Yale petition demonstrates, there are smart young people who believe that allowing the government to monitor our speech will protect the oppressed and keep us from mistreating each other. It will not. We can’t be truly tolerant if we’re not able to tolerate hearing ideas that challenge our beliefs. When we use censorship to shield ourselves and others from uncomfortable ideas, we all run the risk of being marginalized.
There are two sides to every story. If we only consider the story from one point of view, are we truly thinking for ourselves, or simply being told what to think?
“We tend to choose up sides very quickly…All the liberals line up on one side and all the conservatives line up on the other,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But complicated issues deserve more than knee-jerk reactions.
The media can exacerbate this problem. For example, let’s take a news item about Group A. This group has been unjustly oppressed for some time. The authorities have impeded their ability to work and go about their lives, leading to increased poverty. They’re angry and frustrated and don’t know how to fight for their rights. They want to get their message out in a powerful way so they break the law and create havoc to make headlines. Their reaction is wrong but understandable given their circumstances.
Now let’s take another story about Group B. These people are intent on terrorizing and need little excuse to do so. They have no respect for authority and care only about their own issues. They don’t consider how their actions hurt others. They regard themselves as victims but they’re simply ignorant people who have created most of their own problems. There’s no reason why they can’t get ahead under the existing system.
Who fits the bill as Group A or Group B often depends which sources you rely upon for your information. If a news source chooses to ignore the background that’s led up to a complex situation, focuses solely on the faults of the group, or uses charged words and leading language to depict a situation, we run the danger of coming to simplistic conclusions.
Two recent incidents in the news demonstrate this bias well:
1) In an altercation with police, Michael Brown Jr., who is black, was shot and killed by a white Ferguson, MO, police officer. Following a verdict by a St. Louis County grand jury which brought no charges against the officer, the streets of Ferguson erupted in looting and destruction by protesters.
2) In Oregon, an armed group broke into and overtook the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, protesting the government’s control of local land. They threatened to use their weapons to defend themselves if authorities tried to force them out.
Which protesters are representative of Group A and which of Group B?
“The problem in Ferguson is not the 53-man police department. The problem is the hoodlum element those Ferguson cops have to police,” said syndicated columnist Patrick Buchanan. He insinuates that black leadership has instigated violence by “pandering” to the community, “denouncing Ferguson cops, but tongue-tied when it comes to denouncing the thuggery of black youth on the streets of Ferguson.”
“Hoodlums” and “thugs” are charged words. Hoodlums are inherently bad people.The mayhem they create requires strong reaction from police. Thugs need no catalyst to lash out. Any injustice or transgressions against them is irrelevant.
“Who the heck do they think they are?” begins a CNN editorial titled “Oregon building takeover is terrorism.” “They are… flouting federal law, they have a political purpose and they clearly are willing to use violence to get their way. Only the most ardent backers of their causes or those with an anti-federal government paranoia (or an anti-Obama one) are trying to slice and dice what the group is doing to make it seem somehow benign. It is not.”
“Terrorism” and “anti-government” is leading language. Some who refer to the Oregon group as terrorists may not find the term appropriate for the Ferguson rioters, though many in Ferguson were also armed, and went beyond threats to actual robbing and destruction. The term “anti-government” is negative and disapproving. Imagine it applied to everyone who protested against government, such as those who demonstrated against the ban on gay marriage.
A more sympathetic view
In an editorial entitled “Why the Ferguson Riots Were Justified,” St. Louis University professor Dr. Stefan Bradley urges us to consider the bigger picture. “These people will seem crazy…But these people are worse than crazy, they’re hopeless at this point. And this is what it looks like when people get to the point of hopelessness.”
The Christian Science Monitor depicts the Oregon group as trying to bring to light the plight of poor farmers “languishing under the thumb of federal land managers.” They portray rural farmers as no different than “other groups of marginalized Americans.”
Neither article condones the use of illegal behavior, but when the frustration of protesters is put into context, we have a better understanding of the situation as a whole.
Skewing the facts
We expect editorials like those above to voice strong opinions. But news articles also employ bias, though in a more subtle way. Reporters have a lot of leverage to influence opinion by choosing who to quote, which facts to include, and which details to focus on in their story. We often acknowledge that the media on the “other side” is biased, but don’t see it when we share the reporter’s opinion.
Fox News points out that “a grand jury of nine whites and three blacks…met for 70 hours and heard from 60 witnesses” in Ferguson. The story quoted prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch, who stressed that the grand jurors were “the only people who heard every witness… and every piece of evidence… These grand jurors poured their hearts and soul into this process.”
But USA Today chose to quote a different source in their report, a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. He said the decision “does not negate the fact that Michael Brown’s tragic death is part of an alarming national trend of officers using excessive force against people of color, often during routine encounters. Yet in most cases, the officers and police departments are not held accountable.”
According to a CNN story, the leader of the Oregon standoff claimed the Wildlife Refuge has taken over the space of 100 ranches since the early 1900s, resulting in Harney County, OR going from one of the state’s wealthiest counties to one of the poorest. But the article ends with this disclaimer: “CNN has not independently corroborated Bundy’s claims.” One must wonder, why not? Isn’t that a news organization’s job? This can easily be interpreted to mean his claims aren’t worthy of confirmation.
Plenty of facts can be found from other sources, however. The Christian Science Monitor explains that in the past 50 years, the West’s share of the nation’s low-income population climbed from 11 percent to 23 percent. They quote Catherine McNicol Stock, a Connecticut College historian and author of “Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain,” who says Bundy’s comments are “really the first time [since the Great Depression] where rural people are talking about…their experience of poverty.”
Parts of the story you may not have heard
Depending upon your news source, here are a few things that may not have been pointed out:
The statistics compiled by websites such as Cop Crisis are stunning: the police kill one American every eight hours. SWAT raids were up 1,400% between 1980-2000. Many in crime-ridden communities who could most use police protection fear cops as much as they do criminals.
“The police have become more militarized,” says Radley Balko, Washington Post editor and author of Rise of the Warrior Cop. “I think is the most pervasive problem is the mindset that police officers take to the job.” Black Lives Matter outlines police practices that need reevaluation, such as failing to require officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers.
Many who have peacefully protested police violence and targeting worry that the riots will stoke racial tensions and rob their community of sympathy. As Time Magazine depicts, “many of Ferguson’s residents see themselves caught between the competing injustice” of militarized police and violent protesters.
In Oregon, the armed group broke from a larger group peacefully demonstrating against the sentencing of two members of the Hammond ranching family. Federal authorities had charged the Hammonds with arson after they set a series of back burn fires that accidently spread to public land, burning about 127 acres and causing about $1,000 in damage. The federal government used an anti-terrorism statute to overturn lesser sentences imposed by U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, enacting a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years to the 73-year-old rancher and his son. Judge Hogan said the five-year sentences “shocked his conscience” and were “grossly disproportionate.” The family had had ongoing disputes with federal land managers for decades.
Phil Lyman is a San Juan County, Utah, county commissioner who was convicted last year for participating in a protest ATV ride through Recapture Canyon. “These [land] agencies have no political accountability and no knowledge about the areas they’re affecting so dramatically,” he says. “They have 100 percent control and zero responsibility. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Says Rep. Greg Walden (R) of Oregon, who represents Harney County. “When 60, 70 or 80 percent of a county is federally controlled, and the federal policies prevent active management and use of those lands, the result is you have depressed economies, impoverished people, and a lack of hope.”
We need to hear the whole story from multiple sides
The “lack of hope” expressed by the Oregon representative doesn’t sound much different from the “hopelessness” articulated by the St. Louis professor about Ferguson. But how many people will read both these points of view?
The media usually doesn’t make it easy to get a balanced account of a situation. It took a lot of sniffing around to compile the information for this artile. So how does the average person get the full story? Consider bookmarking both liberal and conservative news sources, then compare which stories they’ve chosen to run and how the facts are interpreted. Check into AllSides.com to see articles on the same subject featured side by side.
If we can recognize our inclination to jump to biased conclusions it can diffuse our anger and lead to better communication and reasoning. By trying to understand each other’s motivations rather than impulsively condemn, we can make truly informed decisions.
As I sat through orientation for jury duty the morning of January 5, the irony did not escape me.
The jury clerk thanked us prospective jurors, underscoring that we’d been summoned away from our jobs and responsibilities for good cause. “Imagine if we had no juries, and every court decision rested solely in the hands of a single judge, as it does in many other nations,” he said. The system would be ripe for biased outcomes and abuse of authority. “Democracy cannot not be realized when left only in the hands of the powerful.”
I scribbled his words onto my notepad. His comments struck me hard. On the drive to the courthouse less than an hour before, I had listened to the news of President Obama issuing an executive order on gun control.
“Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence to save more lives,” the President had stated. He claimed his policy would be supported “by the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners.”
The NPR radio report included an endorsement by White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “The president’s view is that he is going to forcefully advocate for the kind of gun safety measures that common sense tells us will not prevent every act of gun violence, but even if it makes some acts of gun violence less likely — and we can do all of that without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans — then why wouldn’t we do it?”
So why wouldn’t we? I considered this question as I bided my time in the jury selection waiting room. After all, only a monster wouldn’t want to help prevent gun deaths. Of course I’d like to find policies to lower gun violence!
But even if President Obama’s heart is in the right place, there are several reasons why his executive order is problematic. Let’s break down the White House spokesman’s statement:
- The president “is going to forcefully advocate” gun safety measures
By “forcefully,” Earnest means the president is imposing a piece of legislation by “executive order” without the consent of Congress.
No provision in the Constitution explicitly permits a president to issue executive orders, but the practice has a history as long as our government itself. In the 20th century, however, executive orders became much more commonly used by presidents for both good and bad purposes. For example, Eisenhower desegregated public schools and Truman desegregated the military by executive order. But it was also used by Franklin Roosevelt to round up Japanese Americans during WWII and remove them from their homes.
As my jury clerk explained, when we allow one person in power to create laws, even for something they personally consider in our best interest, democracy is not served. If this is true of individual court decisions, it’s immeasurably more important when it comes to a national law.
An easy way to drive home the danger of executive orders is to consider some of our next presidential choices, be it Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz or anyone else. Pick your least desirable candidate, then pick the scheme of that person that you fear the most. Should a president be allowed to to push through legislation to construct a patrolled wall around America’s southern border? Should he be permitted to take over the health industry and make it a governmental agency?
- The president wants to create “the kind of gun safety measures that common sense tells us will not prevent every act of gun violence, but [may possibly make] some acts of gun violence less likely.”
“Common sense” is a specious term. As described above, the president’s common sense conclusions and passionate beliefs may be completely different from yours, or from what Congress would vote for.
- We can pass this executive order “without undermining the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Here Earnest is giving his opinion, but presenting it as fact. Whether or not you agree with him, the truth is that the constitutionality of gun regulations is an ongoing debate that hasn’t been resolved.
- “If it makes some acts of gun violence less likely…then why wouldn’t we do it?”
This is aimed at our emotions but is a flimsy argument. Even if a law will potentially solve a particular problem, it doesn’t mean we should necessarily take that path. For example, there were 32,719 automobile fatalities in 2014. Every one of those deaths is a tragedy. Though outlawing cars would certainly make automobile deaths a thing of the past, just because it’s possible to pass that law doesn’t mean we should.
The primary reason executive orders should give us pause is because there are inherent dangers when our president makes laws without the consent of Congress. Groups such as The Heritage Foundation have accused presidents of abusing this executive privilege in order to make laws that would not pass Congressional approval, or to shift existing laws from their original aims.
Just one example is Executive Order 12333 issued by Ronald Reagan in 1981 to authorize foreign intelligence investigations. Presumably, Reagan crafted this law with the people’s best interest in mind to protect them from foreign threats.
The problem is that this act has been expanded upon by one president after another without being subject to meaningful oversight from Congress or any court. Today that order is the basis for NSA policy that allows the government to spy on our emails, our phone conversations and more without issuing a warrant. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said, her committee cannot sufficiently oversee NSA programs or protect the privacy of Americans because “the executive controls intelligence in the country.” Even those who may trust Obama must recognize that future presidents will also have that power and may continue to expand it at their will.
For example, without checks and balances, Obama’s executive order could someday be expanded to include a No-Gun List, barring anyone chosen from legally purchasing a gun without explanation. We already have a precedent: the government currently has a No-Fly List which prohibits people from boarding aircrafts in or to the U.S. There were 47,000 people on the list in 2013 and the government need not disclose why any of those people were selected. The ACLU has spent 5 years challenging the policy’s vague standards of inclusion, lack of transparency, and the roadblocks faced by the innocent to get taken off the list.
Now let’s examine Obama’s own statements:
- “Until we have a Congress that’s in line with the majority of Americans, there are actions within my legal authority that we can take to help reduce gun violence.”
The President’s premise is that Congress is not voting in line with the public’s wishes. Yet it’s hard to substantiate Obama’s claim that his policy would be supported “by the overwhelming majority of the American people, including gun owners.” The polls show a divided America. In December 2015 a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 47% of Americans supported stricter gun laws, with 50% opposed. A CNN poll found 48% in favor and 51%.
So without overstepping Congress, how can the President take positive steps to help reduce firearms deaths?
- “If we can set it up so you can’t unlock your phone unless you’ve got the right fingerprint, why can’t we do the same thing for our guns?” President Obama asked on Tuesday.
According to Stephen Teret, founder of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, our Commander -in-Chief could have a hand in moving smart-gun technology forward. Teret believes that if federal law enforcement and the military supported smart guns, their large demand would be the incentive that manufacturers and investors needed to consider such guns as a viable product.
- Education and research
Educating the public about safe and responsible gun ownership through a national teaching campaign is another avenue to help reduce misuse and accidents. So is establishing research into the causes and prevention of gun violence. Obama actually signed legislation to institute both these measures in January 2013, but unfortunately three years later we have yet to see evidence of either.
The democratic process can be frustrating when a cause we’re advocating gets stalled. But if we believe in democracy, then we must respect the processes of our free nation, even when they’re slow-moving or go against our desired outcome. Executive orders can dangerously expand the power of our chief executive and run contrary to our constitutional checks on government. All legislation, including gun laws, should only be enacted through the appropriate channel of congressional approval.
– as originally published on AllSides.com
What happens when our political party veers from our beliefs? Unfortunately, the way our political system operates, we’re left with few options, which is a problem for both Democrats and Republicans.
Whether you admire John Boehner or are glad he’s gone, the House Majority leader’s recent resignation drives home an important point: a politician’s career can grind to a halt if he doesn’t remain in step with his party’s ideology. Or in this case, if party ideology doesn’t remain in step with a particular politician.
John Boehner was elected Majority Leader in 2006. The Washington Post opines that if you’d predicted “Boehner would resign his seat in less than 10 years for being insufficiently conservative, you probably would have been laughed at.” After all, the Tea Party movement was instrumental to his rise to power.
However, the Republican party has shifted significantly to the right in the years since Boehner was elected, according to ideology indexes such as dw-nominate. Boehner’s collaborative brand of politics no longer satisfied the growing far-right movement within the Republican Party. Negotiation with Democrats, a forte of Boehner, was considered unacceptable by the conservative bloc. Boehner felt compelled to cede his seat for the good of the GOP.
So what does this mean for the registered Republican whose ideology is more centrist? As the Republican Party moves further to the right, those who identify as Republican have two choices, move along with the party, or abandon ship for the Democrats. For some, a choice of a rock or a hard place.
When it comes to running for president, Republican hopefuls know they must be attractive to the far right to have a chance at the GOP nomination. The result is that the more moderate candidates are tossed from the ring. This lack of choice hurts our political process. Centristscandidates who might have found wide appeal with moderate voters of both parties are shut out of the process.
And though it’s still early in the campaign process, the same case can be made on the Democratic side. As lingering issues continue to plague Hillary Clinton, Democrats most viable presidential choice may be Bernie Sanders, a self-described “Democratic Socialist.” Not necessarily what moderate Democrats are looking for.
According to a composite of polls released by Gallup in 2014, 42% of Americans identify themselves as political independents. Just 25% consider themselves Republicans, 31% Democrats. In other words, independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats by a wide margin.
So as the Republican Party edges towards the Tea Party and the Democrats move towards socialism, why don’t some politicians simply branch out and form new parties?
The truth is the two major political parties have crafted a system that makes it virtually impossible for third party candidates to get a foothold in the process.
1. Most Americans have no idea that presidential debates are run by a private organization owned jointly by the Democrats and Republicans.
Despite its official, non-partisan-sounding name, the Commission on Presidential Debates is operated by the two major parties for the purpose of maintaining exclusive control over the debate process.
Prior to the CPD, presidential debates were sponsored and moderated by the League of Women Voters. But the League threw in the towel in 1987 after Democrats and Republicans secretly agreed to jointly decide which candidates could participate in the debates and which individuals could ask questions. The League withdrew support, stating “the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter.”
Republican Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., who has remained at the CPD’s helm since its inception, was quoted in 1987 as saying “the commission was not likely to include third-party candidates in debates.” This was reiterated by Democratic co-chair Paul G. Kirk,who said he believed third parties should be excluded from debates.
In 1992 Independent candidate Ross Perot, who was leading in polls over both Republican Bush and Democrat Clinton, was granted inclusion in the debates. But in 1996, the CPD declined to allow Perot to participate, citing that he was “not likely to win,” according to a NY TImes article written that year. In 2000, the CPD made inclusion requirements more rigorous.
Our America Initiative, an organization that fights for the participation of independent parties in debates, says that this is not only “unfair, but illegal. Any candidate who is qualified to be president under the Constitution and has qualified for enough state ballots to receive at least 50% of Electoral College votes should be included. Those requirements alone would insure that participation will be limited to only the most serious candidates.”
Currently, organizations like OAI and Level the Playing Field are working to challenge the CPD monopoly on presidential debates.
Party insiders have an inordinate amount of influence on primary debates as well. Lawrence Lessing, a non-politician attempting a run at the presidency, chronicled in Politico how the Democratic Party has refused him a fair chance at getting the in the polls, and thus a chance at the podium during primary debates. Even for those who make it as far as debates, candidates are not treated equally. Debate monitors often divvy up speaking time wildly unequally among candidates. The public can’t adequately judge candidates who don’t have sufficient time to speak, or aren’t given a fair opportunity to appear at all.
2. Ballot access laws are a major challenge to third party candidacies.
Smaller parties typically can’t meet the onerous and expensive criteria required to get on the ballot, such as steep registration fees and petition signature requirements which aren’t necessary for Democrats or Republicans. When it comes to running for national office, parties must wade through 50 different sets of rules. “Each state has its own mountain of minutiae” for getting on the presidential ballot, says Jill Stein, former Green Party presidential nominee.
A Gallup poll shows that 58% of U.S. adults believe a third U.S. political party is needed because the Republican and Democratic parties do a “poor job” representing the American people.
“Imagine how much broader the dialogue would be with the inclusion of third parties,” says Professor Frank Page of Our America Initiative.
When it’s insiders, rather than the public, who decide who’s running for office, we no longer have democracy. Our choices become unjustly restricted, giving politicians with diverse points of view no opportunity to be heard, either from within or without the major political parties. The result is representatives who are no longer representing the people. Instead they’re representing two political machines.
In the United States we’re given a conservative vs. liberal choice that’s supposed to make up the entire range of political opinion. The problem is, it doesn’t. As a result, Americans are funneled into a one-dimensional track that eliminates a whole spectrum of thought.
One of the aims of AllSides is to get readers to understand just how different a story can be when presented from a conservative or a liberal vantage point. By exposing us to multiple interpretations of a story, AllSides encourages open-minded thinking, a crucial step towards tolerance and respect.
That’s a great start. But just because a reader may identify with a conservative view on one issue doesn’t necessarily define him as a Conservative. Expanding our concept of politics beyond left vs. right not only helps us more clearly define our own political standing, it helps us recognize the variety of political viewpoints out there and can aid us when deciding who to vote for.
Voters are often labeled either conservatives, liberals or moderates. But does “moderate” accurately describe everyone who doesn’t fit into the other two categories? Not really. After all, there’s really nothing moderate about a person who’d like to see less government in both economic and social aspects of Americans’ lives. Similarly, someone who strongly believes in more overall regulation also has no place on the standard left-to-right line. There are types of political thinking that don’t fall neatly in between conservatism and liberalism.
Rather than a simple line, a better way to chart our political leanings would be a diamond-shaped graph, such as the Nolan Chart. Libertarian activist David Nolan first created this chart back in 1971. Personal freedoms (such as the freedom to marry who we choose and reproductive freedom) are charted on one axis. Economic freedoms (such as fewer tax burdens and free markets) are graphed along the other. Each axis goes from 0 (total state control) to 100 (total freedom). By charting a person’s responses to political questions, we can graph the amount of personal liberty and economic liberty a person believes in.
The graph is divided into five segments. As one would expect, Liberalism is in the left corner. Liberals generally believe that government intervention is needed to keep society ethical in economic aspects (in the form of things such as redistribution of wealth), but that the government shouldn’t intervene in our social lives. In the right corner are Conservatives, those who believe that government is needed to keep society ethical in social aspects (like tough drug laws) but that government should have a limited role in business and our personal finances.
At the bottom corner are those who feel government should control our resources, finances as well as our personal choices. This sector is usually labeled Statism or Authoritarianism. Statists have little faith in society’s ability to make personal choices without central control.
At the top is Libertarianism. Libertarians tend to have little faith in government and believe people should be free to make as many of their own personal and economic choices as possible. At the midpoint of these four sections lies Centrism.
A Nolan Chart very specifically defines where people stand. There can be big variations even between those who fall within the same sector. For example, Centrists may be moderate in relative terms, but some Centrists may lie much closer to any of the four corners than others.
Graphing our views on a Nolan Chart reveals the diversity of opinion in America. More specificity in our political labels would benefit us in several ways:
- We could better identify our own views
- We could better identify where candidates stand
- We wouldn’t be forced to conform our thinking along a simplistic line that doesn’t account for the full scope of our views
In August 2011, a Reason-Rupe poll found that “Americans cannot easily be bundled into either the ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ groups.” The results of their poll fell fairly evenly: Conservatives made up 28%, Liberals 28%, Libertarians 24%, and Statists 20%.
Identifying someone as “Conservative” on a linear chart is overly simplistic. A Statist-leaning Conservative may believe in using subsidies and preferential regulations to support industries while using legislation to enforce traditional social values. A Libertarian-leaning Conservative may advocate a hands-off approach to business while limiting government’s role in private matters.
Political candidates are notoriously vague about their views. It’s in their best interest to appeal to as many constituents as possible. So once we’ve identified our own leanings on a Nolan Chart, it would be insightful to know where candidates stand. Graphing Donald Trump vs. Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders on a Nolan Chart would be very useful information.
The first step towards thinking freely is understanding how narrow political messages affect us all. Lumping ourselves into simplified categories such as “liberal” and “conservative” is inadequate. The best way to evaluate politicians and government is to stop trying to fit our complete universe of political views along a one-dimensional line. There are more than two ways to represent political thought.
– as originally published on AllSides.com
Few Americans think partisan bias affects their own reasoning. Yet many of us jump to prejudiced assumptions without even realizing it. Biased reasoning can sidetrack us or cause us to make illogical leaps that don’t actually support our premise.
Take the federal deficit for example. Voters often let tax quarrels and other partisan disputes divert their attention from the irresponsible behavior of both parties, allowing bad practices to continue.
In 2015 the federal government will borrow 14 cents of every dollar it spends. In the first 200 years of its history, the U.S. government rarely ran a deficit except during wartime and financial crisis. But since 1960, the federal government has nearly always spent more than they’ve taken in.
As of August 2015, our National Debt is $18,152,809,942,589 and growing rapidly. That’s about $57,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. In 2014, taxpayers spent more than twice as much on interest payments as they did on transportation infrastructure, and over three times as much as they spent on education. But because of the budget deficit, we have no chance of ever slowing the growth of our debt.
Whenever politicians address the deficit problem, it always seems to turn into a dispute over taxes. But the truth is that spending and taxes are two different issues.
U.S. tax laws are often unfair and inequitable. As I’ve talked about before, the corporate world is intimately involved in law creation, with armies of lawyers and lobbyists at work to pass advantageous tax rules. The result is a distorted system in which some businesses pay substantially less in taxes than others.
Our byzantine individual tax laws are so complex, even IRS officers aren’t always sure of the answers. This is alarming for multiple reasons: not only does it allow some people to find ways to avoid paying their share, but if you or I honestly misinterpret a law and pay the wrong amount, we can be fined or even go to jail.
But the fact that our tax codes need to be overhauled shouldn’t distract us from another critical fact: in the early 20th century, the government’s budget was only 6.9% of our gross domestic product. A hundred years later, it spends 35% to 40% of GDP.
Regardless of how the tax burden is distributed, the U.S. government spends a much bigger portion of the pie than ever before.
Politicians aren’t blind to our debt problems. But key problems are typically ignored by both voters and legislators:
Mandatory spending is a huge constraint. More than two-thirds of federal spending is labeled “mandatory” and isn’t on the negotiation table. Neither Democrats nor Republicans explain to voters that we’d have to nearly shut down the rest of government to actually balance the budget.
When politicians from one party attempt to cut a program, legislators from the other party are often championing its cause. Party members form an alliance, stalemating each cut by making it a partisan battle.
Back in August 2011, Democrats and Republicans promised to work together through the Budget Control Act. The White House issued a press release assuring that, among other things:
Legislators would place “caps on discretionary spending that would produce more than $900 billion in savings over the next 10 years,”
Congress would reduce “domestic discretionary spending to the lowest level since Eisenhower… through entitlement and tax reform.”
In the 2011 “bipartisan victory” press release issued by the White House, the administration called the deal “A DOWNPAYMENT ON DEFICIT REDUCTION BY LOCKING IN HISTORIC SPENDING DISCIPLINE” (their bold and capital letters, not mine).
In the ensuing 17 months (during which time President Obama as well as many senators and congressmen were re-elected), both Democrats and Republicans failed to budge in any negotiations, delivering on none of these promises.
When an automatic “sequester” budget cut of 1.2% kicked in, the President called it “brutal” and “severe.” (Though after many media stories proved this to be an overstatement, he backpedaled, changing his protest to, “This is not the apocalypse. It’s just dumb.”)
But if shaving a small percentage of their original agreement was so arduous, how are we to believe that our representatives ever intended to hold up their “historic” pact in the first place?
This would be similar to the following scenario in the private sector: Ford promises a car that will get 60 miles to the gallon. After choosing it, you learn the car actually has the same mediocre gas mileage as your old car. When you complain, you’re told by Ford’s CEO that it’s simply impossible to get that kind of mileage without taking the doors off.
Of course, the company expects you to buy their cars again next time.
Our partisan system doesn’t reward responsible behavior:
Voters seldom demonstrate gratitude when politicians make tough budget decisions. But when programs get cut there are always angry factions eager to criticize. Constituents who benefit from programs are always louder than those who would like sensible cutbacks. Unpopular politicians don’t get reelected.
There’s no repercussion to politicians when budgets aren’t passed or if we spend more than we have. The government simply borrows more to pay the added expense.
The House and Senate have not agreed on a budget since 2009. Another government shutdown is anticipated this fall. As usual, expect politicians to keep us sidetracked on specific spending and tax battles, while diverting our attention from the deeper issues within our political system.
Taxes are inequitable and tax reform must be addressed, but that doesn’t solve the problem of a government that can’t curb its spending.
If we focus on the roots of our problems rather than partisan battles, congressmen would have less incentive to pass the blame to the other party and more motivation to find solutions together.
-originally published on Allsides.com
Why do Americans tolerate limited political choices?
America is a vast and varied nation. We’re composed of 320 million people who represent nearly every ethnicity and civilization in the world. With nearly 4 million square miles, the U.S. is an eclectic collection of diverse regions, each with its own set of traditions and customs.
Yet all of us are asked to fit into one of just two political platforms.
The statistics tell the story: in 2014 less than 14% of Americans polled believed Congress was doing a good job. Dissatisfaction with Democratic and Republican leadership, and the general partisan conflict topped the list of the “nation’s most important problems” in a Gallup poll. Neither party cracked a 40% favorability rating.
Yet despite the overwhelming lack of confidence in our lawmakers, over 95% of incumbent politicians were re-elected to office in the 2014 general election.
In other words, the vast majority of voters chose to re-elect congressmen who they believed were doing a bad job.
When you look at it in those terms, that may sound absurd. But when we’re presented with limited choices, we often stop thinking beyond those options. After all, why bother when those are the only alternatives? The problem with this is we’re resigned to choose between “the lesser of two evils” even when we find all the options unsatisfactory.
Even tiny Switzerland has at least six political parties holding a significant number of seats in government. Yet in general, Americans have complied with our constrained system. The Democrats and Republicans maintain a strong duopoly through a system that reinforces our urge for loyalty and discourages outside opposition.
As described in my last post, our political parties artificially limit our options with an overly simplified left or right choice. Voters and politicians whose viewpoints don’t neatly conform to either party find themselves in no-man’s land.
Certainly there are those who are solidly sold on Democratic or Republican platforms. These people don’t question their party’s positions and are leery about alternative opinions. But many of us are left to brood over such things as:
- Whose side am I on if I believe that certain portions of Obama’s new healthcare bill have merit, but don’t want to blindly agree to all 2400 pages of new laws?
- Am I a disloyal Republican if I don’t oppose same-sex marriage?
- Am I a traitor to Democrats or people in poverty if I criticize the current welfare system?
- What’s my alternative if I want the freedom to make my own healthcare choices as well as my own reproductive decisions?
Though adhering to one of two political parties constrains free thinking, Americans have been willing to wear those chains.
There are many examples of how society has trained us to yield to group-think:
- Our definition of faithfulness, learned from an early age in our church, temple or mosque, leaves little room for thinking outside what we’ve been taught. Religious groups may be “tolerant” of outsiders, though with the assumption that those other souls are hanging on to misguided beliefs. As studies show, this attitude often carries over into the political spectrum. But this can lead to assumptions that the other side’s view has no merit without thoughtfully considering what they have to say.
- Americans love their sports. We bond with our teammates. We typically root for the professional or college team our friends and family root for, whether or not they’re the best team out there. Team loyalty teaches us to have allegiance to our own team even when they’re down or the players make mistakes. This is a valuable lesson when it comes to relationships with loved ones, but is less beneficial when it comes to political thinking.
- Beginning in grade school, we’re often fed what to think from teachers instead of being encouraged to form our own conclusions. Rote memorization is easier for instructors to teach and standardized tests to quantify than critical or analytical thinking. This has become even more pronounced in higher education. Colleges were once hailed as places where we could share and consider opposing views. Now fear of insulting the sensibilities of others often stifles conversation. Sensitivity is a laudable goal, but sometimes comes as the expense of free ideas. Anything worth thinking about is often displeasing to someone else. When the opportunity for dissent and opposition is lacking, students rely on the wisdom of their professors instead of questioning what they’re being taught.
Politicians like us to rely on their wisdom as well. We’re discouraged from questioning the two-party system or the platforms of the party with which we identify. The message from the status quo is that anyone who does not toe one of the two established party lines must be an eccentric or “fringe” thinker. While there are certainly fringe thinkers out there, it doesn’t mean they represent the majority of people who don’t fit into either of the established party lines.
As the powerful parties have demonstrated time and again, political hopefuls must stay in step with the general party consensus to gain support within their ranks. Those to stray from specific platforms risk the backing they need to succeed. This results in little opposition and few fresh ideas from our politicians. Viewpoints tend to get homogenized and polarized.
This isn’t a groundbreaking opinion: concern about the negative influence of political parties was first voiced by George Washington in his farewell address. “The spirit of party, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind,” he said, warning that loyalty to parties “agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another.”
As I’ve discussed before, it’s human nature to want to belong to a group that shares your principles and your ideals. But political parties shouldn’t be treated as our team, our family or our religion. In order to get out of our dismal hole of dissatisfaction, we must have a wider spectrum of choice. Every politician must have the freedom to question party policies and branch off on his own path.
Without a system in which independent political thinking is encouraged and rewarded, we’re doomed to let the powerful do the thinking for us.