Anyone who’s read this site more than, say, a day, knows that I’m interested in politics. Sometimes obsessed with politics. But lately I’m beginning to think that it’s a big waste of time. My problem is that I oftentimes think that people are like me. I used to be really conservative — I came from a small town in Texas, grew up in a Republican family, and was a big fan of Pat Buchanan. His column was in the local paper and he seemed a lot saner back then. (Although I do remember being in high school and reading a Buchanan column arguing that cuts in the capital gains tax were good for everybody and thinking that he was using some tortured logic.) Anyway, I went to college in a big city, was exposed to more different kinds of people, and my political views gradually changed.
When I was a student I had a coworker who was a harcore liberal and who aggressively challenged every tenet of my conservative dogma. I argued with him at the time, but I also went home and thought about it. I remember him specifically introducing the term “institutionalized poverty,” which kind of threw me for a loop, being that back then I thought that poor people were poor because they were lazy and undisciplined. The irony, of course, was that I was lazy and undisciplined myself, and yet not poor.
A few years later, I can remember one day talking to someone who was a Democrat and a Clinton supporter, and doing my usual bash Clinton thing, saying something stupid about tax and spend liberals, I think. Anyway, he happened to have a magazine that showed that the federal budget deficit had been halved since Clinton became President (this was 1995). “What,” I thought, “Perhaps I know less than I imagined.” Around this time I started listening to Democracy Now on the radio, I read Manufacturing Consent, and generally becoming a sort of raving liberal. I’ve since moved back to a more centrist philosophy, mainly because much of my idealism has been beaten out of me.
Anyway, like I said, I tend to see other people as being like me. That is to say, willing to have their opinions challenged and to do their best to evaluate those challenges honestly. I’m becoming increasingly convinced, though, that few people really do have the capacity for change, mainly because they are not willing to challenge their own assumptions. To be honest, I can usually tell within 5 minutes of talking to someone about any topic whether they’re liberal or conservative. And I think that’s true for most people as well. Furthermore, most people don’t have a political philosophy at all, just a general world view that they sort of shove politics into. So I begin to despair of the idea of changing anyone’s mind.
The biggest problem is that cognitive dissonance is a massive filter that transforms any fact that worms its way into our brains. People who like Bush and hate Kerry are inclined to believe the swiftvets, people who are Kerry partisans are inclined to think they’re liars. Lots of electrons have been wasted criticizing the media for not addressing the basic truth of the claims of the swiftvets, but does the truth really matter all that much? I’d like to say yes, but I don’t think so any more. I thought for sure that having been confronted with his own lies, John O’Neill would slink back into the cesspool from which he emerged, but there he was on Bill Maher Friday night, telling the same lies that he’s been telling all along, without a hint of shame. People like me will get mad and leave the room, and people on the other side will lap those lies up just as they always have.
So I can see why people who are real political insiders seem to become less interested in some objective measure of the truth and more interested in gaining tactical advantages over time. Every number is presented without context, or with false context, to push forward some position. Every quotation is massaged to fit the narrative that interests them. Newspapers report every political story in terms of how it affects the ongoing ideological battle rather than on how the actual news affects the readers. And people who seek the truth anguish.