Taking Pluralism Seriously

I was counting down the minutes until I heard something like this from one of my friends. It falls to Julian, who says:

Enough already. Can we please stop pretending that failure to properly appreciate the wisdom of parochial, tribalist hicks (and I mean that in a geographically neutral sense) is some kind of moral failing? Yes, Bush crafted a message that was “simple and appealing to a huge mass of voting Americans.” That's what demagoguery is.

Will's post is ultimately no less condescending than the attitude he criticizes, attributing Bush's support less to substantive (if loathesome) policy agreement from the base, and more to his apparent embodiment of the spirit of the Volk. That may be the case, but if anything, it makes his base look worse, not better. As Penn Jillette says (roughly) in the most recent issue of Reason, sometimes respecting someone means saying “you're a fucking idiot,” because then you're at least taking their disagreement seriously. A difference over the morality of stem cell research, say, is at least in principle a substantive topic you can argue about. Disagreement that stems from one party's being enmeshed in some adolescent narrative about the True Spirit of America forecloses that possibility, because it amounts to concluding that your opponents are hypnotized, and that the best hope is to hypnotize them better. Maybe that's the case, but don't tell me it's less condescending.

Sure, sure Julian. Though I'm not sure you'd know a parochial, tribalist hick if one punched you in the face. Can you tell the difference between a Christian conservative MBA executive from Wichita and a toothless snake-handling trailer-dwelling Jesus freak, or do they look the same to you–all parochial, tribalist hicks–from such great heights? I really just don't see the point of this kind of talk, or the point of patting ourselves on our weak backs for being so well devoted to our comparative advantages.

In the event of a Kerry victory would we be sure to point out that his core included millions of parochial, tribalist, whatever-the-urban-correlate-of-“hicks”-is roused by “your children will starve in the streets/your jobs will vanish to Bangalore” rhetoric? Democrats, it can be shocking to remember, do not mainly depend on cosmopolitan newspaper columnists and college professors, and, no, we would not point it out. So why the especially invidious desription of the Christian Bush voter? Cultural bigotry? Northeastern xenophobia? Or is this a just a good hard truth that's really worth shouting from the rooftops? Each of us is no doubt jealous of our cultural identity, and we each need our “other,” I suppose, and to band together with our spiritual compatriots in trying times, but we don't have to be fatuous about it.

Sad as it may be to we heroes of reason, people do not think in a begriffsschrift, and it is pure silliness to imagine elections being won or lost on the basis of substantive debates about issues like stem cell research. Del Monte sells pineapple, Honda sells more Civics, by tapping into the spirit of the Volk and the Zeit and so forth, and candidates win elections the same way. There are whole companies in our modern day technologically advanced capitalist society devoted to the dark arts of geist-plumbing, and we don't get in huff about Goebbelsian demagoguery–at least we libertarians don't–when Apple starts moving beaucoup iPods due to savvy psychographic research.

It is not condescending to point out that human beings are human beings–coalitional, mythologizing, risk averse–unless one is in the grip of some kind of unreasonable expectation to the contrary. People take “adolescent” narratives about their origins, histories, coalitions and so forth dead serious, and implying that it's dirty to pander to this kind of thing is not a serious point as much as it is a complaint against the evolved constitution of human beings. (Is there, in someone or other's mind, an adolescent narrative of Will Wilkinson? Of Julian Sanchez? Of course, no.)

My point, which I guess wasn't clear, is not that there is a choice between substantive policy agreement and embodiment of the volkgeist. My point is that substantive policy agreement is driven by coalitional identification. People come to agree with Bush (or Kerry or anybody), and repeat his arguments, because they see him as one of them. That is, as far as I can tell, the way it works, our Cartesian rationalist hopes notwithstanding. Bush did a good job of it, and it really is worth understanding just what it is that he did.

I don't know about moral failings, but it sure is a prudential failing to refuse to connect with and understand the people one must convince if one hopes to make ideological and social progress. I wasn't saying agree, applaud, or affirm. Just muster enough sympathy, charity and abstract respect to enable minimal comprehension. Our opponents, on whatever side, are not hypnotized any more than we are. They think and act in a framework of value and identity different from, and in some ways better and worse than, ours. All I was saying was: we either get inside that framework and try to find points of leverage or our masters will rule us as they see fit, without the benefit of our wise counsel.