The Core Ideological Conflict: Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

At its absolute core, the difference between conservatives and liberals seems to boil down to one thing: liberals believe that society can be fixed by grand architecture, while conservatives believe it can only be fixed by individual action.

Call it the difference between “top-down” and “bottom-up.”

  • Liberals believe that it is the government’s responsibility to put in place laws and institutions to coerce citizens to act in a certain way. Government can provide a framework to influence human behavior to benefit us all. A better society can be realized through community.
  • Conservatives believe that the only way to influence society in the aggregate is for individual people to take better actions that will organically combine to incrementally form a better society.  Societal improvement is based on the foundation of the individual.

As would be expected, each side disagrees with the other:

  • Liberals believe that the conservative view is flawed because there are situations where no single person has any incentive to change — indeed, it is to their advantage to continue acting selfishly — so they have to be artificially incentivized via external legal and social structures.
  • Conservatives believe that humans are flawed by nature and will resist coercion. Inequalities will exist because humans have naturally differing levels of skill, ambition, and tenacity and should be rewarded as such. Attempts to architect results removes incentives and reduces ambition and achievement which makes society worse over time.

In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Thomas Sowell discusses the “constrained and unconstrained views.”  He says, in part:

Visions rest ultimately on some sense of the nature of man—not simply his existing practices but his ultimate potential and ultimate limitations. Those who see the potentialities of human nature as extending far beyond what is currently manifested have a social vision quite different from those who see human beings as tragically limited creatures whose selfish and dangerous impulses can be contained only by social contrivances which themselves produce unhappy side effects.

Sowell argues that attempts of government to equalize the playing field just make the situation worse because natural human self-centeredness will cause the penalized group to resist and rebel. Citizens will resist social architecture.

In How Now Shall We Live?, Chuck Colson talks of the liberal trend towards utopianism, which is the quest for a more perfect society through human intellect without regard to basic human character.

Scientific utopianism…expands government control while gradually sapping citizens of moral responsibility, economic initiative, and personal prudence.

In Colson’s view, expansion of government causes dependence and encourages humans to look outside themselves for solutions to problems, when the ultimate solution is based in human character.

Related to this, Dennis Prager says, in this video from Prager University, that:

Conservatives believe that the way to improve society is almost always through the moral improvement of the individual. [...Liberals] on the other hand, believe that the way to a better society is almost always through doing battle with society’s moral failings.

There’s clearly a common theme: in the conservative’s view, society can only be fixed from the bottom up.

The liberal response to this aggregate point might be found in The Tragedy of the Commons, a 1968 essay (which has since become a generic economic theory) that says there are situations where no one person is incentivized to act unselfishly, and thus all will continue to act in their own self-interest toward mutual destruction.

The example from the essay is a group herdsmen keeping animals with access to a common pasture.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximise his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Each herdsman gains from adding one animal, but the common pasture can only support so many animals. So while there is an individual gain, there is a common loss because the pasture will eventually be unable to support all the animals:

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another anomal to his herd. And another; and another….But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system tha compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited.

In the liberal view, citizens are locked in an arms race with each other. If we act unselfishly to the betterment of others, we have no guarantee they will do the same. Thus, the world is full of selfish actors heading toward mutual destruction and it therefore needs external regulation and architecture to ensure we act in a way that prevents negative side effects.

To a liberal, government regulation is often the only way to force citizens to acknowledge that particular individual efforts are having a negative effect on society as a whole, and force collective change for everyone’s long-term benefit.

This is also represented by the economic principle of an externality:

[...] the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Economists often urge governments to adopt policies that “internalize” an externality, so that costs and benefits will affect mainly parties who choose to incur them.

Left unchecked, humans unfairly inflict externalities on others. Actions have side effects that negatively affect others, and this can only be curtailed by regulation and legal or social coercion.

So, at its core, the difference between Right and Left appears to come down to how one interprets human nature and the ensuing direction from which we approach our problems:

  • Bottom Up: Do we trust that human self-interest and the improvement of the individual’s moral compass will have a better impact on the world than attempts at social architecture?
  • Top Down: Do we attempt to manage human co-existence by guiding it from a communal perspective where the rights of the individual must sometimes give way to the rights of the community?

The answer to that question seems to be the heart of political conflict, especially in the United States.

States’ Rights and the Scope of Government

There’s a constant debate in this country about the appropriate size, scope and strength of  government. This debate has raged since all the country was founded and shows no signs of letting up.

Conservatives think all forms of government should be smaller in scope. And while Liberals don’t necessarily want government to be larger just for the sake of being larger (few people will get elected by campaigning for more government), they think that in many cases it needs to be larger in order to adequately enforce justice and fairness.

By size and scope, we mean the “level” at which we are governed.  Considering yourself as a resident of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, you’re subject to multiple levels of government, from smaller to larger:

  1. The City of Sioux Falls
  2. The County of Lincoln or Minnehaha
  3. The State of South Dakota
  4. The Federal Government of the United States

Each “level” has its own laws and rules. Sometimes they contradict each other, and there are rules for how those conflicts are resolved.  In general, the larger government entity wins – county governments can overrule city governments, states can overrule counties, and the federal government of the United States can overrule everyone.

(You need to understand that word: federal. That means the government of the country. Federal means, roughly, “a group of things together,” or a federation. Whenever someone refers to “federal [anything],” they’re referring to that thing at the level of the country government, as opposed to state, county, or city.)

In the Constitution is something called the Supremacy Clause, which reads like this:

This Constitution [...] shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

Essentially, the federal government wins all conflicts over laws. The federal government is “the supreme law of the land,” and if it has a law about something, that law supersedes anything at a lower level of government.

In complete opposition to this is the idea of “states’ rights.”  States’ rights means that the states have powers that the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with.  To this end, the Supremacy Clause is held in check by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which says this:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This says, essentially, that the federal government can only take powers specifically granted to it by the Constitution. Any powers outside of that belong to the states. This amendment was put in place to placate people who were afraid that a large federal government was just going to suck up all the power it could.

That this was included in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) speaks volumes about how much the founding fathers of this country wrestled with the scope of government. When this country was being formed, one of the biggest debates was how strong the federal government should be, in opposition to the state governments. The two sides of the debate were the “federalists,” who wanted a strong central government, and the (awkwardly-named) “anti-federalists” that wanted a weaker central government.

(The Federalists wrote a series of articles in the late 1780s, while the current Constitution was under debate. These articles laid out the case for our current government in an attempt to persuade people to ratify it. Collectively, they are called The Federalist Papers and they likely constitute the greatest argument in favor of the current government of the United States. As a sidenote, there was an unorganized counter-effort called The Anti-Federalist Papers, which isn’t nearly as well-known.)

Hundreds of years later, we’re still wrestling with this question. We have never-ending arguments about whether or not the federal government possesses the power to do many of the things it does.

The Civil War was certainly about slavery, but it was also about states who claimed that the federal government had no right to tell them how to deal with slavery. More recently, a lot of the argument about Obamacare has centered largely on whether or not the federal government is allowed to enforce many of the laws and rules that program requires to operate. (States have implemented things very close to Obamacare, and no one complained. It became a big issue only when the federal government tried to do it.)

In fact, a lot of cases in front of the Supreme Court aren’t even about the merits of whether or not some law should or should not be enacted. Rather, they’re arguing about whether or not the federal government tried to take power away from the states in violation of the Tenth Amendment.

Why do we care about this?  A Conservative would cite three reasons against larger government:

  1. Larger government doesn’t always represent the governed
  2. Larger government runs the risk of over-reaching and becoming oppressive
  3. Larger government is inefficient

First, many people, especially conservatives, feel that government needs to be as “close” to the governed as possible, and larger government shouldn’t be allowed to indiscriminately rule over smaller government. The argument is that The City of Sioux Falls knows what a resident of Sioux Falls wants and needs more than the county, state, or country, so the city would be more effective in addressing those needs.

Put another way, trying to enforce the same laws in Texas (very conservative) and Massachusetts (very liberal) leads to problems. You can’t blanket a hugely diverse country like ours with laws that will violate the conscience and ideals of large groups of people. Therefore, laws should take into account the beliefs and desires of the governed, and we are so different across this country that the only way to make sure this happens is to try to “drive down” government to the level closest to those subjected to its laws.

Second, the United States has a bad history with government. Remember that we broke away from England in the late 1700s, which was the very definition of an oppressive government. It ruled us from across the Atlantic (at a time when communication took months), extracted a lot of taxes, and didn’t do much in return. Therefore, fear and loathing of a large, detached government runs deep in this country. We’re quite different from the countries of Europe in this respect. They have a more trusting and welcoming opinion of government, where many people in this country are still influenced by the memory of our original relationship with the British.

This feeling is strong with conservatives.  In his first inaugural address, Ronald Reagan famously said (emphasis mine):

“Government isn’t the solution to our problem; it is the problem.”

These memories also play apart in America’s love affair with personal firearms. Many gun owners just don’t think the government should interfere, but a segment of this group also believes citizens have a responsibility to arm themselves in the event the federal government tries to seize too much power. Armed insurrection is a very real option for these people, and any attempt of the federal government to regulate their gun ownership is part of a sinister program to de-arm them in order to control them. This might seem far-fetched, but it’s just a small — and perhaps extreme — example of the underlying suspicion Americans generally have of their own government.

Also remember that the current Constitution wasn’t our first form of government. Originally, we created the Articles of Confederation, which effectively made states like little countries – they could print their own money, have treaties with other states, etc. The federal government had very little power over the states. This situation lasted for about a decade before we decided it was unworkable and moved to more tightly unify the country under the Constitution. So, understand that the current configuration of the United States is an even larger government than some of the original founding fathers wanted.

Third, the United States is a big country, and scaling government laws and policies to 350 million people can be tough to do. This argument against larger government says that states can do things more efficiently than the federal government, and the federal government has a long history of screwing things up because it’s just too big.

Additionally, there is repetition and overlap are different levels. When Texas governor Rick Perry ran for president in 2012, one of his promised initiatives was to eliminate the federal Department of Education. Many people were horrified: “He doesn’t want to educate children?!”  These people forgot that every state also has a Department of Education, and most every city has a school district. What Perry was trying to say is that education is something we can leave to the states, and not spend money at the federal level to manage it.

So, in the face of all that, why would we want larger government?  Why would be want the federal government to step in and rule over states?  A couple reasons:

  1. Laws from one level of government to another are so different and “patchworked” that it causes inefficiency in commerce
  2. Laws from one level of government violate some national/federal principle of human rights

An example of the former is dealing with rules that interfere with “interstate commerce,” which is when someone tries to conduct business across state lines.  In 1959, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Illinois couldn’t require a certain type of mudflap on trucks, since no other state did, and in doing this, it made it harder to do business since regular mudflaps were now illegal in Illinois and trucks often had to cross Illinois on their way to somewhere else. The Court said this was a hindrance of interstate commerce and the federal government could nullify this law, which is considered a landmark ruling against states rights and in favor of the federal government.

For the latter, consider gay rights.  The Constitution (the federal law) prohibits discrimination on the basis of things like sex, religion, etc., but not on sexual orientation. This means it’s still within the states’ rights to allow employers to fire a gay employee just because they’re gay. Gay rights activists say this isn’t fair, and that this violates a national principle of fairness, and that all states should be simply required to protect gay employees.Therefore, many believe the federal government needs to exercise the Supremacy Clause and require all states to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Issues of states’ rights and the size and scope of government are a never-ending tug-of-war in this country. Every year, dozens of cases make it to the appellate courts that ask for a ruling on whether or not a state or the federal government has the right to do something.

Should each state have broad powers to govern itself without interference? Or are we better served as a country by a strong central government which prevents states from deviating too far from a national standard of legislation?  Are we fifty strong, individual states which happen to form a nation together?  Or are we more of a single, unified nation which just happens to be divided into fifty states?

A defining principle of a political perspective is where you think the balance of power should lie between the different levels of government, and how strong you think our federal government should be.

Charity and Personal Responsibility

One of the defining characteristics of your political view is how you think a government should balance charity against personal responsibility.

Charity is the government giving aid in the form of social programs for the economically challenged: welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, mortgage debt relief, etc. Helping people in need is generally accepted as a hallmark of civilized society and is very much inline with the Christian ideals that the U.S. still overwhelmingly supports.

That’s clearly good, right?  So let’s give out as much charity as possible, case closed.

Unfortunately, the opposite side to this argument is that government charity decreases the need for personal responsibility. If people know that there’s a safety net for them, then they won’t exhibit responsibility in their personal behavior. The chronic result of this will be a society of people who don’t feel the need to work hard for anything because “the system” (the government’s social programs) will always be around to save them, so their ambition and motivation dries up and they just live off the system to some extent.

This is a perennial argument in politics, and the side taken on it will very much affect whether you see yourself as a conservative or liberal.  Liberals generally believe in greater charity, while conservatives believe in less charity and greater personal responsibility. Liberals don’t believe that the poor are poor because of personal choice and that social justice therefore compels us to help. Conservatives believe in a “tough love” approach, that anyone can improve their circumstances if they are sufficiently motivated to do so, and that too much charity kills that motivation.

(This New York Times article summarized a lot of the research that says assistance does not corrupt the poor. But, in reading that, know there are no-doubt similar examples on the right.)

The sad fact is that both sides are correct, based on how they view the group needing charity. This is one of the biggest problems in arguing about this – both sides tend to think that everyone in a demographic group is there for the same reason. Both sides have created strawmen (go read that link) of the recipients of charity, and based their arguments around supporting or destroying that strawman.

When we consider “the poor” as a mass group of people, the two extremes look like this:

  1. They are poor because of circumstances outside of their control
  2. They are poor because they’re unmotivated and don’t work hard enough

And this is how many people view the situation – they pick one of the above, and paint everyone in the group with that brush.  The truth is that there are a lot of reasons why someone might be poor, and different people fall into different groups.


  1. A single mother with four children and a deadbeat ex who doesn’t pay child support. She might be working as hard as possible, but just can’t make ends meet, so has reluctantly applied for food stamps but is trying to find a way off them as soon as possible.
  2. A high school dropout who refuses to get a job and just sits around a smokes pot all day, only leaving the house to cash his welfare check. So long as the government is going to pay him to play XBox, then why should he do anything else?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we, as a society, want to help the single mother, but the high school dropout can dry up and blow away for all we care. The problem is that social programs are not great at sorting these two groups out. We’re expecting finely-grained targeting with a sledgehammer, essentially.

Now, it’s an over-statement to say that each political view  thinks the poor is completely comprised of one or the other, but the two sides do disagree on the proportion.

Liberals think that most of the poor fit the profile of our single mother – people who work hard, but just can’t make ends meet due to specific circumstances out of their control (the deadbeat ex, for example), or due to larger forces brought about by the wealthy (“the 1%”) involving income equality, depression of wages for the working class, erosion of worker rights, etc.  Social programs need to exist because we have failed the poor as a country by allowing (even encouraging) oppressive economic environments to exist.

Conservatives think that a larger proportion of the poor are not sufficiently motivated, either due to their acute lack of personal ethics, or because they’ve simply grown up in a society that has chronically rewarded inactivity and has therefore ingrained a lack of motivation in them. They believe our society has minimized moral hazard (read that link too) by building larger and larger social programs. Cutting social programs might not fix the personal responsibility problem immediately, but a generation growing up with less charity will be forced to develop more personal responsibility therefore strengthening the country over time.

I think that both sides have the same intent – we don’t want people to have to rely on social programs as a necessity of life – but there are different ways of solving the problem. Liberals think that the problem needs to be solved by the community, and that the poor cannot raise themselves up until we solve larger issues of our social structure like the aforementioned income inequality. Conservatives think that the problem is a lack of personal initiative, and that relying on social programs should not be a comfortable situation, which risks that people simply want to stay there rather than improve their circumstances.

In the end, both sides have set up strawmen for each other. Conservatives think that liberals are naïve and get taken advantage of. Liberals think conservatives are heartless and care about money more than people. If you believe one of these scenarios, then it’s very easy to disagree with the other side and think they’re idiots.

If somehow we could get to a point where social programs existed but only helped those who truly needed help, then both sides would likely be happy.  I have no doubt that the average conservative very much wants to help the single mother get to a point of self-sufficiency, and I also have no doubt that the average liberal wants the high school dropout get off his ass and find a job.

But, until we get to that day – which we likely never will – there will be a constant argument over what level of charity we should provide as a society, and what effect different levels have on our individual personal responsibility.

The Politics of Getting Re-elected

One would hope that politicians always act in ways which they think will directly benefit the country.  But, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do things that actually go against their better judgment. Sometimes they do this in a specific situation, and sometimes they just adopt long-term positions which they might not completely agree with.

In 2012, famed statistician Nate Silver wrote:

Why is compromise so hard in the House? Some commentators, especially liberals, attribute it to what they say is the irrationality of Republican members of Congress. But the answer could be this instead: Individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives

Politicians, like anyway, respond to incentives. They do things to get things.  And the biggest thing they want?  Re-election.

If a politician could get into office and stay there with no threat of ever getting kicked out, then they would be free to act in ways completely true to their beliefs (one would hope). Sadly, the actions of a politician are always somewhat covered up by artifice, because they have to be re-elected and this will influence their behavior.

There are three things you usually must have to get re-elected:

  1. The support of your party
  2. A lot of money
  3. The support of your constituents

Obtaining and retaining these three things will influence the actions a politician takes while in office.

First, you need the support of your political party.  If you’re a Conservative, then this is likely The Republican Party, and if you’re a liberal, then it’s The Democratic Party.

The parties hold considerable power during a political campaign – they have a lot of money they can choose to spend or not spend on your race, and they often hold the key to getting endorsed by more powerful members of your party. If you’re a Democrat running for office and you get an endorsement and a couple of campaign commercials with the sitting Democratic president, well that’s huge for you. With any luck, he’ll even stop by your state and make an appearance with you.

This means that you have to have your party behind you before you run for re-election. To do this, you have support “the party line” over the years – you have to mostly vote the way party wants you to vote. Your party helped get you elected, and you are expected to support the party’s policies, projects, and philosophies in return. In most cases, you were going to vote the party line anyway (or else, why would you be a member of that party?), but in some specific case, you might have wanted to vote differently but were coerced into following the party line.

If a party — Republicans or Democrats — want to pass something, for example, they each have a position called The Whip.  The Whip is a special congressman whose has the unenviable job of “whipping” his colleagues into shape when the party needs to come together on a vote.  Whips enforce the party line.  This is the person who visits the offices, arranges for vote trading (you vote for my bill and I’ll vote for yours), and I’m sure even threatens people with the withdrawal of political support.

(Future president Lyndon Johnson was famous for this when he was in Congress — look at this picture, for example. Johnson was a physically imposing man, and sometimes his “persuasion” bordered on physical threats.  And remember Frank Underwood from House of Cards? He was the Democratic Whip in the House, and you can see how he treated people that didn’t support him. The Whip’s job is to enforce party discipline by whatever means necessary.)

If you don’t vote with your party most of the time, you can expect to pay for it come election season. Your party might withhold funds, they might support your challenger in the primary election, or they might offer only lukewarm endorsements from prominent party figures.

This sounds vindictive, but it’s just common sense. They obviously want to spend money and influence on someone who will be an asset to the party, and if this isn’t you, then they’ll find someone else.

Whatever the consequence, it won’t be pretty, and you likely won’t survive.

Second, you often need a lot of money to run for re-election, especially if your challenger is popular (or if you’re unpopular).  Political campaigns are insanely expensive, and it’s a sad fact that you can largely buy elections in this country.  I don’t mean that you can get anyone elected, but if most everything else is equal, the candidate spending the most money will usually win.  You know that political advertising that drives us nuts every other fall?  Well, sadly, it works.

A lot of this money comes from your party (see above), and certainly some of it comes from everyday people who believe in you and donate to your campaign.  If you’re rich, you can even pay for some of it yourself – in 2008, Mitt Romney spent $35 million of his own money trying to get elected president.

Unfortunately, there’s another option – so-called “special interests.”  These are often individual companies, but also groups of organizations that band together into what are called “political action committees.” These groups are seeking out some kind of political goal, and they donate money to political campaigns to achieve it.

This takes two forms:

  1. A general donation in the hopes of getting a politician elected that will further the goals of the organization.
  2. A specific donation in return for an implicit favor, in the form of a vote on something the organization wants.

The former is relatively innocent – we’re all allowed to support politicians that we agree with.  The latter, however, gets pretty sleazy pretty fast.  You can’t actually trade money for a vote, but it’s fairly clear that if a certain company donates a ton of money to particular candidate, that candidate is going to vote their way if they get elected. Additionally, when facing down an important vote, a lot of politicians will likely take stock of who donated to their last campaign, and how this vote will affect them.

Here’s a quote from a news article about Comcast (the cable company):

Comcast even in normal years is a major political donor. The company spent more than $3.5 million during 2011 and 2012 on a slew of Democratic and Republican candidates, and it has shelled out just under $2 million already in the 2014 cycle, according to federal records.

Why do you think Comcast is spending that money?  Because they want something in return.

You have to consider cause and effect here – which came first, the political position, or the money?  For example, consider these three things:

  1. Comcast does not want the Internet classified as a public utility, because it would affect the way they set prices
  2. Comcast has donated a lot of money to the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz
  3. Ted Cruz has opposed classifying the Internet as a public utility

So, which came first?  Did Ted Cruz always oppose this (point #3), and Comcast thought, “This is guy we want to keep in office, so let’s help him stay there” (then #2)?  Or did Ted Cruz not have an opinion, and Comcast donates a bunch of money (#2), and suddenly Ted Cruz forms an opinion which miraculously coincides with what Comcast wants (then #3)?

For the record, I don’t know, and Comcast has donated to a lot people, not just Ted Cruz. Cruz is a conservative in favor of smaller government, so he very well might oppose the public utility option purely on principle, and Comcast donation had nothing to do with it.

Furthermore, understand that this happens all the time. Every politician takes money from special interests (here’s a website that documents special interest donations; here’s the donations to our own Tim Johnson, for example), so it’s tough to single anyone out.

This sounds a lot like bribery, but the politicians’ defense is that their positions came first, and the money came second. However, I’m quite sure the reverse is often true – some politicians will form (or reverse) a position in exchange for donations, and I’m also sure that some blatant vote-selling happens (“Donate $X to my campaign, and I will change my vote for you.”).

Finally,to get elected, you have to have the support of your constituents. This is clearly a no-brainer – you have to get people to vote for you.  And remember that even if you’re serving the entire nation as a U.S. Congressman, the only people that vote for you are the people in your district back home, so you will do things to make them happy.

What’s one of the best ways to make them happy?  Bring them money in the form of federal projects. The federal government has money to spend on stuff, and your goal is to get the government to spend as much money has it can in your home district, so you can show your constituents all the money your brought home and consequently get them to vote you back into office.

This is called “pork,” or “pork barrel politics.”  Pork is stuff you managed to get the federal government to spend in your district.  Some of it might be necessary and justified.  Some of it, however, is clearly unnecessary and is done simply because a Congressman worked hard to make it happen.

(This brings up the question of who a Congressman is supposed to serve — their country, or their district?  Should they always act in the best interests of the country as a whole, or should they freely screw the country and other states if it will benefit their own district? People have different opinions here.)

This spending can be in the form of all sorts of stuff – you can get the government to bring disaster relief funds after a hurricane, you can get the Army to open a new base in your hometown, you can get the Department of Transportation to spent $100 million on a new interstate, etc.

The late Senator Robert Byrd was famous for this.  He was from West Virginia and was a master at steering federal money back to his state.  They called him the “King of Pork” and he got so many federal projects back to his state that there’s a Wikipedia page listing all the things named after him because of this. He was quite proud, saying:

I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home.

This was a good strategy. Byrd served in Congress for well over 50 years, he was re-elected over a dozen times (by overwhelming majorities), and technically never left office — he died while actively serving in Congress.

Pork politics might get you to do things that go against your philosophy and label, which always seems to get overlooked.  For instance, conservatives who campaign against “big government” will usually ease off this language when there’s a chance for millions of dollars in federal spending in their home district.  The general adage is, “We need to cut government spending!…except if the government is spending it in my district, then it’s cool.” And it goes both ways — a liberal who wants to cut the military budget might shockingly support a proposed Army base in their district…

And consider George W. Bush, who campaigned as a conservative in favor of small government, yet pushed for Medicare Part D, which was a historic and expensive expansion of a social program. He did this during his first term, leading to cynical speculation that he was just trying to lock in the senior citizen vote for his upcoming re-election campaign.

Military base closures in particular are a great example of pork politics in action.  Many politicians admit that the U.S. military needs to close several bases around the country because they not necessary.  But a military base is usually a huge impact to the regional economy – the average base has thousands of people working there, and contributes millions and millions of dollars to a local economy.  Ellsworth Air Force Base out in Rapid City is a great example – if it ever closed, it would devastate that part of the state.

So, politicians want to close military bases in general, but not in their home districts. Indeed, when Ellsworth was threatened with closure some years ago, all three of South Dakota’s Congresspeople (a Republican and two Democrats, at the time) united in a massive (and successful) effort to save it.  I don’t know if that was justified or not, but no matter how badly a politician wants to cut military spending, you can bet they don’t want to cut it in their own backyard.

Now, this all seems very cynical, I know.  I don’t mean it to – I’m sure many politicians are very principled people who genuinely want to do good things.  But the fact that remains that to do anything in office, you have to stay there first.  If you’re not in office, then all your raving about your political philosophy isn’t going to do anyone any good.

Senators have it easy – they get six years, so they can forget about getting re-elected for a while and concentrate on governing.  The president and most state governors (48 of them) are a little worse off, as they only get four years.

It’s the Representatives (and two state governors) that have a hard time, because they only get two years in office, which means they’re essentially always campaigning for re-election.  The minute they get put back in office, they have to start thinking about the next election and how they can get re-elected again.

As sad as all this is, it’s the reality of it.  The need to get re-elected will influence what a politician does in office, because they need the support of the party, money from special interests, and votes from their constituents in order to keep doing what they’re doing.

Why Labels Matter

We’ve talked a bit about the “conservative” and “liberal” labels, but you might be wondering why they matter. Indeed, why wouldn’t a politician just eschew labels and say “I’ll do what’s best for the country in all situations”?  Wouldn’t that be great?

The problem is that politicians have to get elected, and to do so they have to engage in a form of marketing.  They have to “position” themselves to voters.  When voter sees a politician’s name in a commercial or in the voting booth, that voter needs to think, “Oh yeah, this is the conservative (or liberal)…” followed by “…and this person will (or will not) support the things I think are important.”

Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from mounting a political campaign by saying, “I have no political inclination either way! I’m just smart, and good-intentioned, and I’ll make good decisions!”  This sounds great in theory, but the problem is that no one would vote for you.

This is because most voters want simplicity. Life is complicated, so the average American voter wants to categorize things as easily as possible.  We like it when things fit into nice little boxes, and when things bleed over the lines, we get annoyed. If we can’t fit something into a box, we tend to not want that thing to exist.

Furthermore, we don’t want a politician to handle just the issues we know about right now. They’re going to be in office for two, four, or six years, so we want to know that they will be able to handle issues in the future in ways that we think are appropriate. These are issues that we don’t know about, and might not even be able to speculate on. We’re trying to put people in office to project our views into the future. The only way to know how to do this is to consider their overall philosophy on governing, and do this, we want to know their label.

Additionally, many American voters categorize themselves.  They apply a “conservative” or “liberal” label to themselves, and they want to vote for someone that matches that label. They want to send themselves to Washington, essentially, and they want to do this by voting for someone who thinks the same way they do.

Even better, they want to vote for an entire block of people who match that label.  Many voters would simply like to vote for a political party, not an individual candidate, and just sent a whole mess of people to Washington that they believe agree with them more-or-less and will support the issues in the same ways.

There are “straight ticket voters” who simply check all the Republican or Democrat boxes on the ballet without knowing anything about the actual candidates. These voters are voting for a party, or more abstractly, a philosophy they think that party represents.

(Indeed, in many countries, this is how it’s done – you vote for a party, not a person, then the party elects the people who will actually serve.)

It should be obvious by now that political parties are the easiest way for a politician to position themselves. By becoming a Republican or a Democrat, they instantly align themselves with a philosophy, and thus with a huge block of voters. Being the Republican or Democratic candidate can almost guarantee election in some parts of the country. Democrats don’t do well in Texas, and Republicans don’t do well in Chicago because of the demographics of those regions.

This is also why non-aligned candidates (“Independents”) have such a tough time getting elected.  Running as an independent automatically gives you an identity crisis with the voters. They don’t know how to categorize you. To understand what philosophy you espouse, they would have to listen to all the different things you say or write, analyze them, and make a decision. Most people don’t want to do this.

I’m not saying that politicians don’t have personal beliefs and philosophies that they use to make decisions. I have no doubt that there are many very principled people in Washington.  (For example, I’ve heard from several people I trust that both our senators – Tim Johnson and John Thune – are genuinely good, honest men who act in ways that align with their personal beliefs of what is the right thing to do. Good for us.)

What I am saying is that politicians have to embrace a public persona in order to get elected.  They have to market themselves to voters in such a way that the voter identifies with them, thinks they will represent that voter’s interest, and will therefore check their name in the voting booth.

The easiest way to do this is to apply a label to yourself publicly, and then promote yourself in that way.

Labels and Contexts

When discussing labels like “conservative” and “liberal,” it needs to be acknowledged that there are different contexts in which they apply. People can be both conservative and liberal at the same time, about different things.

There are three major contexts in which you might apply these labels:

  • Fiscal policy: things which affect the economy and taxes
  • Social policy: things which affect how citizens relate to and regulate the behavior of one another
  • Foreign policy: things which affect how the U.S. relates to other countries

When it comes to fiscal policy, conservatives believe in minimal government involvement in the economy and keeping taxes and regulation low. Keeping the government out of business affairs allows the market to regulate itself. Liberals believe that the market needs regulation,and that when left to itself it tends to be unfair to lower income classes through income inequality. Liberals believe in increasing taxation in order to exact policies and programs to make society better.

In social policy, conservatives believe in what they would call “traditional values,” which generally means they oppose laws allowing gay marriage, support laws restricting abortion, support the death penalty for certain crimes, are against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and support the freedom to own and carry firearms. Liberals tend to be on the opposite side of those issues – abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage should be legal; the death penalty and gun ownership should be restricted.

In foreign policy, conservatives believe in a strong national defense, and in the leadership of the United States around the world by projecting our power where necessary to protect our interests and the interests of our allies. Liberals believe in less defense spending, more cooperation with other countries, and more emphasis on the United States as an equal member of the global community.

You can slip from one label to another, depending on the context, or the laws and policies under discussion.

It’s not unusual, for example, to be a “fiscal conservative and a social liberal.” This would indicate that you support conservative policies when it comes to the economy, but you don’t care so much about people’s personal behavior so long as they’re not harming anyone else. As such, you can’t be pinned down under a single label.

Obviously, there’s no enforcement of labels.  You can generally be considered liberal, but have strong opposing views in one particular area. You might be very fiscally conservative in general, but support more funding for the food stamp program because you were raised by a single mother and never had enough to eat as a kid. Everyone has personal idiosyncrasies that cause them to waffle a bit on various issues.

A more practical example: it’s quite common for Democratic politicians in South Dakota to strongly support gun ownership, giving our hunting traditions. In fact, during election season, most Democrats in this state make a specific point to release pictures of themselves hunting, just to counter the natural political assumption that they’re anti-gun.

The bottom line: labels are not absolute. Someone who absolutely doesn’t step out of the traditional boundaries of how they label themselves is probably trying very hard not to, perhaps in order to prove a point.

However, given that these positions usually tie back to a philosophical basis and worldview (remember our discussion of The Individual vs. the Community), people often fall into general groups about issues.  If someone describes themselves as a “conservative,” you can usually make some accurate assumptions about the issues they support and the positions that they take.

The Individual vs. The Community

Your personal political philosophy is highly influence by how you view the way individuals relate to their larger community.

For example:

  • Conservatives view the individual as the prime mover. The individual is the engine of the economy and the engine of the community as a whole.
  • Liberals view the aggregate of individuals – the community itself – as the prime mover. The community that individuals create together is the engine that moves us forward.

This belief drives to what extent you believe the community (the government, in some form) should influence the actions of the individual:

  • Conservatives believe in individual liberty above all else. Leave the individual to themselves, and they will work things out to the general betterment of the larger community – their individual actions will work toward advancing the aggregate.
  • Liberals believe that the community should assist individuals to achieve greater things and that individuals themselves tend to act in their own self-interest to the detriment of the community. The community has a responsibility to enforce the fair rules of the game.

So a person’s political philosophy often comes down where their natural focus rests: on the individual or on the community?

This parallels the results of a survey by Pew Research.  People were asked what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.”

The results:

  • United States: 58% freedom, 35% guarantees
  • Britain: 38% freedom, 55% guarantees
  • Elsewhere in Europe: 62% guarantees

Roger Cohen from the NY Times sums it up:

This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency.

Last year, I read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, which was an examination of exactly this concept – why people can have such profoundly different views of politics. What Haidt stated was something similar to what I said above – it largely comes down to how people view the individual in relationship to the community.

In fact, Haidt recounted a study which revealed how fundamentally different this view can be, based on your personal culture or background. Given a picture of a living room, someone from Culture/Background A might see the room itself in aggregate (“this is a living room”; the community), while someone from Culture/Background B might see the things that comprise the room (“this is a couch, a table, and a lamp in a room”; the individuals). One person immediately extrapolates the individuals to a larger community and that’s the thing he’s looking at. The other sees the individuals and stops there – he is, of course, aware that they comprise a living room together, but that’s not what he’s looking at.

So, do we view ourselves first as independent actors operating in the world, or do we think of the world first as something we are a part of?

These subconscious inclinations are ingrained in us as children and explain why some countries accept things like single-payer health care as natural and completely reasonable, and other countries damn-near go to war over it (ahem, us).

Defining It

When I was in my first political science class at Augie, I remember the first paragraph of the text tried to define “politics.”  It went something like this:

Politics is what happens when people are forced to live together.

This is true, but the base definition is even deeper. I’m convinced that politics is fundamentally about shared resources. Politics only happens when two or more people are forced to share one or more things.

Consider two people living on opposite sides of a mountain. They’re each aware of their neighbor, but they never go past the mountain and never have any contact with the other.  There are no politics in this situation.  The two lives never come into contact, and they’re bound together by nothing (except a mountain…)

Now consider a patch of ground at the top of the mountain that gets sunlight year-round.  Both people discover this and the same time, and think it would be great to grow things in this meadow.  Thus, they now have to share a resource, and they’re thus introduced to politics: the science of shared resources.

Thus, we can probably amend our definition of politics to:

Politics are the rules we put around the sharing of resources.

And we share resources every day. You and I drive on the same roads.  We are defended by the same military.  We contribute taxes to the same pool of money from which the government runs.

You and I are entangled by multiple external forces. Politics are the rules we put around this.

If we assume (perhaps grossly naively) that the world strives to be fair, then perhaps we can further narrow our definition to this:

Politics is the pursuit of fairness in the sharing of resources.

The problem is, who decides “fairness”?  You may define fairness as a 50/50 split between our neighbors on the mountain, while others may say that fate made one of the farmers more talented, so he should bear more of the load, which runs us smack into issues of political worldview.

And this is where everything falls apart…

The U.S. Economy is Complex and Slow-Moving

I saw two animated statistical graphics recently that reinforced and sharpened a belief that I’ve had lurking in my head for years.

Links to the graphics are below (I would embed, but they’d both be useless unless full-size):

Both are fascinating to watch – each has colors which indicate a value, and they change over time as the years and corresponding presidential administrations tick by.

It’s fun to look at certain color combinations, consider the president who was in office at the time, and think, “Well,he obviously did a great (or crappy) job.”  Look at the unemployment rate during Clinton’s administration, for instance – at one point, the entire country turns some shade of blue (which is good).  It’s good during Bush II’s term as well, right up until the recession hits in 2007.

What it reinforced to me is this: it’s disingenuous to correspond the welfare of the country at a specific time to the sitting president.

Everyone wants to do this, of course, because we love to play right and wrong, especially when we’re taking sides. “Things suck right now, so it much be the fault of our current president.” Or “Things were awesome back in [insert random year here] because that president was great.”

I don’t think this works. The cause and effect chain of the U.S. economy is just too great and too delayed for the direct correlation that we’re trying to pretend is so simple and obvious.

When considered as a complex system, the U.S. economy is likely the second most complex in the world (the first being the Earth biome). The number of potential inputs, processes, and outputs is so great as to prevent simple correlation. Doing Thing A might result in Thing B years later, or it might result in Thing C immediately, or it might result in Things D-Z three decades from now.  We pretend that this is easy to predict, but I suspect we’re kidding ourselves because the truth is scary: often, we just don’t know.

The U.S. economy defies granular projection. We can make gross projections (“if we raise interest rates, the stock market goes down”), but finer-grained forecasts get far-fetched, and even more so when we’re tying to project an output multiple steps removed from the input:

If we lower tax rate A, it will increase investment of type B, which will improve businesses of type C, which will employ of people of type D in region E, which will require training of type F, which will improve the market for higher education of type G.

A direct correlation from A-G is absurd. The only people who can say this with a straight face are people who stand to make money from it.

Furthermore, some “projections” are only accurate in hindsight.  Forty years from now, we might look back at Decision X and say, “well of course we got Outcome Y, what were we thinking?”  This is clear only because Outcome Y is removed from Decision X by those four decades. The U.S. economy doesn’t turn on a dime.  We can make a change and not have that change actually do anything for a long time, and in the meantime it might have created 10 different side effects that we never saw coming.

So, is four or eight years of a presidential administration enough time for a president to enact policies that have a measurable, culpable, and significant effect on the U.S. economy?  If a president does something in his first year in office, will it have had a big enough effect by the time he leaves for us to draw absolute judgment?  And will this judgment hold?  Looking back fifty years from now, will we draw the same judgment?

I doubt it, yet we do this all the time.  The economy boomed during Clinton. Was that his doing?  Or was he just benefiting from a natural delay before the wise policies of Bush I took effect?  The recession hit hard during Obama’s term. Was this his fault, or was it the sins of Bush II coming due?

(I especially hate it when one side tries to spin it both ways. The Right has often said that Obama should stop blaming his predecessor and accept the Great Recession as his own problem. Yet they’re quick to say that Clinton simply rode the wonderful economic wave created by Bush I and Reagan. You can’t have it both ways.)

I absolutely think the president can have a dramatic effect on the U.S economy. I’m just not sure it will happen while he’s sitting in office.  We like to pretend it does, but to think that the U.S. economy is this nimble and immediate is just naïve.