Monday, July 11, 2005

To bundle, or not to bundle; that is the question.


Today I would like to both register a complaint and introduce a new concept. As you will see both of these things are closely related.

First, I would like to complain about partisan politics in the United States. Now don't get me wrong, when a political election is underway, you can bet that I'll be online researching positions, arguing with people at dinner parties, and doing everything else that is expected of me as a citizen in a political state. And although I am a Vermonter with a fierce strain of independence - In the late 80s and early 90s I can remember voting for a Democratic senator, a Republican senator, and a Socialist representative all on the same ballot - you'll probably realize after a short discussion that most of my beliefs conform to one particular party. So, I am all about partisan politics during an election. The thing I would like to complain about is the partisan politics that happen when elections are years away. And unfortunately, the United States seems to be more and more indulgent in this sort of thing as time goes on.

Part of the reason we are indulgent in partisan politics is President Bush. Although he was elected as a uniter and not a divider, I think it would be foolish for anyone - Republican or Democrat or whatever other party one is affiliated with - to hold that belief now. Whatever you think about Bush, the fact is that he was elected by two of the closest elections in history in terms of popular vote, and that he has become the figurehead for the polarization of American society - a role that Karl Rove has gone out of his way to nurture. The fact is that the United States is currently more polarized than it has ever been - a fact that has been further underscored by a number of articles in the NYTimes, including "One Nation Divisible" in the June 23rd edition. It seems that the causes of this division include the rise of permanent campaign, the rise of partisan news media, and differences in Congressional redistricting. Some signs of this increased polarization: most people now buy books only from authors they already agree with, more people are likely to only listen to news sources that are run by partisan organizations, if you go to online dating services you'll see people writing things like "Republicans need not apply," and I even have friends who can hardly manage to talk to a person once they discover they belong to the opposite political party.

Things like this have always been going on, but it definitely seems to be becoming far more common now. The latest controversy at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in which it was discovered that the chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, secretly hired someone to monitor the political leaning of programs that the corporation produced in order to eliminate "liberal bias," is just one of the more dramatic instances of this. Actually, the thing I find most disturbing about the CPB controversy, is the way that the debate has been constructed. That is, it is a discussion about products. It is presumed that the way to evaluate the neutrality of the corporation is to have an equal number of pro-conservative, and pro-liberal views, and that we can even generalize this to individual programs: a particular program produced by the CPB should not side with either side in the dispute, as Bill Moyer's "Now" is accused of doing. It is almost as if the facts in a dispute don't matter at all anymore. People assume a sort of neo-Humean perspective: there are facts, and there are political passions, and any instance of practical reasoning is more likely to happen on account of the passions than the facts. So, if you start with a conservative and a liberal position, it would seem that there is little reason either side should concede anything, since the ultimate root of decisions are the passions and not the facts. This is also the narrative structure that underlies programs like Crossfire: you have a clearly defined conservative and liberal position, you watch the two positions engage, and at the end of the day you don't expect anyone to be convinced to change their positions in any way - after all these positions are decided before the debate. It is true that one side might be seen to "win" the debate (although I've never watched a Crossfire debate in which I felt this had actually happened!), but even so it is never decisive. Such a narrative structure promises to be entertaining, and to reaffirm the audiences' own political leanings, but it offers no possibility of learning from the other side, and little possibility of personal intellectual development either from the audience or from the speakers.

It is in light of this lack of development, these exercises in the reaffirmation of partisan politics that I'd like to introduce a new concept: the concept of bundling. There is nothing especially novel about this concept, but nevertheless I think it is worth bringing it out explicitly. What do I mean by bundling? Well, let me give you an example from a non-political domain. Say you want to break the lease on your apartment, and you have a prospective tenant all lined up. Everything is fine, until you realize that you have to deal with that darn sofa. Man, that would be a real pain to move, and it's a piece of crap. So what do you do? You tell the new tenant that the sofa comes with the place, and if the tenant doesn't want the sofa, then by golly he won't get the apartment. Bundling is just a way of packaging two elements together so that it works out to your advantage. Software companies do this all the time.

Partisan politics depends on these sorts of bundles too. For instance, it is important for the Republican party to project the perspective that it is the pro-life party, that it will promise less government, less restrictions on the accumulation of wealth, a strong military, and that it is the only party for Christian fundamentalists. It is important for the Democratic party to project the perspective that it is the pro-choice party, that it will promise government assistance to the poor and the needy, that it will be the party that is willing to engage in peaceful negotiations with foreign countries rather than resort to violence, and that it is the only party for people who value basic American rights like the freedom of speech. But when either party endorses these perspectives, they are doing a bit of bundling, and to adopt the metaphor, are really trying to sell some folks some really bad sofas. Let's say that you're a pro-life individual who places great stock in the First Amendment. If you really want to place a vote that will have an influence in a particular election in our two-party system you have to decide whether to support the Republican or the Democratic candidate. If you support the Republican candidate, chances are that you will have to vote for someone who will vote against your own beliefs with regard to the First Amendment. If you vote for the Democratic candidate, chances are you will be endorsing pro-choice values. Either way, you will be electing a government that at least in part does not represent your political beliefs. I think that this is a lesson many people do not heed: a democracy can fail to accurately represent its people. Elizabeth Anscombe has a famous essay in which she shows that it is logically possible for every person's will to be thwarted in an election: to elect a government that no one agrees with, without any misrepresentation going on. Elections in reality may fall short of this absolute extreme, but it is still a possibility.

One of the most egregious attempts at bundling occurred in this past election, an election in which many religious leaders, most notably in the Catholic Church, decided to condemn any member of their congregation who voted for a pro-choice candidate in the elections. Some leaders refused to give the sacrament to anyone who espoused pro-choice views. I suppose this is even more striking given the fact that abortion is not even on the political radar of countries like Britain and Canada. It is true that in these countries many people may be staunchly against abortion, but most don't feel the need to force the law to conform to their individual beliefs. Why is this such an important question in the United States, so much so that some clergy members are willing to sacrifice everything else their church stands for in order to protect it? I speculate that part of the reason is that to a large extent, the issue doesn't really matter. In saying this I don't mean to trivialize people's beliefs on the issue. But the fact of the matter is that if you don't want to have an abortion, you don't have to have one. And the number of people who choose abortion is incredibly small in proportion to the population of the country. So, the fact is that a law against abortion would only directly effect a very small constituency. (I admit that indirectly this constituency is much larger, and that my whole indirect/direct distinction may well be specious.) Furthermore, abortion as it is defined in the United States is an eminently bundleable concept. You can connect it to almost any political or religious belief. You can be pro-choice and pro-business, you can be pro-life and pro-First Amendment, you can be pro-life and pro-war, you can be pro-choice and pro-religion. You can even be a Catholic and pro-choice, since it is possible to be pro-life but not think that the law is the best place to argue for such a moral position. Finally, abortion is an incredibly polarizing force, since people tend to argue vehemently for their beliefs. This means that you can get rid of almost any sofa that you want. You want to get an unorthodox judge with a horrible record into office? Well, if you are in a pro-life district, and the other side puts up a pro-choice candidate, you can basically sit back and relax, all the judge's problems will probably be ignored. I only hope that our new Pope understands this and doesn't pressure Catholics to only vote for Pro-Life candidates, as some priests in the United States have been encouraging him to do. The perhaps unfortunate expression of "throwing out the baby out with the bathwater" might apply here. And, no, the bath water doesn't stand for the fetus, it stands for a legal precept that half of a country will disagree with.

But I suppose I've been going off on a tangent here. To get back to the bundling concept, I think it is very important to recognize the fact that partisan politics does force a lot of people to vote against their own beliefs, and that a lot of what makes one candidate successful is just the result of successful bundling techniques. I only wish there were more self-reflection of the bundling that's going on. But, I suppose in a way bundling is inevitable. There is almost a tautology going on here. I mean, any issue that is agreed upon by both parties is probably no longer a political issue: it will probably become law. To a large extent political issues are only those issues that political parties disagree about. And since there are mainly two parties in the United States, the issue would almost have to be divided between them to be a political issue. But the problem is that there are irrational elements afoot here: a need to group people in ways that don't accurately reflect their beliefs. And it is bundling that gives minority groups like the Christian Right such sway in American Politics today.

A few paragraphs ago I said that there was something almost neo-Humean about what I take to be the default position on political reasoning in the United States. This is a little inexact, since presumably Humean passions are far more basic than any drives we might have towards one party of the other. But both the Humean perspective, and what I take to be the default position have a lot of parallels. And the discussion of bundling above, seems to help in part explain why this might be the case. If it is the case that people often have to vote against their rational beliefs, there is something quite irrational about political decisions in the U.S. And this irrationality seems compounded by a number of additional features of the political landscape. One would be party affiliation. Some people decide what party they will support, not on the basis of their own reflective positions of political issues, but by their family traditions. They vote Republican, because their family has always voted Republican. Or, they became involved in a political party when its platform was quite different, and feel obliged to stick with their party even when the platform changes. (James Jeffords recent move from the Republican Party to an Independent political position is the exception that proves the rule here - he changed parties when his party changed, and was considered a traitor for doing so.) And even deeper, I wonder if the United States' Protestant roots somehow further exacerbate the irrational element in politics. After all, in the Christian church there is often a great deal of emphasis on faith. Although there are many positive outcomes of the doctrine of faith, it does sometimes encourage a sort of irrational decision-making process. That is, you might think that it is good to believe in doctrine A - it agrees with most of your beliefs, and is a logical corollary of them - but your church says you should believe in doctrine B, and since you accept the church as an authority in your life, you decide to support B as a matter of faith. Yes, I'm simplifying here, but faith-based reasoning in this way does move us closer to the neo-Humean facts-don't-matter sort of stance. I tend to have an aversion to this since, I do think facts matter.

To return to the CPB, given the irrational elements in American politics, why should we expect a news organization to end up siding equally with the Republican and the Democrat parties on political issues? Why should we presume that this is somehow the "natural division" of the issues? Really, if it is bias that we are out to stop, the place to fix this bias is in the process by which television shows are produced, not in the content of the actual shows. If it were the case that whenever the CPB received applications to produce two programs, each promising equal quality of research, each with equally coherent argumentative structures, the CPB always chose the one that agrees with Democratic Party beliefs, and failed to produce the other, we'd have grounds for the charge of bias. Although perhaps even this wouldn't be definitive evidence. Given the the Republican Party is the G.O.P. I would even expect public radio and television to side more often against the Republican Party. Why? Well, I'm a firm believer that part of the role of the media is to challenge the beliefs that are held by society, to wake society up from its complacency. If this is part of the purpose, then it would make far more sense for the media to challenge the dominant political party - the one that has control of the House, the Senate, the Executive branch, and that picked 7 out of the 9 Supreme Court justices in the U.S. - than a minority party. I hope the same would happen if the Democratic Party had similar power.

But here I'm bundling.

Well, my apologies if I've gone on a bit long here, and if in the end of the day perhaps my complaint can't be solved, and my new concept may seem useless. But I'd be very happy if there was a greater consciousness of the way that bundling works in the U.S., and that it could somehow be introduced more explicitly into the political dialogue here. In contrast to my last post, in which I argued that sometimes it is possible to be too philosophical, in contexts such as the structure of political decision-making in the United States, I really wish people endeavored to be a little more philosophical from time to time.

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