The epistemic fog of politics (#1)

I am in constant distress about politics no matter who is winning, who is being exposed, and even who has policies that delight me. Political discourse in the United States has deteriorated to a point I’ve never seen. Before my lifetime, it was pretty terrible during other times; around 1800 comes to mind as one instance. At any rate, my distress is that political arguments—as necessary as they are invigorating—are hollow and misinformed when they could be and should be profound.

I make no claim that the American scene is representative of other countries, though that in itself would be an interesting inquiry. My observation is that American politics has deteriorated into a team sport wherein the aim is to win at all costs over the other team. Cherry-picking, spinning the facts, disinformation, and outright lying have become the norm. Not only do politicians and other partisans join in that mockery of important issues, but the general public has come to accept it instead of revile it. If a political point is to be made, we are ready to tolerate, excuse, and even exult in untruths by our “own side,” while trigger-happy to pounce on behavior of the “other side.” The mendacity we once ascribed to politicians is true of the ordinary voter.

One side makes charges about the perfidy or incompetence of the other side, using whatever weapon is at hand. Truth—as observed about war by U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917—is the first casualty of politics. One of the virtues of transparency is that conduct of the public’s business is open to inspection and judgment. But having the access and wherewithal to make such judgments imposes an accountability for honesty and fairness in the judging. In politics, however, like often in business, human beings seem more inclined toward back alley brawls than reasoned debate.

One reader of this blog sent me a data-rich condemnation of President Obama a few weeks ago. It was replete with graphs and lists to prove the horrid depths to which the republic has fallen since Mr. Obama took office. My reader, to his credit, recognized that “the graphs may be somewhat inaccurate,” though was sufficiently moved by them to add that “they are close enough to describe a bleak situation.” In sharing my thoughts on the matter, for simplicity I’ll speak of the Accuser and the Accused; the phenomenon of this elevated street fighting is not just a matter of the present Democrats and the present Republicans—the government and the shadow government in a parliamentary setting. I’ll use these terms to stand for individuals or collections of individuals that call attention to reputed misdeeds (Accuser) and those that defend against accusations of misdeeds (Accused).

First critical proviso. There is always an unspoken assumption that weakens the Accuser’s case even if the condemnatory data are accurate: The assumption is that the Accuser would have done things better, avoided mistakes, or been more honest than the Accused. That is, the Accuser implies that things would not be so bad if the Accuser had been or were now in office.

Of course, there are no data to prove such an assumption about what would have or might have been. There can’t be. So no matter how honest the accusations are, they do not overcome this significant weak point in the Accuser’s argument. That Achilles’ heel does not mean the Accuser’s claims are bogus, but it does mean that it can never be fairly used to endorse the Accuser. No matter how true and how condemnatory, then, accusations don’t show that the Accuser would have been or done better.

Second critical proviso. The Accuser normally conflates accusations that can be made of government performance in general (that is, of all administrations) with performance peculiar to the accused administration. When not being partisan, we all carp about government ineptitude. We criticize government workers for their incompetence and laziness (though in my opinion unjustifiably). But when we want to make a partisan point, we are quick to blame any perceived government malperformance on the targeted party in power. So when our intent is to blame one side, we appropriate our general government criticisms to that end.

Further, if there are societal trends that have nothing to do with party, the Accuser will use that against the Accused where possible. For example, some claim that in the past century there is a trend for economic recovery from recessions to take increasingly longer. (I am not making a case for that here, just using it to illustrate a point.) If so, the current recovery is prolonged in part due to that trend as much perhaps as due to either the depth of the Bush recession or subsequent Obama actions. Another trend is that effects of the increasingly computerized and roboticized workplace are inflicting huge changes in labor conditions and job displacement. Many jobs lost will never be restored regardless of economic recovery, thereby extending workers’ pain somewhat like the industrial revolution did in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is easy to see how so massive a trend would be used against whatever administration is unlucky enough to be in power when the effects are being felt.

Conclusion. The ubiquitous accusations from Accusers against Accused in political discourse can never be taken at face value even if all the Accuser’s accusations are truthful. I have to this point assumed that the Accuser’s accusations are always accurate and honest. But what if, in addition to the natural fog of politics we add intentional bending of the facts and outright perfidy? Those considerations I want to address later in a second posting on this topic.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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