About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A frightening parallel universe

Maybe the culture wars in the United States are exaggerated. Perhaps, as some sober commentators have argued recently, the cultural divide in America is much more subtle than blue vs. red states, or big cities vs. small towns and the rural countryside. If so, you wouldn’t know it by watching the two major parties’ conventions over the past two weeks, especially -- and predictably -- the Republican one.

While the message coming from Obama and company was surely partisan (as in “reflecting the party’s platform), it was one of country unity, of helping people through hard times, of restoring a positive image for the USA in the world, of beginning to end the senseless Iraq adventure begun by the current president-cowboy. One may very reasonably disagree with the specific ways in which Democrats intend to achieve, or even simply move toward, those goals, but it should be hard for anyone -- right or left -- to take issue with the goals themselves.

What McCain and company brought us, instead, felt not only like a politically motivated resurgence of the culture wars, but also like a parallel universe inhabited by a bunch of schizophrenics. Mitt Romney had the gall to tell us that we need to get Washington out of the hands of the liberals, apparently without realizing that Washington has been controlled by the Republicans for most of the past eight years (much longer if one counts control of the two houses during the largely innefective Clinton administration). The whole idea that Republicans can run for “change” should strike anyone with half a brain as ludicrous and downright offensive to one’s intelligence. But judging from the polls, about half of the American electorate isn’t smart enough (or is too ideologically blinded) to figure that out. (Yes, when it comes to stupidity I am an elitist, I don’t like it.)

Then we had Rudi (Giuliani), defending small town values and attacking the northeastern elite -- he who was mayor of the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the United States, who has been married three times, and who has dressed in drag to appeal to those very same cappuccino-drinking liberals that he now so viciously scorns.

But of course the centerpiece of the Republican madness was the odd couple: Palin and McCain. If one forgets for a moment McCain’s very recent cynical change in political positions, which contradicts everything that he has ever stood for, Palin -- and much of the Republican platform -- are as far from McCain as a raging leftist would be in the opposite direction. The two Republicans don’t see (or used to see) eye to eye on energy policies, government spending, education, the role of religion in government, and a woman’s choice in reproductive matters. What on earth are they doing together?

The answer is in the above-mentioned newly found cynicism of John McCain. He is a maverick, all right, but of a Machiavellian streak. He desperately needed a conservative, an appeal to women, and to energize an otherwise floundering campaign that saw him visiting local supermarkets at the same time that Obama was hailed by hundreds of thousands in Europe. He fulfilled all three of these needs with Sarah Palin, and both the media and part of the public are falling for it. “Read my lipstick” should be replaced by “read my record” and see how I have taken pork barrel money when it suited me, or how I tried to fire a librarian because I didn’t like the books being displayed in my small town public library.

Of course, the campaign is still long, and crucial public events like the presidential and vice-presidential debates are yet to take place. There are also some indications that this time the media will not roll over just because they may be accused (by pundits on Fox News, among others!) of being “biased.” Brian Williams of NBC said loud and clear last week that Republican attempts to shield Palin from serious interviews are unethical and will be countered by his news team at all costs. And then there is the largely unknown quantity of how many new young and minority voters Obama will be able to get interested enough in the future of the world to drag their ass to the voting booths in November. But the very fact that the two candidates are currently head to head in the polls is a reflection of how low the political intelligence of a large number of Americans still is after eight disastrous years of right-wing control of Washington. The democratic world will be watching what Americans do with much apprehension over the next few weeks. Let’s not screw it up once again folks. OK?


  1. Massimo,

    I hate to sound like a scold ;-) but the below (quoted from your post) is sloppy reasoning, wouldn't you agree?

    The whole idea that Republicans can run for “change” should strike anyone with half a brain as ludicrous and downright offensive to one’s intelligence. But judging from the polls, about half of the American electorate isn’t smart enough (or is too ideologically blinded) to figure that out. (Yes, when it comes to stupidity I am an elitist, I don’t like it.)

    Why assume that the half of the American electorate that is in favour of McCain is so because of his message of change?

    Have you taken a look at "What's the matter with what's the matter with Kansas?". Larry Bartels lays out his case against Thomas Frank's thesis that the populace (in particular working-class "red state" members) vote against their own economic interests.

  2. Ravi,

    obviously I disagree that my reasoning is sloppy here :)

    Regardless of whether one buys into Bartels' argument (I don't), it is *still* offensive to one's intelligence to be told that Republicans are for real change. And why would you want to vote for someone who has such a low opinion of your intelligence?

  3. I have to admit, ravi has made me think about the situation. McCain is spouting the word "change" but (a) does he really mean it or is he just using it to try to attract some fringe votes and (b) are his supporters supporting him because of "change" or in spite of it? Obama seems to be getting a lot of support on the atheist forums I visit, despite his avowed religiosity. I suspect McCain gets support from neo-cons despite his talk about change. I used to actually like McCain pretty well until he went over to the dark side (ie. embraced the religious right) but his choice of Palin has destroyed any chance that I would vote for him. I hate to wish bad things on anyone but I'm hoping that Palin blows up worse than Dan Quayle over the next two months.
    I wish I could get excited about Obama and what's-his-name but they're not doing it for me either.

  4. At this stage, candidates will say and do almost anything to get a few votes. One should not assume that any views they express now will be matched by actual policies in office. That said, Palin seems to be a dangerous choice. I hope she will be subjected to some probing interviews. ___________ Your hope that Obama might "begin to end" the Iraq war seems a bit late: it began to end months ago.

  5. I'm more familiar with Thomas Frank's thesis than I am with Larry Bartels' counter-argument (except for a few references in the latter by Paul Krugman). That said, especially when Frank's thesis is combined with Kevin Phillips' analysis of the (relatively recent) marriage between Dixie religion and politics and the Republican Party in American Theocracy, it's hard to see how the Republicans could have been as popular as they have been for the past 20 years without their Machiavellian manipulation of hot button cultural issues like abortion, gay rights, and church/state issues like creationism and prayer in the schools.

    Perhaps the demographic tide is slowly changing (which itself is hard to believe, given the greater fertility rates of religious conservatives), but my point is: however much conservative economists extol the virtues of economic self-interest, it seems like a rather weak motivational force in political polls and elections when compared with, say, tribal/religious identity.

  6. Massimo,

    that's why I don't vote at all ;-).

    BTW, I do not entirely buy into Bartels' critique either, nor do I agree with Frank. There was an economist from MIT who had a much better explanation, but I forget his name. His analysis agreed with mine (unsurprisingly!): the "middle America" white non-rich voters intuit that on the really populist issues (e.g: labour rights or healthcare) neither party is going to institute any serious change, and instead they choose on other issues.

    Does this imply that they are (at best) impervious to gay rights, women's equality, etc? I wouldn't go as far as you in categorising them ;-), but yes, perhaps there is some of that.

    Regarding Bartels analysis, he offers various hard numbers to make his point. I think these need to be accounted for. My own take (which I hope to develop into a more detailed blog post) is that he makes certain assumptions and characterisations that are not entirely accurate. For instance, he casts the Frank thesis primarily as the idea that "white working class voters have abandoned the Democrats", whereas, I would say, that the crux of Frank's point is that "white working class voters vote against their own interests". Also, Bartels division of the populace into thirds of working, middle and rich, while not counter-intuitive, also contributes to the perceived validity of his analysis. So on. If I ever write up the blog post, I will post a link in the comments here.

  7. My favorite was Romney talking about the "liberal" Supreme Court, which has all of 2 justices that were appointed by a Democrat and merely 3 that weren't appointed by Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43.

  8. It's also fun to watch what the Daily Show (or was it the Colbert Report?) did the other day, Friday 09/05 I believe. They put parts of Dubya's nomination acceptance speech in 2000 side by side with McCain's. Change, when the speeches are the so much the same, sometimes nearly word for word? :-D

    What disturbs me the most in the "parallel universe" people is how hypocritical they are, how much they lie. Now I wouldn't even begin suggesting that's an exclusive trait of the conservative politicians. I know they all will sell their mother to get in power. But the consrevatives sure break all the records, specially in this campaign so far...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.