So, it’s that old presidential election season again. And boy is it in full swing right now. Mitt Romney pounded out President Obama in the first debate; Obama outmaneuvered Romney in the second debate; the polls have tightened; friends you thought were apolitical are now Rush Limbaugh and Ed Shultz on Facebook; and negative ads are blowing up TV screens across your nearest swing state. It’s insane. The opposing sides both honestly believe they are obviously correct. So obvious, in fact, that they see the other side as nonsensical and laughable, or to put it in a less politically correct way: absolutely retarded. I wrote about this exact thing with the rift between John McCain and Barack Obama supporters in 2008 (“Level Headedness”). It’s pretty apparent things don’t change much. But thinking about this situation made me realize something about which I find myself in a paradox: I enjoy topics that are open for interpretation, but then struggle with the reality that one side cannot win.
I see myself as a fairly objective person capable of seeing both sides of an issue. I also consider myself intelligent, well-read, and reflective. When I research something, read up on it, and reflect on it at great length, I feel as though my opinion is solid, respectable, and correct. I feel like I’ve arrived at the position of common sense, the position that informed people would arrive at as well. But then here’s the kicker: another person just as “intelligent, well-read, and reflective” as me, who’s researched, read, and reflected at the same length about the exact same issue, can arrive at the polar opposite conclusion. This is especially true in politics, and really gets pulled to the surface during presidential elections. It’s hard to wrap my brain around.
Religion and politics are two arguments you cannot win. At the end of the day you’re dealing in opinion. It’s almost like trying to convince someone that red is better than blue or that the fall is better than the spring. Good luck with that. Let me know when you convince someone to change her favorite color or season. In concert with that observation, for the sake of mental tranquility, I’d almost be tempted to leave this inquiry at that: it’s just opinion, everybody’s got one. But politics is different. Unlike colors or seasons or even religion (as you pretty much just choose one), certain elements of politics play out in real life and are tangible and testable, primarily on the fiscal and monetary side. Lowering and raising taxes, interest rates, and government spending have real consequences for the economy that can be tracked with empirical studies. But somehow these topics remain primarily opinion.
For instance, brilliant economists can be diametrically opposed as to the best way to grow the economy. Some on the right believe lowering taxes on corporations and the wealthy is the best way to grow the economy (trickle-down economics), while some on the left believe in a progressively steeper tax structure, with an expanded safety net, to grow the economy from the middle out. But isn’t there only one reality? What do the numbers show? That’s the problem. Each side can produce its own numbers, focus on the agreeable stats, and, in a sense, create its own reality. That is what I have a hard time dealing with. This example is from within the intelligentsia, from the academia that eats, sleeps, and breathes this stuff. And they’re on opposite sides of reality? What does this mean for the average Joe and Jane trying to decipher the mess? It doesn’t bode well for consensus.
To add to the annoyance of it all, head to head competition—elections (the people speaking)—doesn’t solve anything. Unlike with other competitions in say, war or sports, where when one side wins, the debate is over, in politics, if anything, the grudge match intensifies. The loser becomes more defiant, digs in its heels further, and looks for ways to discredit the victory of the nemesis. In sports you’ll find the same gloating and boasting pre-championship, but when the final buzzer sounds, that’s it, it’s over. The losing team says, “Hey, they got us; they beat us.” And that’s the end of it. When a country loses a war it waves the white flag and says, “Ok, we surrender; you win.” Not so in politics. If Obama wins, do you think Rush Limbaugh will congratulate him and say Liberalism won? Yeah right! If Romney wins, do you think Ed Shultz will congratulate him and say Conservatism is the better political option? You know the answer.
I love the saying that opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. I enjoy the political back and forth, the campaign wars, the tactical punches and counterpunches, and the opposing talking points. I enjoy defending the positions that make the most sense to me and trying to come up with counterarguments to the counterarguments against my arguments. At the same time, I have to accept that the struggle is the end. There is no “winner.”