A Liberal Argument

While minding Ezra’s place this weekend, I wrote:
Whatever the issue is, Democrats’ advocacy stems from a belief in equality and the advancement of human rights. Our policies are not forged by social Darwinism, but by empathy and justice. Those are our moral values, and they’re not that difficult to convey.
There are those who disagree (as evidenced by the associated comments thread), but I’ve found that when you’re actually talking face to face with one of those people we’re forever hearing about—the ones who support Democratic principles yet persistently vote Republican (i.e. against their own interests)—a human rights argument, playing to people’s empathy and sense of fairness, is a damn effective strategy. It’s also amazing how quickly people can become ashamed of beliefs rooted solely in self-interest, and thereby open to alternative ideas, when you construct a real world scenario for them in which others are disadvantaged by policies extending from those beliefs.

Supporting policies out of self-interest favors conservatives and hurts liberals, because often the benefit to the individual offered by a liberal alternative is not immediate and must be explained with nuance, which we are all painfully aware is anathema to the typical voter. For example, saying “I’m going to give you a $300 tax cut right now and you’re gonna get a check in the mail” is a lot more appealing than “Because we’re at war, tax cuts aren’t a good idea, because we can’t do both without driving the deficit into the stratosphere, but in the long term, not getting a tax cut is healthier for our economy and thus will prevent job losses and the devaluing of the dollar and the increased cost of goods and the unavailability of college grants and a whole lot of other things, which will be worth far more than $300 to you in the long run.”

The way to get past that inequality is not to constantly try to reframe each argument individually, because there are some, like the example offered, that just aren’t ever going to be able to compete with the delicious simplicity and immediacy of the counterargument. Instead, we must lead the nation away from self-interest; we are all dependent upon each other in infinite ways and it is our obligation to remind the electorate of the importance of such interconnectedness. No man is an island. So said John Donne, and so should we say. We are in this thing together, and our policies are geared to ensure that no man is ever left adrift on his own, without a safety net, without the help he needs, without a community. To vote purely out of self-interest is to turn one’s back on the belief that there is a social conscience to be nurtured for the benefit of us all.

Empathy and justice—justice for all—are our guiding principles. When we shy away from them, we fail. When we refuse to say the patently obvious—voting out of self-interest alone and ignoring the oppressed or the weak among us is not what America is about—we fail. People don’t like being called greedy or stingy or mean or exlusionary, even though they’re quite content to act that way. What allows them to continue to act (vote) that way is our reluctance to force them to see the results of such choices. Your choices are hurting other people. Your self-interest comes at the expense of others. Our priority must be refocusing voters’ attention outward so that they may see the lives and needs of others in addition to their own. As long as they gaze inward, they see only their own desires, only that which affects them. Everything else is expendable; all other rights are special; nothing else registers.

But there is a solution, if we are willing to grab it with both hands. There is no better antidote to unmitigated self-interest than honest self-examination. How long will we wait for something that most people actively try to avoid spontaneously begins? I for one can wait no longer.

E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. That is our country’s motto, and we need to take it back…and we must say it over and over and over again, until the notion that policymaking for the greater good of the many has been brought back to prominence and usurped the tempting urge to give singular attention that which best benefits oneself.

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