Saturday, September 29, 2012

Political Leanings and Civic Dialogue

In a previous post, I encouraged people to take a short survey to find out which candidates running for office had views most similar to their own. This survey is useful to get people thinking about why they support one candidate over another and whether such support is actually warranted. But the survey doesn’t help the average person to understand their own political perspectives in a meaningful way.

It was for this reason that I exhorted those who were interested to take the Political Compass survey that’s also available on line. It’s a bit more involved than the “On the Issues Survey” and from past experience I’ve found that the typical college student is unable to interpret some of the questions. But this survey, when completed correctly, has the possibility of shedding light on one’s true political leanings in a way that can help clarify exactly where one stands on social and economic issues.

First things first. Take the test, answering the questions as honestly as possible:

Political Compass Survey

When you’ve completed the survey, you will get your results that place you along a spectrum in terms of your social and economic views. Socially, people are either more authoritarian (socially conservative) or more libertarian (socially liberal). Economically, people are either further to the left (economically liberal) or further to the right (economically conservative).

Political Compass Scale
Here are my own results from taking this survey:

Results for Mike Russo
As you can see, I am fairly libertarian (socially liberal) in my social view, and also fairly far to the left (economically liberal) in my economic views.

Now take my nemesis Lance B. Dowd’s results:

Results for Lance B. Dowd
As you can see, Lance is fairly authoritarian (socially conservative) in his social views and somewhat far to the right (economically conservative) in his economic views.

Based upon these results, you could assume that Lance and I would never see eye-to-eye on almost any issue, that we would almost always vote for different political candidates, and that there would be very little possibility of political dialogue between us. Our worldviews are just too dissimilar. But if Lance was either more libertarian in his social views or further to the left in his economic views, fruitful dialogue might very well be possible between us.

My own experiences engaging in political argumentation on the Occupy Wall Street site seem to bear this idea out. I’ve had wonderful dialogues with economic liberals who I might disagree with on social issues, but we could at least agree that our current economic system is causing harm to working families. I also have had some great conversations with libertarians who were fairly far to the right on economic issues, but we agreed on the importance of defending civil liberties.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I believe the current left-right divide in this country is far too simplistic and often gets in the way of fruitful civic dialogue. A survey like the Political Compass one forces people to separate their social views from their economic views and thus paints a more nuanced picture of the political leaning of different individuals that might allow intelligent civic discourse—rather than typical partisan rancor—to occur.

So take the survey, and let us know your results and how you feel about them. 

Watch the 2012 Presidential Debates

Friday, September 28, 2012

On Civic Engagement and Political Education

It really distresses me how little average Americans—even supposedly intelligent, college-educated people—know about the political process and the very serious social and economic issues that confront our nation and the world. I always loved the following quote from Thomas Jefferson, because it seems self-evidently true: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society,” he wrote, “but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Americans need to be educated about the issues, if we are to become a citizenry that has the wisdom and the understanding to govern itself, and if we are to avoid slipping even further away from the democratic ideals of our Founding Fathers. The first step in this process, I believe, is to clarify where we stand on the issues and to assess which candidates running for political office have positions most in line with our own.

Recently, Meritta Cullinan, a colleague in the Sociology Department at Molloy, sent me a link to an on-line survey that in a very simple way attempts to do just that:

It took me about 3 minutes to do the survey and the results were somewhat surprising in my case:

Apparently, the candidate whose views on the issues are closest to my own is someone I didn’t even know was running for President, and whose party I didn’t even know existed until now—RockyAnderson of the Justice Party. 
It wasn’t too surprising to me that I was close in political leaning to Jill Stein of the Green Party: I was a member of that party for several years and environmental issues are extremely important to me. But Rocky Anderson? Who the hell is he, anyway, and what exactly does he stand for? As I explored his website, I began to realize that he was indeed a candidate that I probably could endorse without feeling as though I was polluting my soul.

In an ideal society, the Rocky Andersons, the Jill Steins, and the Gary Johnsons of this world would have at least the possibility of becoming President, because there are an awful lot of Americans whose political views are probably more in line with those of these candidates than they are with those of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. But the two major parties seem to have the system completely locked up. They have all the funding, they have access to all the advertising, they even control our presidential debates, so that third party candidates can’t even get their views heard by the American people. We essentially have a two party political system that exists almost exclusively to prevent any other political voices from ever being heard.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And the first step, as I’ve already indicated, is to clarify your own views on the issues and look for candidates who share your own values and ideals. The second step is to stop worrying so much about “electability,” because if you feel compelled to support someone whose values and ideals are not in synch with your own, you will always be disappointed in the end.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on the 2012 election, you know who I feel compelled to vote for in November. But in this election, I’m basically voting against a party that I believe has such horrific positions on the economy, the environment, and civil liberties that I almost have no choice but to support the other guy and his lame-ass party. In a sense, I’m voting to stop what I consider to be moral evil, and that is what’s driving me right now. But I have absolutely no regrets voting throughout the years for Green Party candidates like Ralph Nader and “Grandpa” Al Lewis, because I know that my vote was for a candidate I could truly believe in.

In a few weeks each of us will have to step into the election booth and make our own choice about who we will be supporting for President. In preparation for this act of civic engagement, I’d strongly encourage you to take the “On The Issues”survey to see who your ideal candidate might be. If you’re interested in exploring your own political leanings in a more involved way, I’d invite you to spend a little more time going through the excellent "Political Compass" survey that is also available for free on-line.

The worst that could happen is that you spend five minutes of your life and realize that the candidate you were planning to vote for anyway is the one most in line with your own positions on the issues. But, like me, you may just be surprised at the results you receive. And these results might even inspire you to start questioning your allegiance and loyalty to candidates and parties whose positions on the issues may in fact be quite far removed from your own.

So take the survey, and let us know your results and whether you were surprised about them or not. 

Watch the 2012 Presidential Debates

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Average Joe and The Dilemma of Justice

Yes, he's average and his name is Joe, but what does he think about justice?

Book 1 of Plato's Republic.  Polemarchus, a character in the dialogue, has defined justice as "treating your friends well and your enemies badly."  This position wouldn't seem all that far from the view of justice accepted by the average "guy on the street" even today.

Most people intuitively feel that they have some obligation to promote the good of those who are close to them (friends, family, neighbors), but that this obligation doesn't extend to anyone outside this circle of interest.  They also feel that enemies deserve retaliation as a matter of justice.

Of course, most Americans, at the same time, would also describe themselves as "Christians."  And we know that the Gospel promotes an ethic of radical altruism and forgiveness.  Jesus exhorts us to sacrifice our own good the sake of the other, to care for strangers as though they were our brothers and sisters, and to forgive our enemies.  This, for a Christian is the true meaning of justice.

So who is right:  Polemarchus (the man on the street) or Jesus?  And why is there such a divorce between what most Christians actually believe justice to be and what the founder of their religion actually taught?


The "objective" part of this post is officially over, and now I feel compelled to muse about the issue at hand in my own clearly partisan style:

I suspect our average Joe gets more of his information about justice from Rush Limbaugh than he does from Scripture.  And his view of justice owes more the Old Testament's "an eye for an eye" than it does to Jesus exhortation to "turn the other cheek."  One need only to read some of the writings of a typical Christian evangelical to see that the position of average Joe on justice is just about as far removed from the spirit that animates the Gospels as it can get.

So, if our average Joe doesn't really buy into the ethos that's at the heart of his most sacred book, then why does he persist in his allegiance to the very faith that is founded upon the ideals in this book?   Habit probably.  He was most likely brought up as a Christian, his family is probably filled with Christians, all of his friends are probably also Christians, and he simply can't conceive of a life apart from the faith of his childhood.  

But to call average Joe a Christian in any true sense of the word is like calling a hyena a lion because they both have tails.  Average Joe may refer to himself as a Christian, but like Polemarchus in Book 1 of the Republic, his moral system is intellectually simplistic, extremely limited in scope, and overtly retributive in nature.  Taking good care of those you like and getting back at those you dislike might be a framework for justice that makes sense in a place like Texas, but it certainly will never promote the common good or create a society of anything more than the most self-interested individuals.  And it certainly has nothing in common with any legitimate version of Christian that I am aware of. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Plato's Republic: What is Justice?

The new study edition of the Republic that I put together with Stephan Mayo is now out and I'm using it this semester with a core group of very bright philosophy majors (The Elite!).  The text was based upon a series of course notes that Steve and I  put on-line over ten years ago, and it has been at least six years since I've explored the wisdom in this masterpiece of philosophical literature.

I've always felt that the Republic deserves to be called the greatest work in the field of philosophy, not only because of the influence it has had on the entire history of philosophy, but also because it treats virtually every important issue that any serious student of philosophy should care about. 

Of course, the main question that Plato/Socrates addresses is, "What is Justice?"  Now, this work was written almost 2,500 hundred years ago, but it seems that we are no closer to answering this question than the ancient Greeks were.  Liberals would argue that justice is caring for the most vulnerable members of the society, libertarians that it is allowing for maximal personal freedom and the most minimal government possible, and religious conservatives maintain that justice is only possible in a society which respects biblical values and ideals.

Everyone has his or her own ideas about what justice is and often these ideas come into conflict with one another.  As a communitarian and distributivist I certainly have my own ideas about what justice is.  Of course, the kind of society that I would create if I were the Philosopher-King would probably alienate just about everyone, except the three other people in the country who share my rather peculiar world-view. 

Some day soon I hope to articulate my own distributivist position on justice on this site, but right now what I'd really like is to find out what other people think justice is.   And I'd like to see if there's any commonalities among these views.

So, if you have your own ideas about what justice is--no matter how wacky they might be--feel free to share them with the rest of us!