Sunday, November 14, 2010

Humanity vs. Vanity

Do you remember when Rush Limbaugh said that he hoped Obama would fail?

No, I'm not paraphrasing. It was January 2009, shortly before the inauguration, and these were Limbaugh's exact words:

"I hope Obama fails."

More relevant than that brazen declaration - one that seemed deliberately tailored to be just shocking enough to grab national headlines (hint hint) - was the argument Limbaugh subsequently used to justify it:

"Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what's gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here."

Like trying to recall each of Paris Hilton's tabloid exploits, the difficulty in finding flaws in Limbaugh's argument comes not from locating them, but rather from keeping track of them all.

First, the ones involving logic and fact:

- George W. Bush was president both when the Great Recession began (in December 2007) and when Wall Street crashed (in September 2008).

- Even if one argues that presiding over the nation when these catastrophes occurred doesn't automatically make you responsible for them, none of their origins can be traced to liberal policies either. The recession began as a result of the growing income disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class, which led to a gradual decline in consumer spending and a consequent increase in unemployment; this, in turn, can be traced to the emasculation of labor unions (Ronald Reagan's legacy) and a $1.3 trillion tax cut for the wealthy (George W. Bush's achievement). Similarly, the Wall Street crash came about due to the major deregulation of banks, brokerage firms, and credit card companies that had been initiated by Ronald Reagan and continued by all three of his successors (which does include Democrat Bill Clinton, although on this occasion he was acting under right-wing rather than left-wing impulses). In short, Limbaugh's argument there is also a no-go.

Now the ones involving ethics:

- America has an admirable historic tradition of putting partisanship aside after election results have been finalized, one that traces back to the days of Adams and Jefferson. Indeed, when George W. Bush came to power (despite the controversy surrounding his election in 2000), liberals from columnists Molly Ivins and Paul Krugman to politicians Bill Clinton and Al Gore (Bush's recently vanquished rival) all made public statements wishing him the best. Limbaugh's refusal to do the same thing for Obama betrayed not only bitterness, but bad form.

- If you put the welfare of America above your ideological vanity, you should always hope that the policies implemented by those in power wind up succeeding.

This last point deserves further elaboration.

The vast majority of men and women who participate in America's political life - be it as elected officials, government employees, pundits and other commentators, or plain old voters who occasionally turn on the TV news to keep abreast of current events - genuinely desire the same basic things for this country:

- They want our economy to be prosperous, which they define as entailing a realistically low unemployment rate (roughly 3%), a per capita income high enough to create a large and adequately consumptive middle class, and a budget that keeps spending as low and on as sound a fiscal footing as reasonably possible.

- They want our social conditions to be secure and progressive (in a societal, not ideological, sense). The first feature involves maintaining low crime rates and creating a general atmosphere of tranquility; the second consists of having a quality education system for our children and a climate of innovation in the realms of business, technology, science, and the arts.

- They want our foreign policy to place America in a geopolitical position wherein it is at peace with and respected by other nations (the former quality is self-evident; the latter involves being strong enough militarily so as to solidify our status as a superpower and insure that other nations will not attempt to harm or take advantage of us).

Indeed, it is only when we reach the fourth category - the creation of social justice and moral right - that fundamentally irreconcilable differences become evident. This classification includes issues such as gay rights, feminism, civil rights for racial minorities, environmental protection, abortion rights, school prayer, creationism, posting the Ten Commandments in public schools, the use of explicitly Christian beliefs to influence government policy, and beyond.

While the importance of this last policy sphere cannot be underrated, when it comes to the theme of this essay, it serves as the lone exception to what is otherwise a defining rule of American politics:

Partisans on both sides may disagree as to means, but they ultimately aspire toward the same ends.

Liberals and conservatives both want America to be prosperous at home; they both want our social conditions to be secure and progressive; they both want our country to be at peace with and respected by other nations. This isn't to say that neither of us have our bad apples. Liberals have zealots who yearn not for universal social justice but for revolution so that they themselves can have more personal power, while conservatives have plutocrats who only pretend to care about the middle-class and working poor while in fact pushing for selfish policies that will do nothing but enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. At the same time, the millions of men and women who vote for liberal or conservative candidates, listen to and read liberal or conservative pundits, and make liberal or conservative arguments while having debates with friends do these things not because they wish to undermine America with a radical agenda or stick it to the less fortunate to make a greater profit, but rather because they think that their proposals are more likely to achieve these shared goals than those of their opponents.

All of this is important because, as Republicans prepare to take over the House of Representatives, I genuinely hope they succeed in achieving what they claim to have set out to do. With the exception of their positions on issues involving social justice, I would be thrilled if their agenda accomplished its articulated goals - if unemployment shrank, wages rose, our budget was balanced, our national tone became less acrimonious, and the threats posed by Islamofascist terrorism were effectively addressed. Although my right-wing friends like to accuse me of wanting conservatives to be wrong, they couldn't be more mistaken. There is nothing I would love more than to discover that, despite my misgivings, conservative policies actually had the impact promised by its proponents. Since this development would be in the best interest of both America as a nation and humanity as a whole, it's one that I would celebrate. What's more (although my conservative friends will gasp in disbelief upon reading this), if a causal link was established between an improvement in national and international conditions and conservative policies, I would admit to the error of my previous positions and alter my views accordingly.

That is because, when it comes to the use of ideology and partisanship, people who are not motivated by pure self-interest can generally be lumped into two categories:

- The ones who are motivated by the cause of humanity.

- The ones who are motivated by personal vanity.

There is a simple way to determine the group of which you are a member. It involves asking yourself the following question... and, most importantly, answering it as honestly as humanly possible.

If you had a choice between a world in which the other side had power and the nation flourished or a world in which your side had power but the nation was suffering, which would you choose?

I can't answer this question for you, but I can certainly answer it for Rush Limbaugh. He, like everyone else who falls into the latter category, has invested a great deal of his personal ego in the ideological cause with which he now associates. As a result of that investment, he has now become so obsessed with winning - with having his champions emerge on top of the pack and the guys he opposes sink to the bottom - that he would willingly wish four years of misery upon the nation just so that it could result in the triumph of his team.

This isn't how I feel, and it isn't how the vast majority of Americans feel either. While most of us, being human, are capable of having our pride overcome our better judgment and nobler impulses (a rule to which I am certainly not an exception), at the end of the day it is our desire to improve the conditions of the three hundred million people who live in America that motivates our hopes and dreams in politics.

In short, I sincerely hope the newly ascendant Republicans in the House succeed.

Oh, and I also hope Rush Limbaugh fails.

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