Here at Scientist, we like to look at issues that affect musicians and other creative people and take them on with relish. Outside of music, nothing is more interesting to us than studying the impact of new policies and technologies on our work and on our colleagues.
What is the effect of a hands-off approach to intellectual property rights? Does it benefit the artists and fans or does it hurt them? What’s the effect of our decision to relax enforcement of the labor laws that once regulated internships? Has it lead to more real opportunities or fewer of them? Can crowd-funding replace the kind of patronage once provided by public institutions and commercial investors? Where does it succeed, and what gaps does it leave unfulfilled?
We want to know the answers to these questions, because we want to know what side to take.
Broaching these topics, however, requires a fine touch. One of the most unfortunate realities of our day is that nearly every policy now has the potential to become a hot-button issue, a tangled mess of two runaway worldviews run amok.
We’ve had some small amount of luck in advancing issues that matter to working artists and creative professionals. I think that’s largely because we dodge the increasingly bitter and senseless left-right divide. I’ve tried to make sure we avoid that divide, largely because I find that division to be almost entirely arbitrary.
And that’s not just my opinion. In true Scientist fashion, we have the evidence to prove it.
Are We More Divided?
Countless polls of both the public and the politicians show we are more divided than we have been since the 1800s. And according to Pew Research, the degree of division across party lines has skyrocketed since 1987.
Even on issues where almost no partisan difference existed 30 years ago, such as environmental conservation or the role of government, the differences in opinion between party adherents has jumped from a gap in the single digits up to divisions of 30 or 40 points.
Meanwhile, self-reported feelings of warmth between parties have dropped from nearly 50% under Carter to about 17% today. They had trended downward slightly through Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton, and then nosedived under Bush II and President Obama.
Democrats’ trust of government has tended to hover around the 30% range ever since Nixon, but Republicans’ trust in government, which usually shoots up to 50% or more when their man is in office and drops to about 30% or so when the other guys step in, has plummeted to a 50-year low under Barack Obama. It now stands at just 5%.
It’s a strange thing too, because we are now talking about a man who has presided over far lower tax rates than we had under Nixon or Reagan or Eisenhower and, until the past few weeks, had made less threatening noise about gun regulation than just about any president outside of G.W. Bush.
There’s also a fair argument that this president has been more effective on national security than almost any other in recent memory. The number of American deaths from terrorist attacks around the world was 188 under Reagan, 25 under Clinton, 301 under W Bush (not counting 9/11 of course) and only 45 under Obama. Some, citing the NDAA and use of drones, say that this is a president who has been irresponsibly over-effective on national security.
I don’t present any of these facts to endorse one political worldview or another. I write this only to demonstrate that it has become clear that the debates we are having as a nation are no longer tied to the policies or the realities with which we are confronted. We have gone from honestly debating with people we recognized as friends and neighbors to fighting phantoms.
If at this point, you are tuning out because I just said something positive about Barack Obama, or if you are just now tuning in harder, thinking that we will agree on every issue, just because I don’t think that he’s devil incarnate, then that is also part of the problem I want to address.
We have become obsessed with the messenger rather than the message; with the rhetoric instead of the realities; with the heat of the battle rather than the results of the debate. It seems that only thing we agree on now is that it’s all broken.
Today, we are pitted against one another as conservatives and liberals, whereas in reality, each and every one of us are both. We have been consumed by rhetoric and tricked into forgetting how many values we share.
Are You a Liberal or a Conservative? (An Honest Trick Question.)
Let’s examine this idea in greater detail. Since Republicans lost the last election, we’ll let the conservatives start and give them the chance to define the word “liberalism” for our purposes.
Here it is from the conservative, prescriptivist dictionary, The American Heritage:
lib·er·al·ism (lib’er-e-liz’em, lib’re):
A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.
Geez. Well, when you put it that way, it kinda sounds like almost every decent-minded, self-identified “conservative” in this country would consider himself a “liberal.”
That’s because they are.
News Flash: We live in a liberal country. We are a liberal people. We are not a theocracy or fascist state. Since the very beginning, we have always have been a liberal republic and with any luck, we always will be on.
Ich bin ein unapologetic liberal. Even Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter – they are liberals too.
Okay, now that the conservatives have had their turn defining liberalism, let’s turn to the permissive “word-liberals” over at the descriptivist Merriam-Webster dictionary so they can tell us what a conservative is:
con·ser·va·tism noun ken-ser-va-ti-zem
a A disposition in politics to preserve what is established
b A political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change;
Wait just a second… That makes it kind of sound like pro-union, anti-education-reform, anti-social-safety-net-reform liberals… are actually a bunch of conservatives!
Yes. Yes they are.
Now wait just another second – Does this mean that “conservative” Paul Ryan’s radical budget proposals aren’t conservative?
Does it mean that Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and Steven Forbes’ suggestion to abolish the income tax in favor of a flat tax aren’t actually conservative policies? Does it mean that Newt Gingrich’s motion that we fire up a moon base, ASAP, isn’t conservative in the least?
Yes. Yes, it means exactly all of those things.
(And for the record, I’m totally OK with that while “moon base” part.)
At any rate, whether you like or dislike these proposals has no bearing on whether or not they are “conservative.”
The poet Robert Frost once said that “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
So with that in mind, I should offer a disclaimer: Merriam-Webster is such a liberal, permissive, descriptivist dictionary, that they do go on to allow that the word conservative is now often used to describe people who adhere to specific ideas about tax rates and contraception and so forth.
But that’s coming from a dictionary that is so permissive that it thinks it’s totally okay to pronounce the word “library” as “lie-berry”. (No, I am not making that up.) So I’d take it with a grain of salt.
A Real Life Example
I hope this simple little conservative exercise of “looking up what words actually mean” has taught us all a little something: That we are all being sold “a bill of goods”.
At least that’s what Vice-President Joe Biden would call it. He’s a man who is for some reason called a “liberal”, even though he’s conservative on the issues of education, labor regulation, environmental conservation, tax codes, social safety nets, preservation of reproductive choice and so on.
As far as I can tell, he might have been better considered “progressive” on one issue in the last election: health care reform.
Meanwhile, Biden’s opponent in the last election, Congressman Paul Ryan, is said to be a sterling specimen of uncompromising American conservatism.
Despite this, he took positions that are the exact opposite of what the word “conservative” means on issues including education, labor regulation, environmental conservation, tax codes, social safety nets, preservation of reproductive choice and so on.
As far as I could tell, he could have been considered “conservative” on one issue only: health care reform.
How Do You Identify? (Our Recommendation: Don’t.)
When people ask me if I’m a conservative, I say yes. When people ask me if I am a liberal I say yes. Both are undeniably true for me, just as they likely are for you.
I’ll even go one further: When people ask me if I am a moderate or a progressive or a capitalist or a socialist, I say yes, yes, yes, and yes.
We are each all of these things, and America is all of these things.
Yes, even the socialist part. We are a social democracy and we have been for a long time. We’re just a mite skittish about the word compared to the rest of the developed world, what with the old Cold War between us and the Ruskies and all. That’s over now. In addition to our perennially popular social safety nets, we have long subsidized agriculture, railroads, fossil fuels, utility companies, sports stadiums, the internet, automobile companies and banks. The only new one that we’ve added to the list in the past several years has been “renewable energy”. It’s just more of what we’ve always done.
And yes lefties, I mean this about the capitalist part too. Many of our favorite things in the world, outside of friends and family and health and love and laughter, are products. Commercial products. And that’s okay too. If anything, we lean a bit more heavily to the free market side of things than most of the developed world. I, like most Americans, am okay with that too.
To be blind to that fact that we are made up of all of these values, both as individuals and as a nation, is to be blinded by ideology. It is to be blinded by a pair of glasses that were prescribed for another man’s eyes, and placed in a frame that was made for another place and time.
Where Are The Answers
If there is one truth I’d like to impress upon the world, it’s that ideology only ever gets it right when it gets lucky. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to every issue. Quite simply, all advice is relative.
Should you add more sugar to what you are baking? The answer depends on how much sugar you have put in there already, and whether you are aiming for a birthday cake or a loaf of bread.
Similarly: Lower taxes can be the answer. Except for when they aren’t. Sometimes more regulation is the key. Except for when it’s not. Sometimes looser copyright law is better, sometimes tighter is the way to go. What direction to head always depends on where we’re starting and where we need to wind up.
I, like an increasingly number of Americans, am growing tired of ideology. What I propose is that we remember our principles, look at the evidence, and take each situation case-by-case.
If you must identify with groups or ideas, then identify with smaller ones, and identify with many of them. The more disparate they are from one another, the better. It will help keep you free from the mental tyranny of any one-size-fits-all political philosophy.
Whatever you decide to think on any one issue or another, remember that America was founded on the liberalism advanced by the then-progressive enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries. And also remember that we have conserved that wonderful heritage for a long, long time. I pray that we keep on conserving it for countless generations to come.
To do that we must acknowledge that emotions and perspectives may be distinct, but reality is mutual.
So from the small staff at Scientist, we wish you a 2013 filled with both prosperity and understanding.
Now stop arguing and go make some records!