Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fooled Again?

When I was a university student in the early 1970s, some songs were ubiquitous. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” comes to mind. Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” is another.

One song that really seemed to be an anthem, as it blared out of everyone’s dorm room was The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The song captured the excitement of revolution and protest which saturated the air in those days. Those of us coming of age understood it to be about our generation and our determination not to be taken in by politicians like Richard Nixon. “Change it had to come / We knew it all along,” sang Roger Daltrey. But if you listened carefully, the lyrics were actually quite cynical and, in fact, mocking of those of us listening to it and getting excited by it.

“But the world looks just the same / And history ain’t changed / ’Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war,” continued Pete Townshend’s words. Later the words address the listener directly: “I’ll get all my papers and smile at the sky / For I know that the hypnotized never lie / Do ya?” Finally, it concludes, “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”

You might think you are breaking free of hide-bound tradition, Townsend seems to be telling us, but so did your parents and at best, in the end, you are merely ushering in a new orthodoxy that isn’t really better, just different. And maybe it’s not even that different.

A couple of trivia notes: The song was the last one performed by the original members of The Who (before drummer Keith Moon’s untimely death). Interestingly, Townshend declined to give filmmaker Michael Moore permission to use it over the closing credits of his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

To me, the song evokes feelings of being played for a fool by politicians at the national level. Sometimes this takes the form of distracting voters from the most important issues by focusing on issues that aren’t going to be settled at the national level but which get lots of people, on both sides, emotionally involved and excited.

These issues, which are commonly referred to as “hot button” issues, include ones like abortion, gun control and gay marriage. These are ideal for rallying the parties’ respective bases because people on both sides feel so passionately. People who think abortion is murder don’t think of it as a side issue, just as people who think same sex marriage is a civil right don’t see that as a minor issue. But the reality is that these issues tend to get settled from the bottom up. The politicians follow the voters rather than the other way around. An opinion poll on voters’ views on these issues in a particular district or state will reliably predict the stands the political representatives take. A perfect example of this is the president. When he ran for office in liberal Hyde Park in Chicago, he went on record supporting same sex marriage. When he ran for the U.S. Senate from Illinois, he went on record as against it. Now, as president and with the country close to half in favor of same sex marriage, he is in favor of it again.

As popular opinion evolves, so do the political parties’ de facto positions. Democrats made significant gains in 2006 and 2008, in part, by running candidates who supported gun rights in Republican-leaning jurisdictions. So it’s probably not a coincidence that, nationally, there has been more focus on “stand your ground” laws, as highlighted by the Trayvon Martin case, than on gun ownership restrictions. The abortion issue has also had an interesting evolution. While only a quarter of the population supports banning abortion under all circumstances, the percentage opposed to abortion in general has grown and is north of 50 percent. Again, Democrats have adjusted their position accordingly. They have pushed the national dialog to contraception rights (actually, contraception subsidies).

Similarly, you can see opposition to gay marriage (civil unions are nearly not even an issue any more) weakening in both parties (clearly, faster among Democrats than Republicans) as attitudes change in general society. But the passions on both sides tend to obscure the fact that polling shows that most people don’t actually consider this to be among the country’s most urgent issues.

The point of all this is that, if you feel strongly about any of these social issues, you are better off lobbying your friends and neighbors than politicians. And, if you do want to get politically involved, you are better off working at the local and state level. People who, in presidential elections, decide to be single-issue voters are missing the boat. The economy has been bad for four years now, but it stands to become a lot worse without strong positive leadership. Any other issue you may care about will not seem nearly so important if that happens.

I remember asking a friend, whose opinion I very much respected, at the end of the Clinton administration what she considered Clinton’s most important accomplishments. Strangely, she couldn’t think of any particular one and ended up saying simply that she liked having a president who shared her values. (She should have cited the strong economy, but I guess that was just taken for granted in those days.) It is natural to want our leaders to think and feel as we do. But the fact is that, if we elect somebody who is not equipped or willing to deal with the economy simply because we like his positions on other issues that we personally find important (but on which he really isn’t going to make much difference beyond moral support), then those other issues are probably only going to get exacerbated by a failing economy.

Voting solely on hot button social issues is one trap, but another is assuming that, if we feel strongly that a candidate is right when it comes to an issue we feel passionately about, then he must be very smart and must therefore be right on all other issues as well. That makes no logical sense. The better candidate may not be the one that personally appeals to you the most. Sometimes the person you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time with is the best one for the job. That’s not a great campaign slogan, but it is true.

Candidates pay consultants big bucks to suss out which demographic groups they can manipulate with which side issues, and the reason they pay big bucks is that it works. And, as long as it works, the old Who song will continue to be true: we’ll just keep getting fooled again.

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