They say love is blind. They say that for a reason. No one figured out why sensible Cynthia married feckless Reginald, or why the fetching Norma Sue married that no-account loser, Billy Bob – or mix and match as you will. In such matters rational judgment seems to play no part. Sure there are calculating gold-diggers who look at the guy’s balance sheet and do a cost-benefit analysis, and on the male side, the Arizona senator who remarried, to a stunning and uncertain woman worth a hundred million or more, and then ran for president – an arrangement that seems to have benefited them both. But those are the exceptions. Most people follow their heart, not their reluctant and careful head. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it leads to decades of unhappiness and then divorce. You ask yourself just what you were thinking. You weren’t thinking.
And some people marry a second time – what Samuel Johnson famously called “the triumph of hope over experience.” Johnson was, of course, pointing out that the second time around there has been no change. The decision to marry again will probably not be a considered decision, based on lessons learned and the logic of it all. It will just be what seems like a good idea at the time. Experience doesn’t really matter – many marry again knowing full well things will end badly, but they hope they won’t. They really know they will. But there’s always hope.
Many try to rationalize the process – there’s eHarmony (personality matching of couples on twenty-nine dimensions that determine long-term success, as they say) and Match.Com (browse self-descriptions and photos and try to guess who is lying about what) – but such services are for the delusional. Things don’t work that way – at best they offer a place to start, with their patina of cold and considered judgment. You know you’ll make a decision to hook up with someone on a hunch, or on hope. You watched Hollywood movies – Sabrina, the chauffeur’s daughter, finally sails to Paris with Linus, the far older and fabulously wealthy owner of everything, and melts his cold heart, as Billy Wilder showed us. Linus realizes the world of cost-benefit analyses and logically projected outcomes is not the world he wants to inhabit any longer. He makes an impulsive decision. Hollywood built an industry based on that premise – that the best decisions are impulsive. It’s no wonder that conservatives hate Hollywood. There’s the surface decadence – the sex and violence and all that – but this is a bigger thing. Hollywood is always attacking the basis of free-market capitalism – the idea people will decide things on the basis of profit and loss, on what will logically benefit them.
But perhaps all of life’s decisions are like that – the small used Ford sedan makes more sense but the Mini Cooper makes you happy, or the SUV or Porsche you can’t really afford makes you feel like someone you want to be. And on a larger scale there’s the matter of what they call your career path. Those who make money writing career books and holding career seminars will ask you where you want to be five years, and then in ten years, and try to get you to develop a plan to get you to that very place, with precisely defined objectives and scheduled milestones. You put the plan on the wall and stare at it, motivating yourself, month after month, year after year, to get your ass in gear – at least that’s the idea. Do that and you will probably just get massively depressed.
You know better. You know successful people, and happy people, who fell into their careers – your friend from high school who was going to be a doctor and now runs a charter boat service, or the one who was going to be a jazz musician who ended up running a software company, or the doctor who quit and writes poetry, and so on. It’s like surfing – most people catch the wave as it comes and ride it as far as they can. The five-year-plan and ten-year-plan don’t account to the ocean and those damned waves. The world is changing all the time – no kid growing up in the fifties carefully planned to grow up to eventually run a thriving internet search-engine corporation. Who knew? It seems no one is what they said, long ago, that they would be. You make big decisions on impulse. You watch the waves and try to catch a good one. If you’re lucky you do, and ride it carefully.
So maybe we all make it up as we go along. We say we think things through, and believe we do, but do so, usually, after the fact. It’s a joke we play on ourselves. Our decisions are irrational.
Politicians know this. That seems to be what the current campaigns are all about, offering us what feels right – and perhaps it has always been so. We don’t decide who should be the next president on carefully weighing qualifications as much as we try to get a sense of who feels right to us – the noble but dim war hero, the tough-as-nails and nasty policy wonk, or the eminently decent and honorable and stunningly thoughtful younger fellow. And we don’t consider policy positions that carefully.
Elsewhere, in Fighting the Noble Battle against the Inevitable Stupid, you’ll find a detailed discussion of one policy now in the news – McCain and Clinton proposing that the federal gasoline tax be suspended for the summer, and Obama saying that’s a dumb idea that would do more harm than good. It’s one of those things that feels right. But it’s like that second marriage. You know things will end badly. But then it feels so good. Ah, love is blind.
Why would we fall for this? Ezra Klein here argues that the media is feeding our irrational side, maybe because the media simply dislikes policy:
Policy is hard. Lots of people come to different conclusions. Unanimity is rare. Except on this gas tax holiday. Just about no one thinks it a good idea. Conservative economists loathe it, liberal economists loathe it, energy experts loathe it… it is shameless pandering of the worst sort. So is the media going to create a scandal around McCain’s pander? Around Clinton’s copy-pander? Will they hound them at press conferences, run segments about the derailed “Straight Talk Express,” bring on pollsters to ask whether Americans are tired of being lied to?
No. That won’t happen. They know their audience.
David Corn’s has some thoughts on that:
…we’re back to the perennial question: how mature are voters? Do they fall for the no-pain, quick-fix? Can they see through transparent pandering?
They can, but they’d rather not. It’s not a question of maturity, however. It’s a matter of the nature of how people really make judgments.
Kevin Drum from his perch at the Washington Monthly adds this:
Yes, it would be nice if the press spent less time on inanities and more time on how candidates planned to actually run the country. But this view of the media is just too simplistic.
Like it or not, virtually every mini-dustup in a presidential campaign – Wrightgate, Tuzlagate, bittergate, Judigate, etc. – has one thing in common: it lends itself to a simple moral judgment. It helps a lot if there’s also video available (or photos in a pinch), but the really important part is the simple moral judgment. That’s what people react to. Cable news amplifies this tendency and makes it worse, but they didn’t invent it.
Yes, we all make quick and simple moral judgments – off to Paris with Sabrina. And Drum says this happens where you wouldn’t natural expect it to happen, in the world of political junkies and policy wonks, the political blogs (like this one you’re now reading):
Take a look at the comment section of most political blogs and check out which posts get the most activity. Learned discussions of the history of the Earned Income Tax Credit? Analysis of which Shiite faction is up or down in Iraq’s civil war? Nope. It’s Wrightgate and Tuzlagate and bittergate and Judigate and any other post that provides an opportunity to express a simple moral judgment. Republicans suck. Dems are spineless. The media is corrupt.
And this is true even though blog readers tend to be far more wonky than the average politically lethargic American.
But he notes that the gas tax holiday thing just isn’t getting much play:
It’s just hard to get too worked up over a minor political pander when we all know that responding to interest groups is what politicians do every day. It’s practically in their job description.
Now, dig up a video of John McCain having dinner with some blonde bombshell oil industry lobbyist coyly telling him how much she wants to show her appreciation for his bold gas tax holiday proposal, and you’ve got yourself a story. Until then, CNN can put this on a 24/7 loop and it’s just not going to catch on. You can’t blame the media for everything.
He knows us.
Take a glance at Sam Stein in the Huffington Post with Expert Support For Gas Tax Holiday Appears Nonexistent and then see Matthew Yglesias’ comment:
By getting on board the holiday bandwagon, John McCain mostly reinforces one’s impression of him as someone who doesn’t have real ideas, principles, interest in, etc. domestic policy issues. I think that, by contrast, Hillary Clinton is managing to undermine the perception – something she’d embedded in even a lot of people who aren’t hugely sympathetic to her campaign – that she’s the candidate of substance, the earnest policy wonk type who really knows how to fix America’s problems.
It’s a reminder that Bill Clinton, who certainly stands out among presidents for his wonkishness and interest in policy detail, also wound up gravitating toward a political strategy that leaned heavily on what you might call “policy gimmicks” rather than a serious effort to grapple with national problems.
We like gimmicks. It’s a wave one can ride. Elsewhere, reacting to Hillary Clinton’s other proposal to release crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Yglesias says this:
It’s not at all clear to me that ordinary voters understand that the underlying supply and demand trends make it overwhelmingly likely that the cost of gasoline will continue, on the whole, to move upwards in the future. But that’s the reality – the market will fluctuate and it’s possible that policy choices about the SPR can influence those fluctuations, but we’re not finding new sources of cheap oil at the same rate that global economic growth is making people want to burn more oil.
Both as a country, and as individuals, we need to plan accordingly. Not everyone will agree with my preferred policy prescriptions, which tend toward denser land use and more transit, but we need some long-term policy response. And people need to respond in their own lives when they make decisions about which car to buy and where to live. But when national leaders act as if they believe current fuel costs are a passing phenomenon to be weathered with short-term measures, then at least some voters are going to believe them and make bad personal and political decisions that we can ill afford. A lot of electoral gambits are nonsense without being actually harmful, but McCain and Clinton are making problems worse just with their rhetoric.
No, they understand people. As a country, and as individuals, we may need to plan accordingly, as he says. Why would we start now? We never have before.
One should note that ABC News, who ran that Philadelphia debate that avoided policy issues pretty much entirely, seems to be going the other way. On Good Morning America they rip into the gas tax holiday idea, actually explaining one reason why it’s a bad idea. That’s odd. CNN and the others have also done a bit of that. Perhaps reporting that candidates are jerking us around will become a trend.
At the site Same Facts, Robert Frank suggests that Obama should ride that wave:
…this combination of events provides Obama with a golden opportunity to turn the issue to his advantage. He can do this by scheduling a high-profile public speech whose announced purpose is to explain why McCain’s gas tax holiday is such bad idea. The arguments are simple and persuasive. If Obama cannot make them seem compelling, he is not the brilliant orator we all believe him to be. This speech would challenge McCain’s perceived strength as a straight-talker, because the proposal is the polar opposite of straight talk. After explaining why, Obama should challenge members of the press to find a single reputable energy expert or economist who believes otherwise. There aren’t any.
That would be cool, if anyone cared.
Still, it would win over a few people, even if not many. Obama is winning some conservatives, like Ross Douthat, the man whose new book is Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, June 24, 2008). He says this:
Obviously I’m not rooting for Barack Obama to win the Presidency, but if he does take the election this fall, there will be some compensating pleasures – not only the thrill that will accompany seeing a man ascend to the Oval Office who could have been bought and sold in a different, more unjust America, but the pleasure of knowing that Jeremiah Wright’s attempt at self-aggrandizing sabotage fell flat on its face.
That’s not based in reason, or maybe it is. It may be one of Drum’s quick moral judgments.
People make those. Andrew Sullivan says this reader is not alone:
I’ll just put that out there. If Obama is done in by this whole Wright thing I am done with politics. I can’t invest myself in something that is so sure to disappoint me time and time and time again. If the Democratic Party decides that it cannot risk nominating a great and decent African American man because his pastor is a scary African American man, it does not deserve power because it will have caved to what is worst about America. Racists on both sides of the divide will rejoice at having taking down the biggest threat to their belief system since Martin Luther King… and young people like me will burrow deeper into to the holes we were in before Barack Obama dug us out.
That is not a critique of policy. It’s one of Drum’s quick moral judgments.
But Obama is black. And that is a problem. See James Baldwin in “Many Thousands Gone” from 1955″
In our image of the Negro breathes the past we deny, not dead but living yet and powerful, the beast in our jungle of statistics. It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktail parties their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air: in any drawing room at such a gathering the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing. Wherever the problem touches there is confusion, there is danger. Wherever the Negro face appears a tension is created, the tension of a silence filled with things unutterable. It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead: it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten, that the Negro himself has forgotten it. It is not a question of memory. Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless the marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him.
There’s something primal there, beyond logic.
But all sorts of illogical things are afoot. Hillary Clinton appears on Fox News, interviewed by Bill O’Reilly himself on his No Spin Zone. Talking Points Memo has the key video clip:
O’Reilly: “Can you believe this Rev. Wright guy? Can you believe this guy?”
Clinton: “Well, I’m going to leave it up to voters to decide.”
O’Reilly: “Well, what do you think as an American?”
Clinton: “Well, what I said when I was asked directly is that I would not have stayed in the church.”
O’Reilly: “You’re an American citizen, I’m an American citizen, he’s an American citizen, Rev. Wright. What do you think when you hear a fellow American citizen say that kind of stuff about America.”
Clinton: “Well, I take offense. I think it’s offensive and outrageous. I’m going to express my opinion, others can express theirs. It is part of just, you know, an atmosphere we’re in today.”
She plays to the irrational, and seems to be letting the Fox News viewers know she’d be a better Republican than John McCain, or something. She was a Goldwater Girl way back when, after all.
It seems atavistic. On the other hand, it could be calculating, as one comment at the link suggests:
I’ve always thought Hillary was pretty much unelectable, but I’m about to change my mind on that. She’s got Ann Coulter’s endorsement, she’s chummy with O’Reilly, and the wingnuts really hate McCain. If Hillary manages to steal the nomination she won’t get the progressive vote or the black vote, but she’ll more than make up for it by taking the wingnut vote away from McCain. Nader will get the progressive vote, but who cares?
Suddenly her support for the AUMA [the congressional authorization to use military force against Iraq], her cheerleading for the surge, her vote to take us closer to preemptive war against Iran, supporting (for a while) legalizing torture, sponsoring a bill to ban flag burning, talking about totally obliterating Iran, endorsing McCain, antagonizing the netroots … the whole thing starts to make sense. Her plan is nothing less than a hostile takeover of the GOP. It’s so crazy it just might work.
Just don’t think about it. Of course we seldom do think things through. That may be the whole point.