Unscientific Americans

Is he looking disdainfully at us?

Is he looking disdainfully at us?

Which statement most closely describes how you feel:

1. I care about all people (even if they’re from another country), the environment, and the future of our planet.
2. I care about people (especially people from my country and people like me), the environment (especially my environment), and my kids.
3. I care about middle class Americans and the environment (as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with the fossil fuel industry).
4. Meh
5. I care about the wealthiest and whitest American men and big corporations, and there is no such thing as the environment.
6. I care about my gun, myself, and my family (in that order). I like to shoot kittens.
7. Fuck You

This is of course a completely unbiased and accurate representation of the political spectrum (no straw men here). Where do you lie on the spectrum? Most of us are probably (hopefully?) in the 1-2 range. But where are our political representatives? I recently spoke with a good friend about the 2014 elections and he believes that the idea of caring about people (all people) is a radical idea in mainstream American politics. When’s the last time you heard a national politician (aside from Bernie Sanders) talk about the plight of the poor in the U.S.? When’s the last time you heard a national politician (including Bernie Sanders) talk about the plight of the poor in the rest of the world? When’s the last time you heard a Christian politician talk about the plight of the poor, other than to blame them for being a drain on the system? Seems to me Jesus had a slightly different take. Is believing that we all have a right to food, clothing, shelter, and health care really such a radical idea?

When did bleeding heart become a bad thing? “Hey, you care about people and things – you’re an asshole!” If we’ve learned anything here at the Cottage, it’s that caring is essential to our own happiness. Of course, we have to infuse pragmatism into our caring to come up with effective policies. Which is where science comes in. Sadly, in some parts of the political world, science too is seen as radical. Rise up, nerds!

I’m not going to sit here and say politicians are somehow misaligned with the interests and ideals of the American people… wait, that’s exactly what I’m going to say. A recent study examined the long-held belief that Americans tend to be more centrist* than the politicians who represent us. In fact, when the researchers looked at a number of individual issues, Americans usually took positions further left or right than the national parties’ standard positions. More often, according to this study, it’s to the left: of the twelve issues they looked at, by my count, more respondents tended to be left of the national party platform on seven, right on two, and were equally left and right on three.**

If these results are any indication of American sentiment, the national parties aren’t very representative. Compassion may get short shrift among our parties, but it’s still alive among us, the people. So why do we keep voting for politiopaths? One reason is systemic. We don’t have much of a choice because money is so entrenched in politics (thank you, Citizens United and, earlier, Buckley v. Valeo). Taking a quick look at OpenSecrets, almost $4 billion was spent on the 2014 elections, and guess whose money that was? Not yours. If politicians need money to win elections, and it’s not your money they need, do they care as much about what you care about? Only inasmuch as they can still get you to vote for them.

That’s where the second reason comes in: you suck. Or rather, we suck. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” As humans, we suck at accurately assimilating information and seeing the bigger picture. If you toss a coin and heads comes up four times in a row, what are the odds that heads will come up on the fifth toss (this is not a trick coin)? Hopefully more than 50% of you got this right. But many people don’t – this is the gambler’s fallacy.*** We’re not intuitively good at statistics – in fact, our intuition often leads us astray. Maybe this is because many modern situations were not common as we evolved, so we don’t have great mechanisms for understanding them. We are anecdotal animals, and this, in contrast to scientific evidence, leads us down many false paths. It also makes us susceptible to dupability. Guess who exploits that? People and groups with a shitload of money, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and all their corporate funders), the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, George Soros. They influence politics because they can influence politics.

Not to get too grandiose on you, but what do we really want for this country, for the world? If we’re not on the “fuck you” end of the spectrum above, we can start by better equipping ourselves to see through some of the garbage that is constantly slung our way by a largely beholden media. Part of seeing is understanding our own biases and fallibilities, opening up to new ideas, and gathering information. After honing our critical thinking skills, we will naturally want to do something effective.

If we really want a sea-change in American politics, it starts with following the money, then stamping it out. Campaign finance reform ought to be the number one issue for all Americans, because once we refocus our politicians’ beholdenness to us over special interests, we will make faster headway on the rest of the issues that matter to us. Something like 90% of Americans believe that money is too influential in politics, but a similar percentage feel that there’s not much we can do about it. One thing the last decade has shown us, though, is that, at least for some issues, we can effect change fairly rapidly (good job, gay people and marijuana!). Start by watching Lawrence Lessig’s Ted Talk. Then tell Obama we’re ready for some of that hope and change, in the form of an executive order that all government contractors must disclose their campaign contributions. Get involved or contribute to organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics, which promotes more transparency in politics. Get involved or contribute to organizations like Public Campaign or Issue One or Public Citizen, which aim to reduce money’s influence in politics.  Support bills like the Fair Elections Now Act, the American Anti-Corruption Act, and the Grassroots Democracy Act. Stop shooting kittens.

 

*But what does centrist mean? Is it the position between those of the two major parties? If 58% of Americans take a position to the left of both national parties (as respondents did on social security), where’s the center?

**See results on page 22 of the study. Also check out the questions in the appendix of the study. There seems to be lots of potential for bias in how the questions were formulated. Where do you align?

***I’m a mediocre card counter at blackjack. I’ve sat at tables from Colorado to Costa Rica, New Orleans to New Zealand, and I rarely see people who correctly play basic strategy (which would push their odds of winning just over 49%). While most dealers have a pretty good handle on basic strategy, many of them don’t even have it down.

 

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