07 July 2010

Philosophical Food Fight


That is the reply that Josh Cohen (Stanford) - advocate of democratic deliberation - Tweeted (of all things!) to this post written by J.M. Bernstein (New School) at The New York Times philosophy blog. In the initial post, Bernstein offered an analysis (inspired by Hegel and Freud) of the anger embodied among members of the "The Party" crowd. He followed up here. Philosopher Brian Leiter (Univ. of Chicago) seconds Cohen here. And there is a rambling commentary here at Mother Jones as well. Now, I hardly put myself out as a model of tolerance and civil exchange, and my own theoretical leanings actually tend to converge with Leiter and Cohen, however their replies to Bernstein are not a great advert for doing philosophy (or political theory, or politics) in public.

I think there is a real and important question about why the radical right has managed to coordinate opposition to Obama around a set of ludicrous claims - like his place of birth or the notion, all evidence to the contrary, that he is a "socialist." Sure, there are lots of media politics at play. And the Mother Jones piece reiterates the findings that (as I suggested here) "the 'tea party' crowd tend to be ... a bunch of old, economically well-off, white guys who are 'angry' and 'pessimistic' because they think the government is paying too much attention to the needs of the poor and minorities and not enough to the rich!" Of course, that is not the only demographic among the members of the tea party 'movement'; it takes all types, I suppose.

Having said all that, what happens when you talk sense to people? What happens when you point out that the sources of political polarization in American politics derive from rising inequality and right-wing political strategy [1]? What happens when you point out that the Bush tax cuts and duplicitous military adventurism combine to underwrite the vast bulk of our current and future budget deficits [2]? What happens when you point out that redistributive spending tends to go primarily to red states [3]? Well ... there is some reason to think that despite the fear, anger and frustration that inform too much of American politics, there is some indication [4] [5] [6] that lots of voters are pretty damned sensible. They prefer to trim the military budget and raise taxes on the wealthy rather than simply slash social spending!

How does this connect to our point of departure? Well, Cohen and Leiter might have simply suggested that matters may not be nearly so bleak as Bernstein suggests, that there is reason to believe that citizens can indeed sort things out pretty reasonably despite emotional vicissitudes. (I actually think that we can dispense with the Freud and Hegel in Bernstein's initial piece and agree nonetheless that part of what has been going on is that individualistic Americans have indeed been forced to confront their interdependence and their vulnerability.) What would've been wrong with that?

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