Nov 6, 2008

The Tyranny of the Spineless and the Ignorant

Barack Obama is now the President-elect. The question is why? Well, of course, we all know why he got elected--he got the most electoral college votes. But, why did he get the most electoral college votes? I want to suggest that he won because Americans live under a form of tyranny. It's a tyranny that has actually been dominating the political scene for many years. It is the tyranny of the spineless and the ignorant. Let me explain.

In the past, tyranny has been that of the evil monarch or the elite oligarchy. When the American Republic was established, the founders built into our system of government some safeguards to avoid a form of tyranny peculiar to democracies, namely, the tyranny of the majority. All citizens were recognized to have "certain unalienable rights," thus guaranteeing that every individual and every minority would have their most basic liberties protected against a potentially tyrannical majority. But, now we face a new and frustrating form of tyranny for which there may be no easy cure. It is the tyranny imposed by two groups of people in our society, two groups that probably overlap significantly (i.e., it's mostly one group with two characteristics). These groups are, as I have suggested, the spineless and the ignorant.

It is common knowledge that about 40% of Americans are more or less liberal in their political views. It is also the case that about 40-45% are conservative. But that means that about 15-20% of Americans are committed to neither liberal nor conservative principles. This small minority in the middle of the American political spectrum--often referred to as moderates or independents--actually control the outcome of national elections. These so-called "moderates", in my humble opinion, are spineless. That is, they have no political backbone. They are not committed to, nor do they stand for, any significant moral or political principles. The spineless middle ground folks vote on the basis of pure self-interest; they vote their "pocket books." They are the ones who constantly remind us, "It's the economy stupid." For them, economics is the only thing that really matters. They do not or cannot see beyond themselves and their small personal world. They do not live for anything bigger than themselves.

I strongly disagree with liberals politically, but at least I can respect that they, like conservatives, have principles that they beleive in and are willing to stand for; principles that reflect values bigger than themselves. But, here's the problem that both liberals and conservatives face: neither side can win national elections without the help of the spineless. Which means that both sides find themselves having to compromise, weaken, or downplay their most cherished principles in order to gain the support of the spineless. The recent presidential campaigns show ample evidence of this. Consider the fact that Republicans felt the need to nominate John McCain, widely recognized as no friend of true conservatives, in order to reach out and gain the support of the spineless. And, of course, McCain's campaign was largely aimed at garnering their support.

Obama did not escape the tyranny of the spineless either. I'm convinced that he is a true blue liberal. His record shows him to be the MOST liberal senator, and if he truly had his way, he would turn this into a near-socialist state. In his primary campaign, he presented himself as he actually is, a liberal. This of course was the appropriate strategy for getting the liberal base behind him. But, after he got the DNC nomination, he presented himself as a moderate. Why? Because he had to win the support of the spineless. He won the election b/c his appeal to the spineless was more convincing to them than McCain's.

Many of the new tyrants also suffer from the malady of ignorance, and they are joined by a large number of others from both sides of the political spectrum who suffer from this malady as well. Howard Stern's man-on-the-street interviews a few weeks ago proved that a lot of African-Americans were horribly ignorant of the moral, political, and ecomomic issues facing our country. They voted for Obama solely because he is black. Many other Americans of of various ethnic backgrounds are likewise ignorant and voted for him because they liked the way he looked and talked--style over substance. No doubt at least a few voted for McCain simply because of subjective impressions of his personality and style and not because of his policies. These, the ignorant, are also tyrants with whom we have to do.

So, what can we do to throw off the yoke of these tyrants and allow elections to be won and the nation governed by principle rather than a catering to this worthless minority of Americans who have no vision or concern for the common good? I have no idea how to accomplish it, but it seems to me that the following things have to happen:
1. We need a complete overhaul of how national elections are conducted so as to make it possible for a candidate to win with only 34-40% of the popular vote. This probably means constructing some way to allow for real, meaningful 3-party elections in which all three candidates have a reasonable chance of winning. I'm not sure how such a thing could be done, but I'm thinking about it.

2. We need to require that in order to be eligible to vote a person has to have some modicum of familiarity with the issues of the day. A legal vote must be an informed vote. It is no secret to political philosophers that a great weakness in democracy is the ever-present danger of the nation being ruled by ignoramuses. We'll that danger is not a danger anymore--it is a reality. And we need some way to alter this reality. An educational requirement of some sort may sound elitist to many ears, but I think it is a necessity if we truly care about the common good.


Alex Marshall said...

So some thoughts from a "moderate" who hopes he is not spineless...

I don't think the problem with our political system lies so much with the "tyranny of the spineless" as with the structure of the political system itself. The inevitable problem with democracy, especially in a modern age, is that people cannot possibly follow everything that goes on in the government. Thus, they have to rely on third-party influences to help them make their decision. So certainly the media plays a role in that, but so do special interest groups that spread messages about candidates and issues. Both of these have created, in my mind, a "tyranny of the manipulative." In other words, he who can best manipulate the people wins.

Here's part of the problem- not everyone in the "conservative" or "liberal" camps really has solid political principles. Not even all of those who will list off some "positions" on issues really understand them. A huge percentage of these people have been filtered information so as to take a particular stance. As one example, I have a huge frustration with "Christian conservatives" who (correctly) take a conservative stance on abortion, but then assume that this means the conservative party is correct on every other issue. I've met many a Christian who adamantly supports the war, for instance, but doesn't understand any of what has happened in Iraq. They just assume that since Bush is pro-life his war must be a justified one. This is based, sadly enough, on the information they are fed through a number of Christian leaders who buy everything the White House says because Bush is pro-life. The same kind of thing, no doubt, happens on the other side.

So instead of honest dialogue, our political process seems to have devolved into a process of manipulating the populace through placing "spin" on information. As such, I don't think its just the moderates who are being bought out by particular issues (and not all moderates are motivated solely by their pocketbooks), its the whole country. And, while the country is being manipulated, it becomes blind to a good bit of what actually goes on.

For instance, a lot of what I thought about prior to the election is that most people do not realize that the conservative Bush administration has already moved this country decisively toward socialism with the Bail-out package. The government, under this measure, effectively controls the financial markets, which means they control everything in the economy. And while Obama probably wouldn't complain about that, you certainly didn't hear McCain saying anything about Bush being a socialist during the campaign either.

Anonymous said...

Dr. C
Here is a thought from another spineless tyrant
(Daniel Robertson):
What worries me the most is, how would you formulate a "test" to make sure people have basic knowledge of the issues? Who makes this test? What does it consist of? Couldn't a test like that become another form of tyranny where low income people who don't have access to quality education are basically NOT allowed to vote?!?!? That sounds more like a dictatorship than a democracy. Besides, how would a test like this one not be biased?
Your student and spineless tyrant,

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

I agree with a lot of what you have said, Alex, in response to my original post. There is a great deal of "spin" and manipulation that goes on in government and in the media. And not everyone in either political party "has solid poltical principle"--or perhaps it would be better to say that they don't all have solid MORAL principles.

But, I submit that the attempts at spin and manupulation that occur from the government and media are due in large measure (not complete measure, but large measure) because there exists the "spineless" and "ignornant" class that I refered to in the original post. It is mostly those who have no political principles and little or no critical thinking skills and/or knowledge of the social and political issues that are most susceptible to manipulation. In fact, if you are right, I think you actually prove my point (to a degree)--the fact that you can recognize that people ARE being manipulated, is good evidence that those who know the issues and have some political and moral principles to guide them (rather than the polls and their self-interest) cannot be easily manipulated by propaganda and hype.

Also, as a secondary note, even though I have my own concerns with the Chrsitian right, I don't think that "lock-stepping" with the Bush Adminstration is one of them. I agree that the Bush Admin has made some big mistakes in the Iraq War and that the economic bailout is a huge mistake, as was Bush's immigration policy fiasco last year. And guess what? Many Christian conservatives have been very critical of all of these things. It is possible for Christians to support Bush where he's right and critique him where he's wrong--and Christian conservatives have done both.

BTW, I luv the tux!

Dr. Steve Cowan said...

Daniel raises some legitimate concerns when he asks who would be responsible for writing the political literacy test that I suggested for voters. Let me be the first to say that I share those concerns. Yet, my concerns about the abuse of such a test are far outweighed by my concerns with the "tyrrany of the spineless and ignorant."

Also, the test I had in mind would not require a college education. It might simply involve a stronger requirement in high school for lessons in civics and political philosophy, along with an occasional questionairre to make sure voters can identify the vice-president and the secretary of state in a line-up, and have some familiarity with the major political and social issues of the day. I really don't think that any such test would be above the kin of any citizen who cares enough about his country to learn such things. And any citizen who doesn't care enough to know such things shouldn't be allowed to vote. Why should someone who has no idea who John McCain's running mate was or that Obama is pro-choice be allowed to make decisions that are going to dramatically affect the lives of 340 million of his fellow citizens?