Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: Notes on an Insane Election Season

By Levi Asher on Thursday, November 1, 2012 08:13 pm

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ...

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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.

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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.


4 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Notes on an Insane Election Season"

by WIREMAN on

This is a lot to digest Levi. Initially I am hurrah! Hurrah for Americans, for voting for the best "MAN" which Obama clearly is. My feedback about the candidates on the construction side, many of my contacts are union members and they are overwhelmingly for Romney....that scares the shit out of me because these folks are the ones who will take the biggest shot if Romney were elected. I have my fingers crossed Levi. Last election I had little doubt that Obama would win. This time around I'm praying.......

by TKG on

Don't forget -- change clocks today, change President Tuesday.

God Bless America and God Bless Literary Kicks!

by mtmynd1 on

Well done, as usual, Levi.

I enjoyed the Truth comments as that is something that I've personally been harping about for quite some time. It seems to me when we speak of 'truth' nowadays, it invokes a certain naivete which in turn raises eyebrows of the reader/listener as if speaking of truth is akin to speaking about god... "what do you know about truth?" I fear wisdom is a relic from the past when truth and honesty prevailed. Do our institutions of learning in any way any more speak of values that strengthen the individual?

When I hear the constant barrage of lies and intentional distortions aimed at our President, I have to pause and shake my head in disbelief. Why would anyone intentionally lie about the President of the United States? Is there any sense of honor left in our country? (recall that outburst in Congress when President Obama was giving a State of the Union speech -"Liar!") Especially one who has been reasonably open and honest with the people he serves. Are these liars doing it knowingly or do they really not believe what they are saying is a lie?

Therein is a great enigma - how does one come to believe and vigorously uphold what they believe to be true? How does one prove or even satisfactorily explain the great word 'love'? How do we explain to the skeptic that we love when the skeptic seriously believes there is no such thing as love, that it cannot be proven? Why does half our voting public willfully choose Mitt Romney over Barack Obama - a man that I not only believe but trust to guide our country thru the most unstable times of our lives? Why does half the voting public opt for a Mitt Romney to run the country when it has been obvious for months on end that the man is a flip-flopper from the word go... a man who will say anything to anyone to assure getting their vote? The same man who bet $10 thousand dollars against Rick Perry even though Romney's own religion bans betting in all forms? This is an endless argument (even with ourselves), that we may very possibly be entertaining for years. Why does half our country prefer a liar and deceiver over an honest, truthful man?

These final few days I've come to the conclusion that no matter which man is chosen to lead the country, half the country will be either terribly disappointed or even fearful of the outcome to the point that we may very well see some extreme, irrational behavior from the losing side... if we already have not seen enough for the past four years aimed at Barack Obama. The Great Divide within our country may very well become the Great Abyss that we will be unable to pull back together.

Tuesday night or Wednesday morning may answer that and I'm sure, as most of us are, that the joy and happiness the majority of our country expressed 4 years ago will be but a memory in our history. I for one will be extremely disappointed if M.R. wins the race... just as half the country will feel if B.O becomes the President for a second term.

Will there be a true winner? Who among of us could be thrilled at the further divide we have already experienced..?

[I will privately be extraordinarily relieved by the re-election of President Obama]

by Steve Plonk on

About the only place Romney & Ryan's lead balloon would float solidly
is the Great Salt Lake...The Frick & Frack campaign dropped off like
a used lead condom & hit the ground with a thud. Hey, if Romney is
lucky, the Mormons will take him back as bishop. Maybe he'll become
"Prophet". Then Romney'll have to wear cast iron underwear.

Yeah, Romney got the bird alright. The only states he won this year that
McCain didn't win was Indiana & North Carolina. Florida is going for Obama, too.
Obama carried 50.3% of the national popular vote in the end.

Romney & his chuckle-headed running mate, Ryan,lost because they were too white. No one wanted to be "Ayn Randed"...The left hand is the best hand anywho.

The other reason they lost is because they ignored 47% of the working public & tried to talk down to latinos. Their "plane" metaphorically resembled a crop duster. They were putzing around the country frantically running a comedy routine in the jet age. No one believes that old fifties line about no new taxes anymore.

They were out-gunned, out dated & skated on thin ice like a couple of guys
in funny hats the whole fricking time. However, in spite of it all, they were
good sports when they lost. They lost twice in Ohio because they offended
auto workers, union workers & teachers. In Florida, they offended military retirees & elderly pensioners by proposing to steal medicare & social security with vouchers backed up with hyperbole & the stock market.

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