If You Can Keep Your Head

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Recently I saw an article with a headline that went more or less like this: “I’m a Conservative: I Care About Character.” The thesis of the piece was: “That’s why I can’t support Trump.”

I didn’t finish the article. I didn’t need to. I felt that I could have written it myself — or a hundred articles like it. Not because I’m a conservative (I’m not) or because I habitually care about politicians’ “character” enough to vote for or against them because of it. I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils. But I understand that everyone has some particular issue that he or she cares most about, at least right now; and for the conservative gentleman or lady it’s “character.” Some people care, or think they care, about only one issue, ever. And an article written from that point of view would be simplicity itself.

I vote for politicians, not for friends; and I almost always vote for the person I consider the lesser of the two evils.

But I look at the world in a different way, and I believe that the year of the Trump presidency has taught a lot of other people to see things that way too. Here it is: there are many possible reasons why intelligent people vote or refuse to vote for someone; these reasons are pretty much apples and oranges, with economic concerns being somehow “weighed” against character concerns or constitutional concerns or the horribleness of the opposing candidate; this is an imperfect world, but somehow one makes choices on the basis of those various concerns, because one has to choose (not voting being a choice like any other). All of this seems self-evident, when you think about it, but I believe that many people have become more conscious of it because of the Trump presidency.

If you’re a libertarian, as I am, you may hail or detest Donald Trump because of his positions on taxes or immigration or trade or “infrastructure” or his lack of traditional gravitas . . . You can expand this list pretty far, and it’s unlikely that you will hail or detest him on every available front. But you get to choose which of them are most important, and you get to change your mind later on. You may, for instance, like his financial policies, and if enough of them are implemented, you may not like him so well afterwards. He gave you your way on your most important issue, so fine; but now you’re looking at his other ideas.

This messy way of thinking operates throughout life, not just in politics, although many true and upright people do not realize that it does. Others believe it is a sin to realize that, and to act upon it. These good people may be purists who cannot bring themselves to make any political choices, because all of them seem dirty. Or they may be rationalizers who make a messy decision and then suddenly discover that what they chose was entirely and uniquely moral and necessary, and if you don’t agree with it, you are a deeply flawed human being.

It’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various.

To many of these people, however, Trump has provided a memorable lesson. He has presented them with a concrete problem — the assessment of his presidency — that cries out for them to see the complexity of choice. He has given them the chance to practice thinking like, well, good economists. He didn’t intend to do that, but he did.

He also gave them practice in distinguishing sane thinking from insane thinking. When we see someone attributing every wrong characteristic to Donald Trump, ignoring any of his successes and inventing, if necessary, failures, we have identified someone who has not only made a choice of values about the world but is using it to create a world. In what other area of life do people feel impelled to say that a person whom they dislike for one reason is also unlikable for every other reason in the cosmos? The same goes for the zealots who simply cannot get enough of Trump, his tweets and rallies. In what other area of life do people wait in line for hours to hear strings of clichés, most of them meaningless, and cheer them to the rafters, imagining that now they can depart in peace, having seen all the greatness and the glory of this age?

The fact that politics turns some into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents.

I know, it’s disappointing to discover that so many of our fellow citizens are, in political terms, insane; that they are living in a different world from the one in which life is complicated and choices are various and difficult, and that they don’t seem likely to recover. One might imagine that their world, because it’s simpler than the real world, is also easier and therefore better to live in. Actually, the reason it’s simple is that there’s practically nothing in it, and this can be an inconvenience.

Yet these people are, like Trump, good lessons to us all — in two ways.

One is obvious: let’s not be like them. The other is not obvious, but it needs to be learned, so that we don’t end up in the same world with them. It starts with the recognition that outside the political realm, most of these people are eminently sane and well intentioned, and blessed with some practical success in life. When we recognize this, we see how important it is to refuse the temptation to make reductionist judgments on their lives, as they do on the lives of others. The fact that politics turns them into obsessive bores or slavering zealots doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed as easily as they dismiss their political opponents. It’s true, we may need to lead the conversation to something outside the realm of American party politics, but even this act may, just possibly, show them that there is a way back to the messy but vital world of actual thought, that we are taking it, and it makes us happy.




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Comments

Michael Morrison

Dear Professor Hunter,

Like you and the article you referenced, I couldn't finish yours. You admitted you vote for an alleged lesser evil -- tacitly admitting you vote for an evil.

You do have other choices, even including the futile not voting. But someone intelligent enough to write as well as you do, and intelligent enough to become a professor, surely should recognize the far wiser and far more moral vote is not just against a greater evil, but FOR a pro-liberty candidate.

Or, at worst, a least of, say, five evils. Meaning, this last time, a vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate for president. He was on every state ballot.

People who do what you did, and apparently do, are the reason we get such rotten office-holders. Rational people, advocates of liberty, do not have to settle. We do not have to accept an alleged lesser evil. We can vote for a pro-freedom candidate.

I do hope you think this through before the next election comes around.

Thank you.

Johnimo

Right on, Wayland! Nicely written and thought out.

Chris Nelson

As I've been reading The Righteous Mind (Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt) lately I've been having realizations about how the mind "actually" works in these cases.

We don't have particularly rational ideas about why we love (or loathe) various politicians. We've made up our minds to them pretty quickly — instantaneously, in some cases (maybe most). What happens after that is the rationalization and "reasoning" in support of a decision that was made on an intuitive level. So, yeah, if we're at all articulate then we can string together "reasons why" we favor (or disfavor) him . . . but the decision was made before we tried to find the words for it.

It's an interesting read.

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