Sunday, April 11, 2010

Are political opponents evil people?

Listening to conservative talk radio lately, there's an ongoing theme with certain callers about how Obama is handling economic issues. The concept is the following:

"Obama is making decisions that will hurt the economy and give the government more power. Obama is also a smart guy, so he can't be doing this out of ignorance. Therefore, he is purposely ruining the country to make himself a dictator."

Good grief, and usually the host agrees with them.

This has become the norm in the hostile political climate today. People don't seem to understand that the other side could have a reasonable position. As Penn Jillette said in 2008 on the same subject, there are Democrats who believe:

"If you boil it all down, that Bush and McCain and Palin agree with the Democrats 100 percent on everything, and are then doing the opposite. They do not believe there is a disagreement. They do not believe that Bush is a person trying to do the best he can do, who is wrong."
I recently wrote about people assuming that the other side disagrees with them because they are all stupid. This is the opposite of that view. Instead, this group thinks that no one could possibly disagree with their political views, and any intellectual disagreement is a mask to justify malicious intent.

For example, I spent the first 25 years of my life only hearing anti-sweatshop arguments, with no idea there was another side to the issue. It was presented as a simple good versus evil story: There are poor people in other countries who work awful jobs for little pay just to save greedy corporations labor costs. No one talked about how these factories do more good for individual poor people than foreign aid.

Since I've learned more about the issue, I've found everyone I've talked to about it has had one of two responses: They are either completely - although uncomfortably - converted to the pro-sweatshop side, or they plug their ears and say it's all a big lie to justify corporate profits. I've never heard someone say they just don't find the evidence compelling for the trade-offs.

By making complex issues into simplistic good-versus-evil struggles, we degrade political discussion. As Greg Mankiw wrote on the health care debate:

"One thing I have been struck by in watching this debate is how strident it has been, among both proponents and opponents of the legislation. As a weak-willed eclectic, I can see arguments on both sides. Life is full of tradeoffs, and so most issues strike me as involving shades of gray rather than being black and white. As a result, I find it hard to envision the people I disagree with as demons."
Right now, a google search for the word "capitalism" brings up 19,900,000 hits. To get a sense of the flavor of the discussion, 7,500,000 of them - more than a third - also contain the word "Hitler."

Obama is making his presidential decisions with good intentions, not evil ones. I imagine if I was thrust into his office there would be some compromises I would have to make that are invisible to me right now. I have no reason to believe that he is motivated by anything other than running the country the best way he knows how. I can say he's wrong, but that's as far as I'm willing to go.

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