After mulling over the responses I have received, I have zeroed in on what I think is the key factor differentiating Bush supporters from Kerry supporters. It’s subtle, and some background is required to make sense of it.
In The Great Disruption, Francis Fukuyama traces the development of the crime wave that swept over the modern world in the 1960s. It started in the USA but spread to all the Western European countries. To reduce an entire book to a single sentence, he attributes it to the breakdown of small group social capital in the societies. Easier, cheaper travel and greater economic opportunity attracted people away from the social settings that had previously surrounded them like a supporting – or suffocating – cocoon. Without those small group settings, people were less constrained to behave themselves, and restless young men pushed against the now unenforceable social strictures. This was a broad-spectrum rebellion against all manner of social restrictions, which we now refer to rather clumsily as “The Sixties”. Young people pushed hard at all of society’s rules and regulations: sex, drugs, free speech, dress, the drive to get rich, militarism, anti-Communism, VietNam, and on. It was inevitable that, in this environment, attitudes towards criminal behavior softened and those on the fringes felt fewer qualms about criminal behavior.
The problem was exacerbated by the indefensibility of some of the harder edges of cultural intolerance. The staunch defenders of the social order were tainted by racism and other ugliness, and sometimes fought back in ways that only demeaned their own cause. The hypocrisy of tolerating alcohol while demonizing marijuana was not lost on the younger generation, and that opened the doors to all manner of drug use.
And so society lurched into the 70s and 80s, trying to find a moral code that balanced tolerance against license. It was a zig-zag path, with plenty of mistakes in both directions. As it struggled with complicated moral issues, the conflicts became mired in ever more complicated considerations.
The problem was exacerbated by the speed of technological progress, which rendered obsolete many of the safe truisms of the past. Nuclear weapons made full-scale warfare a thing of the past, yet there were still maniacs pressing for military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Medical technology made it possible to keep brain-dead people alive indefinitely; when was it right to pull the plug? A proliferation of recreational drugs, some mild and some deadly, assaulted the simple-minded notion that recreational drugs were entirely evil.
Two burgeoning moral quandaries challenged our notions of freedom and responsibility. The first of these was the freedom to engage in activities that imposed a small probability of inadvertently injuring others. Drunk driving was the foremost example of such behavior, and it took years for society to accept the basic moral issue – but where to draw the line? Cell phone use while driving? Clearcutting trees on slopes, increasing flood risks? All manner of endlessly complex issues challenged our thinking.
The second was the freedom to engage in activities that imposed a tiny injury on a huge number of people. Pollution was the most obvious of these, and society responded to the challenge, but soon a variety of complicated problems challenged our notions of fairness and common sense. A dam was blocked because its construction would have harmed a tiny, rare fish, the snail darter. The spotted owl in the Northwest stopped much logging, throwing hundreds out of work. The problem of balancing economic benefits against environmental prudence increasingly turned on abstruse scientific arguments that few people understood.
Foreign relations provided another stage for moral confusion. We first experienced the problem in VietNam. It was a war, like any other we had experienced in the past. Most people at first thought, why couldn’t we just send in the Army, win the damn war, and be done with it? Of course, you can’t win a war by letting the enemy have the strategic initiative; to win a war, you have to invade his country and subdue his defenses. But if we invaded North VietNam, the Chinese would intervene with their huge army and we would have a major war on our hands. We certainly couldn’t invade and conquer China without a total war effort. Moreover, Chinese possession of nuclear weapons would render America vulnerable to nuclear attack – the freedom of South VietNam wasn’t worth the inceneration of American cities. So we couldn’t fight the kind of war we preferred We tried to make up a kind of semi-war, and we failed. But all these complicated calculations were lost on most people, who saw war as a simple confrontation between good guys (us) and bad guys (them). To this day, a sizable segment of American opinion holds that our failure in VietNam was a failure of “clear” moral thinking – meaning simplistic moral thinking.
People responded to all these challenges in two ways. On one side are the rationalists, who have faith in the power of human reason to sort out these issues and arrive at morally correct solutions. There are of course the manifold embarrassing cases that yield ridiculous results: the abortions of convenience rather than conscience; the loss of hundreds of jobs to save some insignificant amphibian; the release of an obvious criminal on a legal technicality; the gigantic expenditure of public funds on some picayune safety measure while teachers are being laid off; heroic and expensive medical efforts to save a 93-year old while babies don’t get inoculations – the list of moral absurdities like this goes on and on.
The rationalists wave these aside as isolated screwups, cases where we simply didn’t apply enough rationalism. With further mental effort, rationalists believe, we can solve these problems. We just have to keep working on the problems, refining our efforts, addressing the quandaries with ever-increasing moral resolution.
Persons of faith
The second group rejects rationalism. Some are explicit in their rejection of rationalism, often claiming that religious inspiration will do a better job than logical deliberation. When a Senator in a policy meeting with President Bush asked how he could justify an apparently indefensible decision, Mr. Bush put his hand on the Senator’s shoulder, smiled, and said, “Instinct”. They just know what’s right and what’s wrong, and they don’t care about niggling little facts that rob their decisions of logical correctness.
The Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland carried out a study of the attitudes of Bush and Kerry supporters regarding various international issues. The survey clearly demonstrates that the Bush supporters simply refuse to acknowledge demonstrated truths. “Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program.”
On all manner of other issues – Iraqi ties to Al Qaeda, world opinion about the USA, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the treaty banning land mines, the International Criminal Court – the majority of Bush supporters hold opinions contrary to established and widely reported facts. Indeed, one of my correspondents holds that world opinion towards the USA is not particularly antagonistic.
What’s particularly revealing is the constant refrain that Bush is decisive, a man of clear principles who acts on those principles. They claim that Kerry flip-flops, but Kerry’s record is in truth no better or worse than Bush’s. Bush has flip-flopped on steel tariffs, the 9/11 investigation, carbon taxes, and a number of other major issues. “Decisiveness” is really symbolic of anti-rationalism. Bush supporters are tired of all those complicated arguments, counter-arguments, quibbles, and compromises. They just want results, and they don’t much care how those results are obtained.
What drives these people is a deep-seated fear that America is going down the tubes. They point, correctly, to the rise in crime since the Sixties, and then throw in just about everything else that they don’t like. Hence the intensity with which these people pursue their crusade against gay marriage; they call it "the defense of marriage" and they honestly believe that the fate of civilization hangs on the decision. This and similar issues are symbolic of the destruction of the traditional values that they hold so dear. Hence the urgency with which they pursue their goals and the fury they feel when foiled.
A graphical representation
I offer a graphical explanation of these ideas:
This represents a distribution of how many people adhere to some level of social conformity. At the left edge of the graph are people who keep a clean nose, dress properly, have good table manners, and generally follow the norms. As you move to the right, the degree of conformity to social norms falls. At the far right is a degree of unconcern for social norms that leads to criminal behavior.
In the 1950s (green curve), communities were small and anonymity was uncommon. People followed the rules and crime was not a serious problem. But with the cultural revolution of the 1960s (magenta curve), many people moved toward the right and crime increased. Note, of course, that personal freedom also increased; they were one and same phenomenon. The process has continued since then, with the magenta curve slumping downward.
It’s pretty easy to see the extrapolation the the faithful make; it’s shown in the red line. Anarchy; chaos; crime and licentiousness everywhere. And in fact this is a plausible extrapolation of past trends. But the rationalists (in blue) see a different future; they believe that careful social jiggering and good laws can produce an ideal case in which lots of people have plenty of freedom to anything they want up to the line that society draws that delineates crime from mere nonconformity.
Both sides have pretty good arguments. The faithful can observe that the blue curve has a high second derivative (tight bends), and that kind of precision social engineering is beyond our reach. They argue that the blue curve is a chimera, and that elevating the curve at the level of eccentricity inevitably raises the curve at the level of crime. An ideal example of this thinking arises in the various legal efforts to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. While most faithful will grudgingly admit that no direct injury results from such marriages, they are adamant that a great deal of indirect injury will result from such a policy. They are saying, in effect, that gay marriage lies halfway up the knee of the blue curve, and elevating it to legitimacy will inevitably drag upward all manner of closely related but socially unacceptable activities. And in principle I can accept the argument that a perfectly sharp knee is impossible. That is, we will never obtain the perfect society in which a perfectly sharp line divides the legal and good from the criminal and evil.
But the rationalists have a powerful argument, too. They argue that, if an activity is not ipso facto evil, then it should be legal. Why should society make it a crime to engage in an activity that doesn’t bother anybody else? Why shouldn’t we draw the line delimiting crime as precisely as possible? Shouldn’t we at least try? We have no evidence that such an effort won’t work. Isn’t freedom a goal worthy enough to demand the effort?
I am deeply troubled by these realizations. When politicians say that this election is a battle for the soul of America, they are right in a way that they may not realize. This is not just a battle between left and right – it’s also a battle between rationalism and faith. In the past, the Republican Party and conservatives in general were largely rationalist in their attitudes, but the Republican Party has been taken over by the faithful, and rationalism has been pushed to the rear of the Republican stage. The understandable frustrations of many people are leading them to embrace a dangerously anti-rationalist stance. They may protest their rationalism, presenting arguments dressed up in nicely rationalist terminology, but the underlying sentiment is a frustration with the results of our rationalistic approach. A lawyer for the Bush administration prepared a long memo rationally justifying the use of torture in interrogations. Moreover, the Bush administration, while protesting that it never embraced the memo, rewarded its writer with an appointment to the Federal bench. You can always use rationalism to further anti-rationalist agendas. Hitler had plenty of rationalist justifications for his racist policies. The use of rationalist approaches alone does not guarantee correctness – the “Intelligent Design” school is really just Creationism dressed up in rationalist attire.
If America chooses Kerry and the rationalist path, then we are in for more moral quandaries. We’ll wring our hands about Iraq and eventually get out of that quagmire in a way that leaves everybody unhappy. What else can we rationally do? We dug ourselves into a hole by invading Iraq and there’s no pleasant way out now. We’ll continue to fiddle fecklessly with the abortion question. We’ll muddle along with the huge deficit and achieve little or nothing. That’s the way things work out when you embrace rationalism. Read the Federalist Papers or the Constitution itself; rationalism is the very soul of democracy – and it’s messy, confused, and zig-zagging in its course.
If, however, America chooses Bush and the anti-rationalist path, then I see nothing but darkness in our future. Once you’ve rejected rationalism, there’s no firm foundation for the democratic process. If opposing parties do not come together and discuss their differences rationally, then the only way to resolve conflict is through brute power. Winner takes all and loser goes to jail. We have already seen the first steps in this process: people thrown into jail on trumped-up charges and denied due process. The courts have managed to provide some protection of our rights, but remember that it was only the courts that saved many innocents from a ruthless executive branch willing to ignore the rules in pursuit of its notions of rightness. If the executive branch gets to pick more Federal judges, and appoints apologists for torture as it has already done, we will see a broad erosion of our rights.
Worse, a rejection of rationalism will lead to an overall weakening of our society. We crippled ourselves by invading Iraq; the monetary, military, and diplomatic costs of that ill-considered blunder have already weakened us. Obstructing stem-cell research will only drive that research to other countries, which will then reap the benefits of the resulting technology. If we ban the research, should we not also ban the foreign fruits of that research and deny such medications to our citizens? The rationalists among our educational establishment, disgusted by the ever-growing anti-rationalist constraints imposed upon them, will migrate to other endeavors, leaving our schools in the hands of anti-rationalist teachers – guess what that will do to the quality of education in this country?
Ultimately, what will happen when a technologically and economically weakened America confronts the growing power of other nations? If they band together to resist our military adventures, will we admit defeat and back down, or will we pig-headedly try to confront the whole world (aided, of course, by a tiny “coalition of the willing”)?
The world is growing ever more complex. The frenetic pace of science and technology will continue to present us with ever more difficult moral, political, diplomatic, and economic challenges. Retreating from these difficult problems into a bastion of anti-rationalism leads only to failure.