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Red States Tour Teaches Robert Reich That Politics Is Not About Ideology

Red States Tour Teaches Robert Reich That Politics Is Not About Ideology

What are we debating when we debate about politics? What is it that Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi disagree about? 

The proper size and scope of government? Left vs. Right? States rights? 


Robert Reich, Dartmouth grad and Clinton (I) Labor Secretary, found himself in Red America thanks to a book tour and learned that politics in America is not about ideology:

The more conversations I had, the more I understood the connection between their view of “crony capitalism” and their dislike of government.

They don’t oppose government per se. In fact, as the Pew Research Center has found, more Republicans favor additional spending on Social Security, Medicare, education, and infrastructure than want to cut those programs.

Rather, they see government as the vehicle for big corporations and Wall Street to exert their power in ways that hurt the little guy.  

What we have here are people on the political right expressing the economic policy preferences of people on the left. This data cannot be made to fit into the left-right spectrum model of politics. What to do? Call them "populists":

They call themselves Republicans but many of the inhabitants of America’s heartland are populists in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan.

I kept hearing “Trump is so rich he can’t be bought.”

Heartland Republicans and progressive Democrats remain wide apart on social and cultural issues. 

But there’s a growing overlap on economics. The populist upsurge is real.

When a scientist repeatedly makes an observation that does not fit his or her theory, that scientist works to devise a new theory that fits all the data. That's what should happen when political scientists observe people on the right with economics views that are from the left. 

I think the left-right spectrum model of politics never gets corrected because people don't realize they are using a model.

Instead, the metaphor of refracted light through a prism gets treated as an ordinary example of the physical metaphors that are rampant in plain English language. Political scientists who refer to "the left" and "the right" are just like you and me when we use sports based cliches to render abstractions such as creativity and success as visual pictures. Ideas "come from left field." When a consultant puts on a good power point show, "he hits it out of the park." 

[Indeed, you can follow the trail of visual metaphors in our language even deeper if you like. Look at the verb attached to the subject "consultant" above: "put on". Shows are "put on" the way books are "put on" a shelf. One could spend a lifetime studying the extent figurative language and how its use feeds back on us to affect our thoughts.]

But whether political scientists notice it or not, the left-right spectrum is a theory of politics that shapes our discourse. The theory predicts that between the left and the right, there is a center. Every use of the terms "middle", "center", or "moderate" is an example of the spectrum theory in action.

More importantly, as the data described by Robert Reich above makes clear, the left-right spectrum is an incorrect theory of how politics works in the United States. "Populism" is what political scientists call the data point that disproves their theory.

This is a fundamentally anti-science move. You can't just slap a label on confounding data and call it an exception.* True theories take all the data into account. Sure, you can make your goal usefulness and not "Truth". Newton's theory explains the orbits of the planets and all their satellites, with the exception of Mercury. But Mercury is one orbit out of 187 planets and moons. The exception is 0.5% of all orbits in our solar system. Meanwhile, only 17% of all Republicans want to decrease Social Security spending. The "exception" is 83% of the total! 

The exception doesn't prove the rule, THE "EXCEPTION" IS THE RULE!

Since it's a crap theory, we should not be surprised that its predictions are false. There is no "middle" or "centrist" position in every policy debate. There isn't a set of people who moderately believe in global warming. There isn't a set of people who moderately think that the working class should be poor and without health care when they are elderly. There is no center between: "women are fully human with full human rights" and "there is a class of 'people' whose rights always trump the rights of a woman."

The correct theory of politics: Interests and Identity.

The correct theory of politics notices that the country is unified with respect to ideology. We all believe in social democratic capitalism. 

A superior metaphor for politics is a tubing trip on a river. We lash our inner-tubes to the tubes of other members of our tribe, people who share our interests and our identity, people with whom we would happily share our beer. Which is why one of the tubes holds a trash-can cooler full of ice and beer. No one really keeps track of who bought the beer and who bought the ice. Everyone drinks according to their thirst. But the "communal" beer is only communally shared with the folks lashed into our raft. Other tube-rafts can get their own damn beer.

As the river gets rough we join forces with other tribes, forming coalitions that agree on the best route. But these large groupings are contingent on the state of the river, and are rearranged as circumstances warrant.

The Tubestock Model of Politics came to me as I wrote this post, out of left field, you might say. I like it. I like it a lot.

*Economists do this too, of course. "Market failure" is a term used to hide the fact that "ideal market theory" has no basis in reality.

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