In honor of the Republican party taking over the Senate, Republicans at Work has joined Democrats at Work.
As I write this in early October, Election Day in the United States is about a month away. While most Americans do not vote, there is still in question of how a voter should vote.
While I do have definite opinions about the candidates and issues on the current ballot in my part of Florida, this essay is not aimed at convincing you to vote as I did (via my mail-in ballot). Rather, my goal is to discuss how you should vote in general.
The answer to the question of how you should vote is easy: if you are rational, then you should vote in your self-interest. In the case of a specific candidate, you should vote for the candidate you believe will act in your self-interest. In the case of such things as ballot measures, you should vote for or against based on how you believe it will impact your self-interest. So, roughly put, you should vote for what is best for you.
While this is rather obvious advice, it does bring up two often overlooked concerns. The first is the matter of determining what is actually in your self-interest. The second is determining whether or not your voting decision is in your self-interest. In the case of a candidate, the concern is whether or not the candidate will act in your self-interest. In the case of things like ballot measures, the question is whether or not the measure will be advantageous to your interests or not.
It might be thought that a person just knows what is in her self-interest. Unfortunately, people can be wrong about this. In most cases people just assume that if they want or like something, then it is in their self-interest. But, what a person likes or wants need not be what is best for him. For example, a person might like the idea of cutting school funding without considering how it will impact her family. In contrast, what people do not want or dislike is assumed to be against their self-interest. Obviously, what a person dislikes or does not want might not be bad for her. For example, a person might dislike the idea of an increased minimum wage and vote against it without considering whether it would actually be in their self-interest or not. The take-away is that a person needs to look beyond what he likes or dislikes, wants or does not want in order to determine her actual self-interest.
It is natural to think that of what is in a person’s self interest in rather selfish terms. That is, in terms of what seems to benefit just the person without considering the interests of others. While this is one way to look at self-interest, it is worth considering what might seem to be in the person’s selfish interest could actually be against her self-interest. For example, a business owner might see paying taxes to fund public education as being against her self-interest because it seems to have no direct, selfish benefit to her. However, having educated fellow citizens would seem to be in her self-interest and even in her selfish interest. For example, having the state pay for the education of her workers is advantageous to her—even if she has to contribute a little. As another example, a person might see paying taxes for public health programs and medical aid to foreign countries as against her self-interest because she has her own medical coverage and does not travel to those countries. However, as has been shown with Ebola, public and even world health is in her interest—unless she lives in total isolation. As such, even the selfish should consider whether or not their selfishness in a matter is actually in their self-interest.
It is also worth considering a view of self-interest that is more altruistic. That is, that a person’s interest is not just in her individual advantages but also in the general good. For this sort of person, providing for the common defense and securing the general welfare would be in her self-interest because her self-interest goes beyond just her self.
So, a person should sort out her self-interest and consider that it might not just be a matter of what she likes, wants or sees as in her selfish advantage. The next step is to determine which candidate is most likely to act in her self-interest and which vote on a ballot measure is most likely to serve her self-interest.
Political candidates, obviously enough, try very hard to convince their target voters that they will act in their interest. Those backing ballot measures also do their best to convince voters that voting a certain way is in their self-interest.
However, the evidence is that politicians do not act in the interest of the majority of those who voted for them. Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, to determine whether or not politicians acted based on the preferences of the majority. The researchers examined about 1,800 policies and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.
The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” This suggests that voters are rather poor at selecting candidates who will act in their interest (or perhaps that there are no candidates who will do so).
It can be countered that the study just shows that politicians generally act contrary to the preferences of the majority but not that they act contrary to their self-interest. After all, I made the point that what people want (prefer) might not be what is in their self-interest. But, on the face of it, unless what is in the interest of the majority is that the affluent get their way, then it seems that the politicians voters choose generally do not act in the best interest of the voters. This would indicate that voters should pick different candidates.
Presumably in response to the secrecy of the Bush administration, Obama made the promise that his administration would be transparent. Those who have Obama derangement syndrome claim that Obama is a Communist while those with a milder form of the affliction claim that he is a Socialist. His secret Free Trade Agreement seems to take a hammer to his own claim and the fearful fantasies of his foes.
While some information about the Free Trade Agreement has been leaked, there was considerable effort to keep its details hidden from not only the voters but also the Congress of the United States. Conveniently enough, some of the top corporations were in the know and presumably involved in laying out the details of the agreement.
Not surprisingly, this agreement seems to be incredibly beneficial to multinational corporations at the expense of sovereign nations and their citizens. For example, the agreement seems to include provisions that allow corporations to sue sovereign states if their laws (such as environmental laws against fracking in certain areas) would impede their profits. These lawsuits would apparently be brought in an international court with authority over sovereign states.
As might be imagined, some of the folks on the left (including people who are real communists and socialists) find this agreement to be of considerable concern. After all, it seems that it is tailored to grant corporations considerable advantages and to infringe on the usual rights of states.
Interestingly, this agreement should also bother many of the folks on the right. While there is obviously a strong pro-corporate camp among conservatives, there is also a strong element that has long been opposed to the notion of world-government and strongly opposed to the idea of the United States being subject to international courts. These people, if they are consistent, would presumably be as opposed to this agreement as they were to other proposals to limit American sovereignty.
That said, there does seem to be a difference between the past cases and the proposed agreement. In the past, those who opposed impositions on American sovereignty were generally imposing attempts to limit what the United States could do. For example, attempts to get the United States to accept internationally based limits in regards to environmental issues were strongly opposed. The rhetoric used included appeals to national sovereignty. Of course, this appeal to sovereignty was beneficial to corporations—they could exempt themselves from laws imposed by other nations behind the shield of United States sovereignty.
In contrast, the proposed agreement removes the shield of sovereignty in ways that are beneficial to the corporations. Obviously, it is rather useful to corporations to be able to hide behind the shield of a sovereign nation when they want to do things they would otherwise be prevented from doing and have that shield set aside when they want to do things to a sovereign nation.
It will be interesting to see how those who influence the conservative base will sell the proposed agreement to those they have long trained to cry out against world government and impositions on sovereignty. My guess is that they will make use of the magic words “free trade” and “free market” to sell the imposition on sovereignty. I also suspect they will make use of the notion that they have been pushing for quite some time, namely the idea that government is a bad thing.
Those who get the notion of consistency will, of course, note that the only consistent principle in use here is the idea that what is good for the profits of the few is good, whether what is good for profits defending national sovereignty in one case or ignoring that sovereignty in another.
After a defeat, it is natural for people to try to explain why they were defeated. In some cases, the explanation provided is aimed at doing what an explanation is supposed to do: to provide an illuminating account of how or why something occurred. In other cases, the explanation is aimed primarily at influencing peoples’ attitudes and behavior. Not surprisingly, an explanation that is aimed at achieving these goals is a rhetorical device known as a rhetorical explanation.
This is not to say that a rhetorical explanation need be in error—it could provide an accurate account of how or why something occurred. Being a rhetorical explanation is more a matter of intent—that is, those offering it do so at least in part to cause people to have a positive or negative feeling about a matter.
Back in 2012, the Republicans lost the presidential election and various people endeavored to explain how this happened. Some folks pointed to the demographics of America and how minorities played a critical role in the election. Others claimed that the media’s love for Obama handed him the victory. One of the more interesting explanations was that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough.
More recently, the Republicans lost on their bid to get the Democrats to agree to delay or defund Obamacare. After this defeat, various explanations have been offered and among them is the claim that it was the result of the Republicans not conservative enough. In this context, this seems to mean not being will to let the shutdown of the government slide into defaulting on the national debt.
On the face of it, presenting the claim that the Republicans lost because they were not conservative enough seems to be a rhetorical explanation. After all, it seems to be aimed (in part) at chastising the Republicans who are being accused of not being adequately conservative. As such, people are supposed to feel negatively about these Republicans. It also seems to be aimed (in part) at creating positive feelings towards the conservative Republicans—it is supposed to be believed that they had the winning approach (but were betrayed by the Republicans in Name Only). This explanation might prove to have some bite—many Republicans are taking pains to cast themselves as being very conservative and repudiating the charge that they might be moderates.
While rhetorical explanations such as this are often used to make other people feel a certain way (positively or negatively), people can also use them on themselves. Whether the explanation is inflicted on others or self-inflicted, the problem is that such appealing explanations can make it very easy for a person to buy into an explanation that is not correct, thus leading to obvious problems. As such, it is worth considering whether the explanation about these defeats is correct or not.
If the explanation for the 2012 election was correct, then the prediction that would follow would be that the Republicans would have won if they had been more conservative. In this case, winning is clear—Mitt Romney (or a more conservative Republican like Michelle Bachmann) would have been elected rather than Obama.
For this to happen, more people would have had to vote for the Republican than Obama. Since this did not happen, for the explanation at hand to be correct, there seem to be three main options (and perhaps others).
One is that some conservatives voted for Obama because Romney was not conservative enough. They would have, however, voted for someone who was conservative enough. It seems reasonable enough to dismiss this option out of hand on the grounds that such people would not vote for Obama. Thus, it seems rather implausible to think that a more conservative Republican would have pulled votes away from Obama.
A second one is that some conservatives voted for someone other than the two main candidates or wrote in someone else rather than voting for Romney, thus allowing Obama to win. This is more plausible than the first option, but is still fairly unlikely. That is, it does not seem likely that enough people to change the election voted in this manner because Romney was not conservative enough.
A third option is that some conservatives decided to not vote at all because they thought Romney was not conservative enough, thus allowing Obama to win. Of the three, this is the most plausible. Elections in the United States have a low turnout and it certainly is possible that some of those who did not vote would have voted if there had been a candidate that was conservative enough. These voters would thus seem to have preferred allowing Obama to win over voting for Romney, but this would assume that the voters were rationally considering the consequences of their failure to vote. It could be a simple matter of motivation—they were not inspired enough by Romney (or their dislike of Obama) to vote.
It is also worth considering that the explanation is in error because a more conservative Republican would have merely increased the votes for Obama. As noted above, a more conservative Republican would not have pulled votes from Obama. What seems more likely is that a more conservative Republican would have lost the more moderate voters who voted for Romney. As such, if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been “conservative enough” Obama would have either still won or would have still won with a larger number of votes. After all, most Americans are not extremely conservative and being “conservative enough” would seem to involve holding views that most Americans do not hold. Thus, the explanation seems to fail.
Jumping ahead to the most recent defeat, the matter is somewhat more complicated in that the victory conditions are not so clearly defined. At the start of the battle, the Republicans wanted to defund or delay Obamacare—that would have been a win. However, as the shutdown continued, the Republicans seemed to become less clear about what they wanted—especially when Obama made it clear that he was not going to negotiate Obamacare.
Interestingly enough, the shutdown was explained by some as being the fault of the Democrats and after the Republican defeat, the more conservative Republicans are using the narrative that they would have won if the Republicans had been conservative enough—thus creating dueling rhetorical explanations.
But, to get back to the main point, the victory conditions were not clear. However, it could be speculated that a win would involve the Republicans getting more of whatever they ended up wanted than the Democrats got of what they wanted. So, I will go with that.
There is also the question of what it meant to be conservative enough. Given the rhetoric, it seems that what this means is being willing to take the United States into default if one does not get what one wants. If so, the Republicans being conservative enough would not seem to have yielded a win—unless what they wanted was a default on the debt and the ensuing economic and political disaster. If this is what counts as a win, then being conservative enough would have led to that “win”—a win that almost everyone else would regard as a disaster.
Most Americans disapproved of what Congress was doing and most blamed the Republicans. Presumably if the Republicans had been more conservative, this would have merely made people more annoyed with them—after all, the view of most people was that what was going on was bad, not that it did not go far enough into this badness. As such, it would seem that the problem was not that the Republicans were not conservative enough. They lost because they had a poor strategy and most Americans did not like what they were doing. The solution is, obviously enough, not being more of that—the result will just be worse for the Republicans.
According to the Republicans, the initial motivation for the shutdown came from their desire to prevent the damage they alleged will be inflicted by Obamacare. It is thus rather ironic that their shutdown, as a matter of fact, cost the United States about $24 billion and slowed growth. It also harmed the government employees who were furloughed and the other Americans who were impacted directly by the shutdown. Naturally, it also impacted how we are perceived by the rest of the world. As such, the Republican strategy to protect America seems to have the exact opposite effect. Thus it is no wonder that while the majority of the public disapproves of the way the situation was handled, the Republicans are bearing the brunt of this disapproval.
One counter is to endeavor to lay the blame on the Democrats. Fox, for example, did its best to spin the story so that the Democrats were morally accountable for the shutdown. This does raise an interesting question about responsibility (and perceived responsibility).
In terms of the facts, the Republicans initially insisted that, on the pain of putting the government on the path to shutdown, Obamacare be delayed or defunded. Obama and the Democrats noted that Obamacare is a law and that it had been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. As such, they refused to negotiate the matter. Given that Obama had yielded in the past, the Republicans probably expected that he would yield once more. However, he did not and the shutdown went on until the brink of the default.
The facts would seem to show that the Republicans bear the moral blame for the shutdown. After all, the law was passed and upheld in accord with the constitutional process. That is, it was done by the proper rules. The Republicans partially shut down the government and threatened to take the country into default if they did not get what they wanted. Obviously enough, this sort of thing is not in accord with constitutional process. That is, the Republicans were not acting in accord with the proper rules and the Democrats refused to give in to them.
To use an analogy I have used before, this is like having the Red Sox beat the Yankees in a legitimate game and then having the Yankees threaten to burn down the stadium if the Red Sox refuse to negotiate the outcome of the game. If the Yankees then set the stadium on fire, it is not the fault of the Red Sox-they are under no obligation to yield to the unwarranted demands of the Yankees. The Yankees bear full blame for the burning of the stadium. As such, the Republicans bear the blame for the shutdown and the damage it caused. As a general rule, if someone threatens to do harm to others if he does not get what he wants, then the responsibility for the harm he inflicts rests on him and not on those who refuse to give him what he has no right to demand by means of a threat.
It could be countered that Obamacare is so bad, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”, that the Republicans were in the right to inflict such harms in order to try to stop it. It could even be argued that by passing such a wicked and destructive law the Democrats are to blame-the Republicans had to take such extreme measures in order to try to save America.
This, obviously enough, rests on establishing that the law is so wicked and destructive that such extreme measures are warranted. It would also involve showing that the damage done by the Republican strategy is outweighed by the harms that the strategy was supposed to prevent. This would most likely involve a utilitarian assessment of the harms and benefits.
The damage done by the Republican strategy is known: $24 billion in 16 days. Obamacare would certainly have to deal some serious damage in order to match that, but perhaps it can be shown that this will be the case. As it stands, there are only guesses about what the impact of Obamacare will be. There is plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole, but little in the way of disinterested, rational analysis. However, it does seem reasonable to believe that Obamacare will not be the worst thing since slavery (let alone as bad as slavery) and that it will not destroy America. After all, its main impacts will be that people without insurance will need to get some (or pay a small fine) and that large employers will need to provide insurance (or pay a small fine) or evade the law by cutting employee hours. Even if the worst case scenario is considered, it will hardly match the hyperbole. As such, Obamacare does not seem bad enough to warrant the Republican strategy.
To be fair, the Republicans might honestly believe that Obamacare is as bad as they claim. That is, they believe their own hyperbole and rhetoric. If this is true, they could be morally excused to the degree that they followed their informed consciences. However, if they are operating from willful ignorance or do not really believe their own hyperbole, then they would have behaved wrongly—both in their hyperbole and their actions based on this.
In any case, most Americans do blame the Republicans and this is one of the political impacts of the shutdown. Whether this has an effect on the upcoming elections remains to be seen—as many pundits have noted, voters often have a short memory. As with the alleged damage of Obamacare, we will have to wait and see.
As a final point, one ironic effect of the shutdown is that it gave the Democrats an amazing distraction from the real problems with the implementation of Obamacare. One legitimate concern is the fact that employers get a one year delay in implementing Obamacare while individuals have been denied this same option. This, on the face of it, is unfair and the main “defense” of this has been the use of the red herring and smokescreen, as I noted in an earlier essay. While the Republicans did initially want to delay Obamacare for a year, they handled this poorly and instead decided to go with hyperbole and a shutdown. What could have been a potential win for them turned into what seems to be a major loss. A second legitimate concern is the problems plaguing the sign up and implementation of Obamacare. While there were some attempts to raise criticism about these serious problems, the shutdown dominated the center ring of the political circus. Thus, what could have been a reasonable criticism of Obamacare was drowned out by the Republicans themselves. In the Game of Obamacare, you win or you die. The Republicans did not win.
One point of concern among the pundits and politicians is the political impact of the shutdown on upcoming elections. In a sense, this involves looking at the handling of the shutdown as moves in the larger game of political maneuvering. In the specific scenario of the shutdown, there seem to be four main goals. The first is to achieve specific objectives (for example, defunding or delaying Obamacare). The second is to keep the other side from achieving its specific objectives. The third is to score positive political points for one’s side. The fourth is to make the other side accumulate negative points.
While achieving the first two goals can impact the second two goals, there is actually no need to achieve or prevent the achievement of actual objectives (such as delaying Obamacare). After all, positive and negative points can be gained or inflicted by the means of various rhetorical devices as well as the classic tactic of simply lying about the facts.
The Republicans apparently initially set out to defund or delay Obamacare and have been using the shutdown and threat of default to try to force the Democrats to yield to their demands. Interestingly, the Republicans do not seem to actually know what they want, which makes achieving these unknown goals rather problematic. However, they do seem clear in one goal: they want to shut down the government. Some Republicans, such as Michelle Bachmann, seem to think that the shutdown was itself a desirable goal. If so, that could be considered a “win” for her and people who think that way.
The Democrats do seem to be clear about what they want-they want the Republicans to accept the legal reality of the situation: Obamacare is a law and it has been ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court. They also want the shutdown to end, but refuse to yield to the Republican threats and coercion. Naturally, the Republicans have tried to spin the story so that the Democrats are to blame for not negotiating the matter.
On the face of it, the Republicans certainly seem to deserve the blame. To use an analogy to baseball, it is as if the game has been legitimately won by the Red Sox, but the Yankees want to negotiate the matter. When the Red Sox refuse, the Yankees say they will burn down the stadium unless the Red Sox negotiate. True to their word, the Yankees then start burning things, all the while blaming the Red Sox for the fire. In the case of the shutdown, Obamacare won-it was passed, ruled constitutional and set to go into effect. The Republicans then decided they did not like the result and set out to burn things down, all the while blaming the Democrats. That said, politics is mostly about perception and not so much about the reality. So, a rather important matter is how the voters perceive the situation.
Not surprisingly, no one is looking particularly good to the voters. Congress started off with an abysmal approval rating, so it is hardly a shock they still look bad to the voters. However, the shutdown has also spilled over onto the parties and the president.
As of October 14, 2013 74% of Americans disapprove of the manner in which the Republicans in Congress are handling the situation. To be honest, I am somewhat surprised that the number is that low-I would expect a higher disapproval given that congress seems to be handling the matter exceptionally poorly. Last week it was 70% and at the start of the shutdown it was 63%, thus indicating that the longer the shutdown continues, the more disgruntled Americans will become. This does give the Republicans some reason to end the shutdown, assuming they are concerned about public opinion.
While the Democrats are suffering from a 61% disapproval rating, they are still better off than the Republicans. Also, the Democrats seem to be suffering less of an impact: at the start of the shutdown they had a 56% disapproval rating. As such, the Democrats are “winning” in terms of being perceived as somewhat less bad than the Republicans. While this might not seem like much of an advantage, the fact that we have what amounts to a two party lock on politics, the side that is doing less bad is thus the winner.
An obvious counter is that given the clever gerrymandering of congressional districts, the parties do not need to worry as much about disapproval. After all, if a district is rigged to be mostly Democratic or Republican, the dominate party is all but assured of victory. However, the once unified Republicans (who followed Reagan’s eleventh commandment) have become divided into factions, thanks to the Tea Party Republicans.
The Tea Party members have shown considerable willingness to go after their fellow Republicans for not being “conservative” (or, apparently, crazy) enough and this has created a situation in which moderate Republicans face the greatest challenge from their own Tea Party faction and not from the Democrats. This has played a significant role in the shutdown, which seems to have been largely orchestrated by the Tea Party faction. In contrast, the moderate Republicans would seem to prefer to have avoided the shutdown. Of course, how this plays out depends a great deal on what the voters think about the situation.
As it stands, 47% of Republican voters approve of the way their party is handling the matter, while 47% disapprove. In terms of how this will impact upcoming elections, much depends on the approval or disapproval of the voters in those cleverly gerrymandered districts. If the majority of Republican voters in a specific district favor what has happened, then this will bode well for the incumbent. It seems likely that Tea Party voters would tend to approve of this situation, thus it seems unlikely that the Tea Party incumbents will not be re-elected. However, the more moderate Republicans who have more moderate Republican constituents could run into problems-they might end up losing to a Democrat as punishment for riding the Tea Party tiger too far. Alternatively, if a moderate Republican decides to jump off the tiger, they might be punished by the Tea Party members in their district and end up being defeated in the primary. Then again, the voters might forget about all this by the time the elections come around.
The Democrats are doing better internally: about 60% of Democrats approve of how the Democrats are handling the situation. Not surprisingly, the Democrats are hoping to cash in on this division in the Republican party in the next election cycle. If the Tea Party comes off looking bad to the general population of voters and the once moderate Republicans continue to ride the Tea Party tiger, then the Democrats might come out ahead. This might see the beginning of the decline of the influence of the Tea Party and the more moderate Republicans might decide to abandon their more radical fellows. After all, if people get that the Tea Party folks are fine with shutting down the government and taking us to the brink of ruin, people might start rethinking the matter. However, the Tea Party folks might rather like what grows from what they have sown and their influence might grow stronger. Much depends on whether the voters can see the Tea Party for what it is-and whether or not they like what they see.
As a final point, Obama is doing the best of the lot: his disapproval in this matter is at 53%. His disapproval rating increased by three points since the start of the shutdown. As such, Obama seems to be winning in approval in that he is losing the least.