A recent Guardian article by Moira Weigel nails one-half of the central problem in American politics: The belief by both left and right that they are not doing politics. Leftists tend to belief that they are led to their own political positions by a more astute knowledge of "the facts." For rightists, "the facts" is replaced by "common sense." Unless remedied, this widespread deficit in political self-awareness will continue to stymie any effort to realize more deliberative and non-pathological forms of politics.
Both sides seem to believe that they are guided by one thing: the truth. For instance, many conservatives rarely begin to consider how free market health care might inevitably disadvantage particular groups of people - those with chronic ailments, low to middle class households, etc. Eliminating government's role simply restores the proper (small government) order to the world, what they see as a commonsensical truth. Similarly, many mainstream liberals point to scientific studies to back up their positions on a range of issues - from climate change to abortion - ignoring how their own particular worldview - an understanding of rights and values - shapes their receptiveness to (i.e., level of skepticism of) those facts. Any attempt to reframe a response to climate change in a way that is more amenable to non-liberals is not even considered; a leftist approach is framed as the only rational approach to the facts. Major segments of the left and right, as a result, increasingly retreat into the alluring safety of ostensibly non-political discourses for what are inexorably political problems.
The widespread denial that one's beliefs are political stands in the way of the kinds of political talk that underlies democratic deliberation - or at least compromise and concession. Neither is possible if participants are absolutely convinced that they are uniquely in possession of inerrant truth - rather than guided by some mixture of values, observation, and reflective thought colored by a range of personal and cultural biases. Depriving themselves of the cognitive and linguistic tools that could be used to sway others, the only remaining option is fanaticism: a stark division of the political world into friends and enemies. For Trump voters, leftists become idiots - individuals whose cognitive capacities are so twisted by their college degrees that they are now bereft of common sense. For some leftists, Trump voters have become rabid racists that are not worth the trouble of engagement. While fanatical modes of politics has its place, it also has its downsides - especially if one's enemy can easily marshal more allies.
Perhaps I am being overly idealistic or naive, but I think that we should be striving for another kind of political correctness in our language - one in which speakers are forced to admit and take responsibility for the values undergirding their speech. Hiding behind allusions to "the facts" and "common sense" is as disingenous as it is destructive, as egotistical as it is belittling. Money spent on efforts to develop citizens' political self-awareness are likely to pay bigger dividends in improving American politics than any program to grow the public's scientific literacy - even though science gurus like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse-Tyson seem to think otherwise. Unless we do so, and soon, I doubt that we will get to enjoy a less pathological political system anytime in the near future.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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