Shared Experience. For all their gross inanity, presidential elections in the United States of America are enthralling shared experiences, like sporting events or rock concerts. The collective mind buzzes and reacts as a single thinking unit, bitterly torn but phenomenologically connected, lurching back and forth in fits and shocks and waves.
Authentic shared experiences don't happen very often -- though perhaps the most important shared experiences we go through involve terrible crises like the South Asian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake and tsunami last year in Japan, or the flood following Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last week. These frightening events help to remind us not to get so caught up in the whitewashed dumbshow of presidential elections that we forget to also care about issues like global climate change -- issues that fail to get mentioned in elections, because they aren't part of either party's poll-tested path to victory. Years from now, we may look back and remember that those were the most important issues of all.
Dishonesty As Hammer The shared experience of a presidential election has more intellectual substance than many other kinds of shared experience, even though by the end of an election season (the current one, a long and crazy one, will finally be over on Tuesday) our intellects may feel numb and battered by the constant assaults against truthfulness and honesty.
Even a relatively straightforward candidate like Barack Obama pushes the limits of credulity often during debates or campaign speeches, though Obama's single worst campaign moment was the first debate with Mitt Romney, in which he was caught not lying but dozing, playing it safe, appearing aloof.
This first debate was considered Romney's best moment, although he was caught openly lying and contradicting his past positions during the debate. So why did he win? Because he showed more vigor, more conviction, more energy. It seems that voters don't really mind a certain amount of dishonesty in a presidential candidate. It may even be the case that voters like to see a politician who can lie well.
Nobody should feel smug while pointing this out, because it's probably an impulse that transcends party or ideology. A person who cannot lie effectively would be a weak negotiator, and voters want to elect strong candidates, candidates with the strength and protean craftiness to bend truth itself. This must be the subconscious logic behind the fact that we accept dishonesty in our presidential candidates, as long as they have the panache to pull their lies off well.
Fortunately, though, this is a self-correcting flaw in our human nature, because it is exceedingly difficult to lie well, especially when being challenged by an opponent who has the right to point out the lies. The substance of many of our campaign debates and arguments has involved accusations of dishonesty, and Mitt Romney has shown himself to be an inept liar, and an even more inept truth-teller.
This may not point to a problem with Romney's character itself (he was probably a very good liar during his long career with Bain Capital) but with what he swallowed half a year ago, during the rabid Republican primary season. Romney put two separate poison pills into his belly. First, he committed to represent his own background of high capitalism: the pro-wealth large-corporate agenda of Wall Street, the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and Donald Trump. But he has also tried to project a sense of common ground with the Tea Party's culturally rooted, economically simplistic social conservatism, and has looked phony every time he tried to connect with voters on this level. The combination of these two poison pills gave him a quick case of moral indigestion, and his entire campaign since the Republican primaries has been an elongated ugly burp of incomprehensible political philosophy. He can't seem to state a single position -- on abortion, on healthcare, on foreign policy, on taxation, on anything -- without contradicting himself and alienating half of his support base.
This has often made Romney look weak when he needed to look strong. At one point during the third presidential debate, Romney told Obama that his foreign policy if he were elected President would emphasize "backbone". Obama let it slide, but I wanted Obama to throw the word back in Romney's face: "Backbone? You? You can't even stand up to the Republican party!"
It would have been a great line -- though, admittedly, Obama did fine in the third debate without my advice, and he seems to be on the path to winning the 2012 election. Mitt Romney will have learned a hard lesson about truthfulness by the time he disappears from public view on November 7. Here's the lesson: dishonesty can be an effective hammer, but the hammer can also swing back and smack you in the face. Mohandas Gandhi once spoke of satyagraha, or Truth-Force. Truth-force seems to have its own deep source of power, and it is summoned when the lies in the air get too thick. Truth-force gave poor Mitt Romney a real beating during this painful campaign season.
Invoking William James It's not only candidates who lie. Their entire campaigns lie, and their supporters harmonize with the lies, often speaking together with a single loud voice. One of the big stories during the final two weeks of the campaign has been the Romney camp's accusation that the New York Times polling guru Nate Silver is cooking the books to make a Barack Obama victory sound like a sure thing, to discourage and depress Romney voters who might otherwise provide a last minute surge.
What we see here, yet again, is the understanding that truth is a dynamic thing, a thing with force. If Mitt Romney is perceived as losing, it will make him more likely to lose; if he is perceived as having last-minute momentum, it could actually create enough last-minute momentum to carry him to victory.
Poor truth, to be battered around like this! Some have used the word "pragmatism" or invoked the name of Wiliam James, champion of the philosophy of Pragmatism, to describe the Idea that human concepts of truth are always grounded in willfulness. The invocation of Jamesian Pragmatism is appropriate in this context, but we must be careful not to misunderstand this to the point where we think that William James would have approved of dishonesty in political campaigns. The opposite is true.
William James was a psychologist and philosopher who urged us to understand the willful mechanics of truth and belief. That does not mean that he endorsed dishonesty as a technique; rather, by urging us to understand the fact that truth is a thing with force, he was helping us to protect ourselves from the use of falsehood as a practical tool. And, just in case anybody is wondering who the great William James would have been likely to vote for in 2012, it's worth pointing out that he was a dedicated liberal, a compassionate economic progressive and an outspoken pacifist. William James campaigned hard, for instance, against Teddy Roosevelt's military aggression during the Spanish-American War.
During the current campaign, Mitt Romney has certainly shown himself aware of the willfulness of belief-- to a creepy degree. But it's a pretty safe bet that the author of The Will to Believe would not have voted for him.
And Then There's Paul Ryan. I don't think we'll see much of Mitt Romney after he skunks away on November 7. (I don't think he'll even get invited to the GOP convention in 2016, just as Bush and Cheney and Sarah Palin didn't get invited in 2012). However, we will be seeing plenty more of Paul Ryan, since he is already one of the front-runners for the next Republican presidential nomination. This guarantees, if nothing else, that I will be kept busy for at least the next four years covering his favorite philosopher, that name that won't go away ...
And Then There's Ayn Rand. I'm going to take a deep breath and avoid writing anything more about Ayn Rand today. But, here's a pretty funny comedy bit I recently spotted on Vol. 1 Brooklyn. This comedy act doesn't get Ayn Rand fully right -- for instance, Ayn Rand would have never insulted New York City, her favorite place in the world -- but the actress wears the right hat and does a great impersonation, and there are several funny bits. After this insane election season, we all need a laugh.
Voting for Obama, or against Romney? I recently asked a conservative family member if she was voting against Barack Obama or Mitt Romney (he answer was "both"). For me, well, I like Barack Obama very much (I've made no secret of this), but I have to say that my feeling of disgust for Mitt Romney is even greater than my affection for Barack Obama. I would probably vote for Obama against any possible Republican opponent ... but on Tuesday I will be voting against Mitt Romney from the deepest depths of my soul. This candidate has been an insult to my country, and his campaign has been an embarrassment. He really stunk up the joint. I can't wait to see him go away. On election day 2008, I tweeted that John McCain shouldn't let the door hit him in the ass. In 2012, I hope the door does hit Mitt Romney in the ass.
But, I don't want my hatred of what Mitt Romney stands for to obscure my approval of Barack Obama, who I see as a sensible, imperfect and moderate standard-bearer for mainstream American liberal political philosophy. Here are a few things I like most about Obama: his healthcare reform bill, which I have always considered vitally important; his excellent Supreme Court picks; his support for a woman's right to choose; his calming approach to foreign policy and his refusal to say stupid things about bombing Iran; his support for gay marriage; his conviction that the wealthiest Americans should pay more taxes to pay off the deficit that they helped to create. I wish he would stop using drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I wish he would spend more time thinking about climate change and ecology, and I wish he would stand up more for legalization of marijuana, workers rights, funding of public transportation. Overall, I think Barack Obama has done a superb job in his first four years. His demeanor has been a personal inspiration to me.
Optimism, aka Hope. I went out on a limb way back in July and declared on Twitter that Mitt Romney cannot possibly win this election. This was before the selection of Paul Ryan, before the party conventions, and way before the debates, but I felt sure even then that Mitt Romney was not made of presidential timber, and could not possibly win.
My remark in July was based mainly on the way Romney was bumbling the controversies over his activities at Bain Capital and his unreleased tax returns, which was clearly causing the entire press corps (liberal and conservative) to lose respect for him as a candidate. It's hard to win an election when even journalists sympathetic to your political positions don't respect you. I saw this as an insurmountable hurdle for Mitt Romney, and today I still see it the same way.
A few friends on Twitter chided me for calling the election so early, urging me to remember that Obama could still lose. Today, two days before the election, this fact remains chillingly true. Romney could still win.
But, I've said it before here, and I'll say it again: I am an optimist, and the fact that I'm an optimist has always been central to my political philosophy. The word "hope" sometimes gets mocked by critics of Obama, but I'm not ashamed to be feeling lots of hope right now. William James also wrote often of the clinical value of optimism, and this is yet another reason to declare that the historic American Pragmatist vote would go, if it could, to Barack Obama in 2012.
But, anyway ... yes, I am out on a limb with my optimism. If this limb falls and Mitt Romney somehow gets elected, you will see a very different tone of voice on this blog Wednesday morning.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: When Cognitive Bias Gets Scary. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Nanny State and the Nanny Job.