A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Voting for the Common Good

Michael Kruse who blogs over at the Kruse Kronicles is one blogger who makes me think. He brings a freshness of perspective and nuance of thought to his posts.

Recently, Michael and I were participants together in a comment thread on another blog when he wrote something that intrigued me:

I'm simply making the case that few voters walk into a booth and say, "Screw everyone else. I'm going to vote purely for what I want." Voter studies bear this out. To simply conclude that people who oppose a proposed government action or tax is a consequence of selfish pocket-book voting is simplistic.

I asked Michael if he would be willing to write a guest post on the general motivation of voters in elections, and he graciously accepted my request. So here it is-- read, reflect, and feel free to respond.
Nearly a century ago, a young boy named Ezekiel Bulver overheard his parents arguing. It seems Mr. Bulver was trying to convince Mrs. Bulver that any two sides of a triangle are longer than the third. Finally, in exasperation, Mrs. Bulver exclaimed, "You just say that because you are a man!" That was the end of the argument. Ezekiel had an epiphany.

Traditionally you were required to demonstrate that your opponent is actually wrong in a dialog before explaining what led to his erroneous conclusion. What young Ezekiel discovered is that you can bypass that demonstration and fixate on how your opponent became so silly (or evil), thus diverting all attention from the substance of the issue. C. S. Lewis claimed that the mythical Ezekiel Bulver is the founder of modern day political discourse.* And if you've been paying any attention to politics lately, you see Bulverism is alive and well.

Conservatives can't understand how anyone would vote for Barack Obama and the Democrat's agenda. Surely liberals are soft in the head. Maybe they are greedy. They don't care about anyone else, they just want government to provide for their every need. Or maybe it is more sinister. The Democrats, at least many among the leadership, are closet communists waiting for their opportunity to take over and rule against the will of the people.

Similarly, liberals can't understand those Republicans. Only heartless people would be so greedy as to oppose taxes for programs that promote the common good. Conservatives are selfish. Many conservatives protect their own economic status as they side with big corporations that inflict all manner of suffering on society.

And thus the world is neatly carved into two worlds: One where people are knowledgeable and civic minded like me, and the other populated by silly and selfish people who put only themselves first.

Unfortunately, the world is a bit more complex than this. For instance, six years ago Thomas Frank wrote a book, What’s the matter with Kansas? He makes the case that many people from lower-income status vote against their economic interests because of peripheral issues like abortion and gay marriage. These issues are used as wedge issues by conservatives to trick these folks into voting against their own interests.

Of course, Frank does not suggest that liberals change their views on abortion and gay marriage. If they would, then surely this wedge tactic would fail and people would vote in the desired economic reforms. Why don't liberals change? Because these are hardly secondary issues to them … any more than they are secondary issues to the people who supposedly vote against their economic interests to protect their views.

And this raises a critical point. Studies of voting show that, generally speaking, most people of all political stripes vote for the candidates and issues that they believe are in the common good, even at personal expense. What varies is how people perceive what is the common good. People may indeed vote against a candidate who champions programs that would benefit them if they believe that the candidate will also support policies that are, in their estimation, destructive to the foundations of the community. Meanwhile, others will vote for the same candidate even though it will raise their taxes.

Also feeding into this is the tendency to think "most folks are a lot like me" and then inductively reason to the common good. Say there is ballot for a new light rail system. One voter may think, "I can really see how this would benefit me. Just think of how many others will benefit too. This is in the common good." Another voter may think, "This would significantly raise my taxes and be an extra burden to me. I don't want to put this burden on others. This isn't in the common good." But in our caustic Bulveristic environment each voter condemns the other for selfishness. The particularly cynical will claim that most people simply vote their pocketbooks. (It is particularly interesting coming from those who dismiss economics for its assumption that human beings are driven purely by calculating economic benefit.) In fact, what most voters seem to do is to vote what they see as the community's pocketbook, aiming for the common good as they see it.

Most political choices we make are about weighing competing values and concerns. For instance, in America, there has been a general belief that government has a responsibility for a basic social safety net. But this responsibility is a supportive one, not one of controlling citizens' lives. If politicians err too far toward weakening what is considered fair, they lose elections. Similarly, if they err too far toward an imperial model, they also get the boot. Reasonable compassionate people weighing the variables can come to differing conclusions. But the thrust of our age is to deny this reality in favor satisfying Bulveristic hunger.

I think the challenge for Christians in our polarized political environment is to begin a resistance movement against Bulverism. It is appropriate to occasionally have strong convictions about a particular issue or candidate. But as we talk with others, is it necessary to assume the worst about our opponents? Instead of beginning discussions by asserting how silly and/or evil our opponent is, is it possible to begin with assuming positive intent from our opponent, believing our opponent is seeking the common good, and searching for the value we can affirm in what our opponent wants to achieve? We may still come to conclusions that some are indeed silly or malicious, but just maybe by resisting Bulverism we will find that the great majority of us really have something in common: we are seeking the common good.

What do you think?

*(The Bulver story comes from an essay, "Bulverism," in a collection of essays by C. S. Lewis called God in the Dock: Essays on Ethics and Theology.)


Country Parson said...

Thanks for posting. It's an important point and made well.

One of the most worthwhile things Peggy Noonan ever wrote was "Trust but verify." Therein lies a part of the problem of identifying the public good. We do have significant differences in our political philosophies, but an equal desire for the public good. What can so easily derail any useful discussion is the common practice of asserting assumptions as fact without verifying them against what is knowable.

By way of humorous example: I have several clergy friends who are diligent in their exegesis but quick to share every scary Internet hoax with an urgent e-mail of concern. What is harmless foolishness on the one hand can become extraordinarily harmful when played out on the national scene with important issues at stake.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your response.

I laughed out loud at your humorous example. I cannot believe how many clergy I know who send me the same emails.

Chuck Tackett said...

Excellent post, thank you. I find that your comment

"Instead of beginning discussions by asserting how silly and/or evil our opponent is, is it possible to begin with assuming positive intent from our opponent, believing our opponent is seeking the common good, and searching for the value we can affirm in what our opponent wants to achieve?"

applies to many of the important conversations taking place in our churches, about direction of ministry, roles of pastors and laity, financial initiatives, etc. hopefully we will start there with trusting the intentions of others and then move to our communities. Imagine the fresh insight we could bring to community discourse if we first get our internal communication in the "right" frame.

Craig Eppler said...

Funny, Laurie and I were debating this very topic this evening. She basically took the stance of this article. I printed it out for her to read. It is a good article. What is skewing the national dialog though is the media. The very thing that we must have to keep a Democracy is the "free" media and it is the media that may be the beast that destroys our Democracy. If the media only reports the extremes, then how can we, as a nation, have a constructive dialog to resolve our issues?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Craig, good point about the media.

I've been wanting to do a post on that in reference to George Washington referring to journalists as "infamous scribblers," but I haven't gotten to it yet.

But I agree... and both sides have certain media outlets in their pockets.

Michael Kruse said...

Allan, thanks for the opportunity to post at your blog. Great observations by folks.

Craig raises an important issue about the media. In work I've done on boards, a longtime media guy told me that not too long ago the media looked for the unusual ... "man bites dog." In about the past twenty years, the shift is completely toward finding the controversial angle of the story. Thus, when interviewed as a board member understand that you can say all you want about innovative and positive work you are doing ... it will rarely be printed. But even lightly touch on an issue that may include controversy and be assured it will be printed.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Michael, thanks for contributing this excellent post.