Reframing The Ideologies Of This Election

One side believes in Original Sin, that people are basically bad. The other side is focused on skills and capacities. This is why I’m a liberal.

Election day is just a few weeks away. I see the messaging and I see that it’s becoming more and more urgent. Both sides say that the other side will destroy this country. Trump says that Biden is a socialist and that he will make the country more socialist. Biden seems to just be saying that he will bring the country together. I don’t see him talking much, but I know he’s out there, campaigning in one way or another. I would prefer someone other than either of them to vote for, but this is what we got.

As I look upon the messaging of both parties, I see one side fixated on motivating people to work. That’s the GOP. They think that people are ready to work or they wouldn’t be fighting so hard against a new stimulus plan. It’s been months since the last one was passed and yes, the economy keeps moving, but a lot of people are suffering.

The impression I have, listening to the GOP in Congress is that if we had worked harder, and saved our money, then we’d have weathered the pandemic just fine. I also see Republicans who insist that the pandemic is in some way, not as bad as liberals make this out to be. I live in a Red State with Republican super-majorities in both houses. They are taking this pandemic very, very seriously. So I know it’s not all Republicans playing down the pandemic.

I haven’t been watching the Democrats too closely, but I know that in California and New York, they have made significant progress in reducing their caseloads. They have experimented with lockdowns, social distancing, and masks and they have found what works for them.

I know that it’s easy to engage in black and white thinking, where there is nothing in between. It’s easy to assume that there is no continuum in our politics. But I do see a continuum. What I seek to contrast here is the liberal and conservative group think.

On one side, I see the conservatives with a basic message that says that people are essentially bad, that bad behavior is human nature. They say that we must give people incentives to work, to contribute to our communities, and to be productive. They say that we must dangle enough carrots and flash enough images of people in prison to keep them in line and to keep them working.

On the other side, there are liberals like myself, who see that the system has been rigged for decades in favor of the wealthy. We see that once people become multi-millionaires and billionaires, there is a temptation to believe that what works for them will work for everyone. There is also a temptation to worship people with money as if they alone have found the answers to our problems. And there is a temptation to buy influence with money.

I think that among liberals, there is a growing realization that people are inherently good and that they want to do the right thing. While conservatives will tell us that people are basically selfish and unwilling to share, what they won’t tell us is that selfishness is learned behavior. I think there is a growing realization that our lives depend on our willingness and abilities to cooperate, and that, like the cells in our bodies, the moment we decide to stop cooperating, we die.

I’ve been trying to boil it all down into a few simple concepts to make it easier for me to understand humanity. In terms of political ideology, one side says that we must use heaven and hell to maintain social order because people are basically bad. Another side, the one that I’m promoting here, says that we can cast motivation aside and just focus on teaching people the skills they need to get along. People experience joy when they learn new skills and apply them — that’s the reward.

Historian and author Rutger Bregman says that the standard model of humans as self-interested beings only looking out for themselves is a line taught to maintain social control. Apparently, that model of human behavior has no basis in reality. Business Insider reports the following observations made by Bregman:

Robert Frank, the economist, did these studies where he literally found that if students study standard neoliberal economics” based on the self-interest model, Bregman says, then those students “become more selfish. These theories create the kind of people that they presuppose.”

So it’s beginning to look like selfishness is a learned behavior. That’s not a surprise to me. Empathy is a learned behavior. So is violence. And so is the relationship between work and money.

Over the years, a few concepts have revealed themselves in a conservative culture. There is a persistent notion that if we give people who already have a lot of money, more money, they will have been properly rewarded for their performance, and they will work harder. Conversely, the people who work the front lines and lower management have been receiving wages that don’t track with inflation and have almost nothing to do with their performance relative to the upper classes. We know this because wages have increased only 15% over the last 40 years while executive compensation has increased 900% during the same time.

Those trends have a near-zero correlation with the way free markets work and almost everything to do with how the rules were written, further exacerbating inequality. Here are some interesting findings from the scientific community about inequality:

  • High wealth inequality linked with greater support for populist leaders — A 2019 study showed that extreme wealth inequality may produce a desire for populist and even autocratic leaders in order to restore order in society.
  • High inequality impairs support for public goods — A 2019 study found that, “…in a very unequal society, those people with higher incomes were less inclined to contribute their proportional share towards public goods and services. This, in turn, also led people on the lowest incomes to contribute less. The breakdown of cooperation under high inequality has implications for funding of essential services for society.”
  • When the rules are rigged, it’s hard to tell if people win by luck, talent or the rules — A 2019 study found that, “winners were far more likely to believe the game’s outcome was fair, even when it was heavily tilted in their favor by rules”.
  • Inequality of opportunity drags down everyone’s motivation — A 2020 study found that, “found that when people were told there were wide disparities in pay between them and their peers, they were less willing to work, including participants who were told that other people were being paid much less than they were.”

When I look upon Donald Trump as president, I see a man who celebrates inequality. He pontififates inequality. Yet he is unwilling to say that the rules were rigged in his favor, even as he stacks the courts in his favor, even as he files lawsuits to rig the election in his favor.

At the same time, I see conservatives talking about the free market and how it should be free while maintaining silence on the monopolies created by the very laws they passed. I see conservatives promoting the idea that if we dangle enough carrots in front of people, and brandish enough sticks behind them, then we will get economic productivity, we’ll get social order. They tell us that punishment and reward will give us peace, regardless of the skills and capacities of the people involved.

I’m a liberal because I don’t believe that punishment and reward actually works to promote the kind of behavior in people that we want to see. I want to live in a country where people are nice to each other because they want to be, not just because they expect money in return for their courtesy.

I’m a liberal because I don’t believe that punishment and reward are required for social and economic order. I believe that punishment and reward tend to reinforce behavior, but they don’t actually teach the skills required to meet the code of conduct we expect to see in people. I’m a liberal because I believe in skills and capacities before punishment and reward. You can dangle all the carrots you want in front of people to get them to do what you want them to do, but if they don’t have the skills to do what you want them to do, then motivation is not a factor.

Here is a concrete example that anyone could understand. When a child breaks a rule in a house, we are quick to punish the child thinking that we’re motivating him to do better. When that same child has trouble reading, we are compassionate and work through each reading problem with the child. The common theme here is capacity and skill.

This election is not about conservatives vs liberals or Democrats vs Republicans. To me, this election is about whether we want to give people the resources they need to learn the skills they need to live a decent life, or if we want to continue down the path of punishing people and rewarding people for their actions, without regard to their skills and capacities.

In Trump, I see an authoritarian who thinks that punishing people and rewarding people is business as usual politics. Punishment and reward are the currency of authoritarian leaders with high expectations and detachment from the reality of the skills that the people have. In Joe Biden, I wish I could say more, but to me, he’s just relief from Trump. I just think the liberals behind Joe Biden want what I want. We want a compassionate society that is willing to teach the skills we need for a better life together.

If we want peace and social and economic order, then we need to find the compassion required to fully understand why people succeed and fail. That means tossing motivation aside to look at the skills and capacities that people have to respond to their circumstances. Then we give people the skills they need to succeed without regard to their motivations because people are always motivated to do better when they have the skills to do so.

Write on.

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