Wednesday, August 30, 2017

We Need To Grow Up

There was a study conducted in 2014 that asked the question: how much effect does public support or opposition to any piece of legislation have on the chances of that legislation actually being passed? The answer was, on the whole, not much. This held true across genders, races, nationalities, ethnicities, regions of the country -- every measure showed that public support would boost a bill’s chances of passing by between five and ten percent.

Things got really interesting when the researchers broke it out by income level. What they found is that, for the top 10% of earners, the chances of a bill being passed rose proportionally to the amount of support from these top earners. The bottom 90%? If the public support from this group was near zero, the bill had about a 30% chance of being passed. And if the bill had near unanimous support from the bottom 90%, the bill had about a 30% chances of being passed.

You get that? For the bottom 90%, public support or disapproval of any piece of legislation -- whether it’s the Affordable Care Act or a Steve Bannon sponsored bill that would grant full tax amnesty to all white male Protestants -- doesn’t even move the needle.

This is not going to change anytime soon unless we each make an effort.

Part of the problem is our campaign finance system that rewards corruption and inside baseball, which I will cover at a later date. Today, though, we need to address the increasing polarization in this country.

It is no secret that people are splitting into multiple camps and screaming at each other instead of talking to each other. Supporters of donald trump routinely post things to social media -- often from unreliable sources -- that "prove" what horrible people liberals are and that not supporting trump is going to lead to pestilence, death, famine, economic ruin, and more death. Conversely, opponents of trump do the same thing with their own unreliable sources that "prove" that all trump supporters are knuckle-dragging racist morons who are gleefully ushering in the new fascism and shooting minorities for sport.

And donald trump is not the only dividing line. There are Democratic trump supporters just as there are Republican trump opponents, yet they focus on the difference in party affiliation. Conservative vs. liberal. Citizens vs. non-citizens. Old vs. young. Male vs. female. Gay vs. straight. Discourse in the United States has become less a means for debate and more a tawdry reality show in which hair-pulling tantrums and underhanded scheming get the highest ratings.

It's not just limited to the US, either. Great Britain had Brexit. North Korea has Kim Jong Un's insecurities masquerading as national policy. Russia has its own imperialist agenda. The Middle East has -- well, the same ridiculous religious conflicts it has always had between religions that are fundamentally the same.

This begs the question: did this polarization originate in the United States, or were we infected by an outside carrier?

My personal opinion? It's the latter.

Human beings are tribal animals. We are hardwired, and have been for millions of years, to accept people who are part of our tribe -- Democrats, Red Sox fans, Rush fans, bald guys -- and to resent those who are outside the group -- Republicans, Yankee fans (let's face it, a well deserved shunning there), people who think Rush is overrated, the hirsute -- as being a potential threat. This is part of the deepest internal machinery of our psyches, and while it can be overcome it takes a conscious effort of will.

This predated the Founding Fathers. It predated human civilization. Hell, it predated humans. As a result, this sort of "us vs. them" mentality is something we are all born with, and it has fundamentally shaped our approach to pretty much everything, from throwing rocks at the guys on the other side of the river because they were demons, to the current conflicts in the Middle East: our side has the good guys, the other side has the bad guys, and the bad guys need to be eradicated.

In my lifetime, the earliest manifestation of this in the public arena -- at least, of which I became aware -- came with the election of 1980. Ronald Reagan freely demonized liberals on the campaign trail, while Jimmy Carter exhibited restraint and did not characterize all conservatives as evil, thick-headed, whatever. As a result, his message was more nuanced and required voters pay more attention (of course, the rampant inflation and the hostage crisis beginning in 1979 didn't help matters for him one bit).

As we all know, Reagan pretty much walked away with that one. I think it was because he was a master of creating sound bites -- little nuggets that were easily memorable and could easily accept any meaning the listener wanted to attach to them. Carter's statements, on the other hand, required critical thinking and attention, and were not as pliable in their meaning.

This is how it has progressed since then. Each election brings a candidate who is a little better at playing to the news cycle, who has a little more skill in crafting a vague, non-specific message that somehow resonates with people based on folksy charm and seeming regular guy-ness. Reagan walloped Mondale, who was a policy wonk -- really smart guy, but with all the appeal and charisma of a flat tire. Bush Sr. similarly trounced Dukakis, who was as wonky as Mondale but somehow even less exciting. Clinton proved to be an even folksier entrant in '92 and '96, and Al Gore and John Kerry were both easily out-aw-shucksed by George W. Bush.

The only exception to this trend has been Barack Obama, simply because the pendulum swung too far toward the "dumb but likeable" direction with Bush II, and the economy was in ruins at that point, and people were starting to gain a dim realization that having a smart but boring guy in charge might be a good idea. However, this was the anomaly, as in '16 we faced a similar choice: on one side, someone who was incredibly intelligent and experienced, with a good handle on the subtleties of both domestic and foreign policy, and on the other hand a guy who bragged about the size of his winkie during a presidential debate.

And at no point during the shameful, salacious, embarrassing election of 2016 were the two sides ever communicating with each other. Sure, it was a very vocal election -- from the 'roid raging "I love trump!" guy, to the Bernie-or-busters, everyone was screaming into the void, trying to be the loudest one in the room ... and nobody realized they were just adding to the white noise.

Which leads us to where we are now: with a country that is so polarized, so intent on being right and on demonizing the other side, that nothing of substance can get done. Republicans spent years screaming about the Affordable Care Act, saying it was a horrible deal, but not once did they offer anything realistic to replace it -- despite repeated invitations from Democrats to do so. Democrats have been complaining about Republican intransigence since roughly the last Ice Age, yet have not really made a concerted effort to reach across the aisle and say "y'know, y'all do make some good points now and again."

It needs to stop.

Unfortunately, it's not going to stop unless and until we -- all of us -- stand up and demand that they start behaving like adults. And we cannot do that until we start behaving like adults, and stop yelling at each other, and constantly playing a game of "gotcha" at every opportunity, and start listening to what people with whom we disagree have to say.

Then -- and only then -- can we employ the roughly three pounds of gray matter we each carry around in our skulls and demand that these clowns, these shrieking agitators who run for office, be held accountable and stop spewing bullshit at every opportunity. We need to step up and ask them the tough questions, and not relinquish the platform until they give a solid answer.

It's going to take work. Most people won't be interested in putting in this work and would prefer to cruise along as they have been, basically jamming their heads in the sand because it's too difficult, or they don't have time, or they are tired from dealing with adulting, or any of a myriad of other reasons, many of which are perfectly valid. But a society like ours demands participation from all, and this is not an easy task.

It's a necessary one, though.

I gotta lie down.

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