This post has been created to allow comments about Democrats at Work to be made in a relevant context. Drop those comments like Weiner drops his pants. Drop them hard like…um…best not to go there.
I was asked to contribute a piece on political philosophy to Florida A&M University’s Living Well series and here is what I wrote:
Election Day is almost here and every U.S. citizen must reflect on the similarities and differences between each presidential candidate before casting a vote. This requires more than a quick scan of party platforms. Instead, a deeper focus on the philosophy behind Democratic and Republican party rhetoric will help the average citizen make a more informed decision on Nov. 6. While many believe philosophy has little impact outside of academics, the campaign trail has shown the importance of really knowing the core philosophical values that guide each candidate and will ultimately determine America’s fate for the next four years.
Lost in the heat of partisan politics is the truth that most of us share the same values as a people. In fact, both parties share core philosophical views traceable to the European and American thinkers of the Enlightenment Period (about 1600-1800) such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The English philosopher John Locke is probably the philosopher who most influenced American politics in his case for the right to life, liberty and property. In addition to these cherished ideals, Locke also believed legitimate government relies on the consent of the citizenry through majority rule. Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans are united in the once radical view that government exists for the good of the people.
Self-Interest vs. the Common Good
Many of their differences, however, stem from deciding what role the government should play in serving this good. Republicans tend to take a more conservative approach and accept the philosophy of Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s view, commonly known as laissez-faire capitalism, encourages individuals to act on the basis of self-interest in a free and competitive market that best serves the good of all. Furthermore, Republican views on the role of government are best attributed to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau: “that government is best which governs least.” Rather than have the state direct the market, Smith spoke of the market’s “invisible hand” as a metaphor to describe the self-regulating behavior of the marketplace.
While Democrats also embrace capitalism, the philosophy of the current Democratic Party was shaped by the Great Depression and the New Deal. From their standpoint, this economic disaster was caused by allowing the invisible hand of the market to act with little restraint or regulation.
As such, Democrats tend to favor having the state play a prominent role in regulating the economy. This allows the state to serve the good of the people by checking the excesses of self-interest in favor of the common good. Republicans contend checking of excesses can harm the public good by choking the economy. Thus, Republicans generally favor less state influence over the economy.
The Democrats, as exemplified in the New Deal, generally take the view that the state has a positive, active and significant role to play in securing the good of the people. Specifically, the Democratic Party believes the state should be altruistic in its support of programs like federal student aid, welfare, and healthcare.
While the Republican Party also holds to the idea of the state having an active role in the public good and in caring for citizens during times of need, they generally embrace the idea that the role of the state should be more limited and it is preferable for people to rely on personal success than private charity.
A very strong version of this view is put forth by the Tea Party. Interestingly, they explicitly acknowledge the influence of philosopher Ayn Rand. In her collection of essays titled The Virtue of Selfishness, argued that we are morally obligated to achieve happiness. As she saw it, ethics based on altruism (the moral view that we should act for the benefit of others) would prevent people from achieving happiness. This is because altruists would be wasting their resources on other people rather than using them to achieve their own happiness. Her solution was that people should embrace what philosophers call ethical egoism—the moral view that a people should exclusively act in their own self-interest. While this might sound harsh, the justification is that this creates a better society in which people can succeed by their own efforts without being dragged down by supporting others and without being trapped in dependence.
Thus, some of the key philosophical distinctions between the Democrats and the Republicans involve their views of what role the state should play in securing the general good. The Democrats advocate a more extensive role for the state in securing this good while the Republicans claim the general good is better served by a more limited state. This disagreement is often dramatically exaggerated in political rhetoric, which makes it all the more important to remember that far more unites us as Americans than divides us as Democrats or Republicans (or independents).
I’ll be doing a Twitter live chat as well:
Join LaBossiere on Twitter for a live chat on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. to answer your questions about political philosophy. Follow FAMU_1887 via hashtag #LivingWell101.
Patrick Moran, the son of Democratic Representative Jim Moran, was “stung” by a Project Veritas “operative.” The “operative” attempted to talk Moran into a scheme that would amount to voter fraud. Moran eventually said he would “look into it.” As might be imagined, this is being trumpeted as evidence of a conspiracy on the part of Democrats to commit voter fraud. Moran claims that he thought the “operative” was mentally unstable and was just humoring him. However, Moran resigned from his position in his father’s organization.
While Moran should have simply rejected the offer, it is understandable that he would humor someone. After all, people often try to be agreeable-especially when they think the person they are interacting with is unstable. In my own case, I have spoken with unstable people who have suggested odd things (such as using philosophy to defend the earth against aliens) and I have sometimes actually said “I’ll look into that” when, of course, I was merely humoring someone who might suffer emotional damage from any other response.
While the police are investigating the matter, there is a rather reasonable question as to whether or not he actually did anything wrong (or illegal). In terms of wrong doing, the main question is whether or not Moran was seriously considering the plan and intended to engage in such a wrongful act. As such, one important question is whether or not there is any evidence that Moran was in the process of acting on his alleged agreement to engage in this action. If he was merely humoring someone he regarded as unstable, then such an “agreement” would hardly constitute a moral misdeed (except insofar as he did not put a stop to someone else suggesting wrongdoing).
Moran was right to resign. After all, politics is a harsh business and anyone who gets caught on tape saying something this bad should remove themselves from the political realm until they can either learn to remain silent or spin things better. Naturally, if Moran actually intended to engage in this wrongful activity, then he should be punished appropriately. Attacking the integrity of the vote is an assault on the foundation of the democratic state.
Continuing with the subject of attacking the integrity of the vote, Doug brought to my attention the fact that hoax letters are being sent to white, registered Republicans who are regular voters in my adopted state of Florida. These letters question the citizenship of the recipient and also ask for personal information such as social security number and drivers license number. While the citizenship questioning part does smell of voter intimidation (or retaliation against the official letters sent out by the state questioning peoples’ citizenship), the fact that the letters also ask for such information suggests that it might also be an identity theft scam. It could, of course, be both.
Given that I have consistently opposed attacks on voters from the right, I also condemn this attempt which might be an attack from the left (or just a identity theft scam or some sort of retaliation against Rick Scott). My position is that any attacks on the integrity of the voting process is wrong-regardless of whether it comes from left, right or center. I am not going to play the usual game of “well, the other side does it too” or “the other side does it more.” After all, that is just a fallacious appeal to common practice or two wrongs make a right. I will simply condemn all such attacks and urge that efforts be taken to address them-whether they are in the form of a hoax letter or in the form of trying to suppress voters using the power of the state.
While Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remarks got considerable media attention, Vito Lopez stepped in to remind us that Democrats are not always angels when it comes to women. Assemblyman Lopez, long a power broker, was recently censured for sexual harassment.
If these accusations are true, the Lopez was clearly behaving badly. In this case, there is really little in dispute-people who engage in sexual harassment should be punished. Of course, some might say that his actions border on an attempt at sexual assault, but that is something left to lawyers to hash out.
What I find most interesting about this situation is that (assuming the claims are true) Lopez engaged in behavior that seems rather irrational. After all, the consequences of sexual harassment are well known these days and presumably Lopez is reasonably intelligent and keeps up with the news. As such, I wonder why Lopez (allegedly) decided to engage in such career ending behavior.
There is also apparently a sexual harassment complaint against Janet Napolitano. In this case, the accusation is that men are being harassed and discriminated against in her department. Naturally, if these claims are true, it would make me wonder why this would take place.
One standard explanation is that people tend to think that they will be the exception. That is, that although other folks get caught and punished, they are too clever or powerful to face the consequences of their actions. While this might sometimes be the case, if Lopez was thinking this, then he miscalculated. I suspect that people in positions in power sometimes think that they are entitled to break the normal rules (or that they do not apply to them). There is also the matter of the sort of personality that would be involved in power-that sort of person is probably accustomed to simply getting what s/he wants and hence extends this expectation beyond the limits of his/her legitimate authority.
Another explanation is that sometimes people do not realize that they are engaging in harassment. In some cases, this is understandable (there are, after all, some gray areas). However, when a person’s hand is on another person’s leg, the situation is rather clear. Of course, a person might think that his (or her) advances will be appreciated or welcomed and this could perhaps result in unintentional harassment. Except, obviously enough, in cases in which such advances would be automatically inappropriate (such as between a boss and her employee).
A third possibility is that some people simply cannot help themselves, for whatever reason. That is, they have some of defect in will or (in more modern terms) a mental condition that causes them to act in ways they should not.
In the case of females harassing men, there might be a “payback” factor at work. After all, men have been on the giving end of harassment for a long time and it might be rather tempting to certain women to switch roles. Of course, it also might be that there are women who are just as bad as men and it is just a matter of being given the opportunity to behave badly.
It is, of course, always depressing to hear about such incidents. After all, by now I would hope that people in such positions would know better and be deterred from acting in this manner. However, this is clearly not the case.
Any thoughts on why people engage in such career-ending (or damaging) behavior?
While Mitt Romney has released his recent tax returns, he has taken considerable heat for not releasing more of them. While it is no surprise that the Democrats have been pushing Romney on this, some conservatives have also urged Romney to release these returns.
Romney’s view seems to be that he has done what is required and his wife said that they have “given all you people need to know.” This does raise a legitimate question about what voters have the right to know about candidates. While presidential contenders have historically released tax returns covering many years, Romney is not violating any laws by refusing to release the tax returns in question. Assuming that the law defines what voters have the right to know, then the voters have no right to know the content of these returns. Of course, what people have a right to know (as defined by the law) and what people need to know can be two distinct things. After all, in order to properly assess the candidates, voters might claim to need information that the candidates are not legally obligated to share. For example, some people wanted to know a great deal about Obama and desired to see his college transcripts. In the case of Romney, some voters seem to think they need to know about these tax returns. However, the mere fact that voters want to know or think they need to know something does not entail that they actually have a legitimate need to know it. That is, that they have a right to know. While politicians can legitimately be expected to provide more information to the public than a typical citizen, they do not surrender their privacy completely. As such, there is still a legitimate question of whether the public has a legitimate need to know about these tax returns.
Given that other presidential candidates have released extensive tax records, it does seem well established that there is legitimate expectation on the part of voters that they will have access to such information. Of course, it could be countered that this is a mere tradition and has no moral weight. That is, the fact that other candidates (including Romney’s father) released their returns does not entail that the voters have a right to see Romney’s tax returns-even if they would be relevant in making their voting decision.
Naturally, it could be argued that Romney has tacitly made the tax returns a matter of legitimate public concern. After all, much of his case for why he should be president is based on his success in business. If the voters are to properly assess Romney’s business competence, the voters need access to these financial records. As such, it could be argued that Romney has given voters a legitimate need to know about these returns. As such, the voters do not have all they need to know and the returns should be released.
Romney has also argued that he does not want to release them because the Democrats would go through them looking for material with which to attack Romney. As the Democrats see it, this means that the tax returns must contain things that would give them plenty of ammunition against Romney. As Romney sees it, the Democrats will twist and misuse the returns to make him look bad. As such, he seems to think he is better off taking the criticism for not releasing the returns than sustaining the damage that would result from releasing them.
On the one hand, it could be contended that Romney has a legitimate point. If there is nothing bad in his tax returns, but the Democrats will be able to somehow manufacture ammunition from this nothing, then releasing them would unjustly damage him. On the other hand, it can be contended that this reply is rather dubious. After all, if there is nothing bad in the tax returns, then the Democrats would simply be making things up if they said bad things about the returns-something they could do with or without the actual returns. To be fair to Romney, pundits and spinners are often able to twist innocuous things to make them look terrible. For example, pundits on the right have managed to do this sort of thing to Obama even when he released what was demanded, such as his birth certificate. However, there is the rather important question of whether or not there is anything bad in the returns and it does seem that voters have a right to know about this.
Some of Romney’s fellow Republicans are urging him to release the tax returns, mainly because of the damage that his making an issue of this is doing to his campaign. Given that Obama has released several years of tax returns, it does make Romney look bad, especially since a beloved narrative on the right has been that Obama is a keeper of secrets. While people are generally not consistent in politics, Romney’s secrecy in this matter is not playing well even among those who are not fans of Obama. After all, it is natural to infer that if someone is keeping something secret, what is being concealed must be worse for the person than the damage done by people knowing they are keeping secrets. By keeping the returns secret, Romney invites speculation and causes people to wonder what terrible secrets he is hiding. This is, obviously enough, not a good strategy. Unless, of course, what is being concealed really is so bad that keeping it secret is preferable.
It is unlikely that the tax returns contain anything incredibly dire, such as evidence of criminal activity. While this is mere speculation, I suspect that the returns show that Romney made vast amounts of money and made use of every loophole and trick to pay as little taxes as possible. Since most people try to do the same (that is, pay as little as possible) and everyone knows Romney is rich, there must be something that the returns will show that would be damaging in some way. Speculating once again, I think that the problem might be that Romney’s tax returns would provide the Democrats with vivid ammunition against the Republican narrative that the job creators are over-taxed. After all, if Romney’s people were able to work the existing laws to keep Romney’s taxes rather low, this would enable the Democrats to point directly to Romney as evidence that the rich are underpaying rather than overpaying.
There might be other things on the tax returns, such as Swiss bank accounts, that would also provide the Democrats with considerable political ammunition to use to counter the Republican narratives about taxes, job creators and wealth. Of course, most of this would merely confirm what people already know: Romney is very rich and no doubt does all the sorts of things that rich people do that less affluent people cannot. However, the tax returns might provide such clear evidence of class disparity in America that they would actually hurt Romney’s chances. Or perhaps not. After all, people already know that Romney is exceptionally rich and upper class and he seems to be doing well despite (or perhaps because) of this.
Governor Scott has gained considerable notoriety in his tenure as governor. Most recently he set out to purge Florida’s voter lists of non-citizens. While I agree with the stated objective (to ensure that only those eligible to vote are allowed to vote) I have serious concerns regarding the methodology. Not surprisingly, I am not alone in this. In fact, Florida’s election supervisors have declined to resume the purging of voters.
One of my main concerns with the method is that the list that was used seems to be inaccurate. If people are to be purged from the roll of eligible voters, it is obvious that the list used for the purging must be accurate. If it was simply a matter of a defective list, then my concern would be mainly limited to ensuring that the checking process is accurate. However, there seem to be other factors involved here.
One key point of concern is whether or not the purge is actually aimed at voter fraud. After all, the existing proper studies of this matter have shown that the incidence of voter fraud is microscopic. Given the penalties for fraud, the ease with which non-citizens would be caught, the fact that illegals would probably not put themselves on a government list that is likely to be checked, and the fact that voter turnout is generally low it seems reasonable to infer that the the percentage of non-citizen voters would be very low.
In the case of Florida, the original list was 182,000 suspects. This was narrowed down to 2,70o and the governor recently claimed that there were almost 100 non-U.S. citizens on the voter rolls and that over 50 of them voted. The list of 2,700 suspects turned out to have 500 U.S. citizens. It is certainly good that the list was checked-after all, if the list had simply been applied without a thorough review (and the numbers are assumed to be accurate), then about 5 citizens would have been impacted for every non-citizen. More interestingly, even if it is assumed that the numbers are correct, then out of 182,000 original suspects only 100 non-citizens were registered. This is 0.055%. Assuming that about 50 of them voted, then this would be 0.027%. Applying Scott’s findings to the entire population of voters, the incidence of illegal voters is, not surprisingly, microscopic.
The obvious reply is that even a microscopic percentage of voter fraud is unacceptable and that the voter rolls need to be accurate. While this does have some appeal, there is the obvious concern of whether addressing such a microscopic problem is actually worth the cost-both in terms of the expense and the harms done by legitimate voters being hassled and intimidated. Given the microscopic nature of the problem, it might be suspected that there is another factor (or factors) driving the purge.
If the purge was motivated solely by the desire for an accurate voter list, it should have impacted all voters roughly equally. However, an analysis of the data by the Miami Herald revealed that “Hispanic, Democratic and independent-minded voters are the most likely to be targeted…” Republicans and whites were largely given a pass in this purge.
One obvious reply is that Hispanics are more likely to be illegally in the United States than other ethnic groups. However, one concern is that while Hispanics are about 13% of the 11.3 million registered voters in Florida they were about 58% of those flagged as potential non-citizens. As such, it would seem that Hispanics were dis proportionally targeted by the purge. Since Hispanics tend to vote somewhat more for Democrats (and Obama enjoyed considerable Hispanic support in 2008) this suggests that the purge is not aimed so much at ensuring that illegals do not vote but to suppress the Hispanic vote.
In the case of Democratic and independent minded voters being most likely to be targeted, there cannot even be the pretense of an argument that they would be more likely to be n0n-citizens. As such, the targeting of these voters would strongly suggest a political motivation to the purge.
It could be countered that the Miami Herald’s analysis is in error or that the results were unintended. While this would be a rather implausible counter, Scott has also pushed other policies that seem to be clearly aimed at voters who are somewhat more likely to vote Republican that Democrat.
In addition to the purge, Scott has also established a new policy that prevents early voting on the Sunday before election day. While one might wonder how this would address voter fraud, it is an established fact that African-American voters turn out to vote early after the Sunday church services. As such, it seems reasonable to believe that this policy is aimed directly at lowering the African-American turnout. Given that African-Americans tend to support Obama and vote Democrat, it certainly makes sense to consider that the intent of this policy is voter suppression.
It might be replied that this early Sunday voting must be prevented so as to reduce voter fraud. This is, obviously enough, and absurd reply. It would be rather odd to claim that early Sunday voting is the venue of choice for voter fraud.
A more plausible reply is that this policy would not prevent African-Americans from voting-after all, they can still vote. They just could not vote when many of them have been accustomed to vote. While this would, no doubt, have a negative impact on voter turnout this would presumably be a matter of choice-after all, the voters could simply vote on another day.
The obvious counter to this is that there is no acceptable justification for eliminating early Sunday voting. After all, it would have no impact on fraud and the sole plausible explanation for the policy is to reduce African-American turnout. In fact, it has a certain Jim Crow feel to it. As such, this policy should not be tolerated.
A third matter of concern is that Scott also decided to impose a policy under which voter registration organizations that failed to turn in the registaration forms within 48 hours would be subject to stiff fines. While 48 hours might seem to be a reasonable amount of time, the policy caused the League of Women Voters to suspend their voter drives. When this policy was stopped by a federal injunction, they resumed their voter drive. Without such drives, new voter registration would be reduced (some estimate by 20%).
The justification for this policy is, of course, that it supposedly will reduce voter fraud. However, it is not clear that it would have any such effect. After all, if the fraud occurs at the potential voter’s end (that is, the form is completed fraudulently), then the time limit will have no effect on this. If the fraud is being conducted by the voter registration group, presumably they would have no qualms about faking the dates on the forms as well, thus rendering the 48 hour limit pointless. Presumably this policy would prevent any fraudulent activity that would require over 48 hours to complete-but it is not at all clear what this might be.
There is also the obvious concern that the 48 hour policy is a solution in search of a problem. After all, groups such as the League of Women Voters do not appear to be hotbeds of fraud. Rather, they have performed important community service by encouraging and assisting citizens in regards to this basic right.
Given that in the last presidential election newly registered voters tended to vote more for Obama than McCain it might be suspected that this policy was aimed at suppressing these new voters. If so, this policy is certainly wrong.
It might, of course, be the case that Scott was actually only concerned about eliminating voter fraud and simply ended up handling matters in an inept way that created the appearance of a concerted and systematic effort at voter suppression. If so, his actions could be attributed to ignorance and incompetence rather than to being motivated by malice. However, either option is rather bad.