Defusing the Political Powder Keg: Part 2

Defusing the Political Powder Keg: Part 2

Publish Date
May 26, 2013

Part II: A Fundamental View on American Politics


  1. An Introduction: The Political Thought Hierarchy
  1. The Ideological Questions: What do you believe?
  1. Issue Categorization: A Closer Look at the types of Issues
  1. A Conclusion: Why does this matter?

An Introduction: The Political Thought Hierarchy

Looking within the realm of political idealism, it’s critical to look at the right issues. There are hundreds of relevant questions, policies, potential policies, et cetera that define our political beliefs. Looking at all of them would be exhausting; and inefficient. For instance, discussing both the future of Medicaid and the future of Social Security would yield similar conversations. Philosophically, we are discussing the larger question of how large a safety net our government should provide, albeit with some policy-specific twists in each case.
Not surprisingly, we can boil differences in ideology down to a few key questions. Let’s start at the beginning. All political discourse essentially answers one question: “How should our nation be governed?” That’s pretty broad, but let’s put it at the top of our hierarchy:
notion image
Under that fall our key ideological questions. These are overarching ideological questions that drive an individual’s views on the political issues of today. Currently, there are six such questions that we can use as a base for discussing any political topic. So let’s add a level to our hierarchy (and discuss them in detail a bit later):
notion image
Those ideological questions break apart a bit further. News and politics generally don’t operate at such a philosophical level. Instead, actual policy issues are discussed. Within each ideological question, there exist three types of policy issue (a policy issue being the practical manifestation of a philosophical debate):
1. Fundamental – meaningful issues which directly apply to the philosophical question of the debating parties2. Pandering – issues which are raised to win political points but lack the defining characteristics of Fundamental Issues3. Invisible – issues that do not receive mainstream discourse but can or will have a large impact on our future
The hierarchy is getting a bit more confusing, but the below graphic provides some more context of what I am talking about:
notion image
Below the types of issues are actual policy questions. Things such as “To what extent should gun ownership be curtailed?” or “How do we adjust health care to make the system more efficient?” fall within these categories. Let’s add one more level to our hierarchy to represent these questions:
notion image
Below that, each of these issues has more specific components (and thus another level of “Sub-Issues” could be added). However, for the sake of focusing on the bigger picture, this level of detail is more than sufficient.
Today, we’ll take a cursory look at the ideological overarching questions. Over the next six installments (one each month or os), each question will be examined in detail:
  • What issues within them are fundamental, pandering, and invisible?
  • What are the various views held on these questions?
  • Where do the present-day American left and the right currently stand?
  • How can we reconcile different views in a) where can most agree and b) what are the key differences when we don’t?

The Ideological Questions: What do you believe?

While the U.S. is filled with the most derisive politics in recent memory, the number of issues separating left from right is not as large as it seems. As pundits point to a plethora of issues like gun control, abortion, taxes, education, and more, there are really only six questions where people potentially don’t “see eye-to-eye.”
The six philosophical questions (detailed below) define the belief system of an individual. In each of these cases, the answers to these questions can inform where a person is most likely to stand on issues like education, gun rights, health care, entitlements, and all of the policy issues discussed today.
One major difference between defining ideology in six questions as opposed to using just one is that there is not a continuous spectrum of positions. Today, most of the dialogue focuses on a “far left – left – center – right – far right” spectrum that plots everyone on a scale. Looking at our six questions, you could easily use responses from them to plot people on our 1-D or even a 2-D belief spectrum in an effort to generalize and simplify how we define people.
However, these generalizations are exactly why our political discourse has been polarized; people have a strong belief on a few policy issues, but see those neatly clumped into caricatures by overly simplistic political commentators. By looking at these questions individually and independently, we obtain three benefits:
  1. We gain clarity into each of the individual questions
  1. We can obtain a fuller view of an individual’s beliefs
  1. We can find common ground
Of these benefits, the third is the most important. Discussing these questions at a philosophical level can illuminate how much a lot of us actually agree upon. From that point, the building blocks are in place to rationally discuss policy issues.
And with that, our six philosophical questions:

1. How sufficient ought our personal “safety net” be?

The first question is straight forward – what should the Government (whether it be Federal, State, or Local) provide on an individual basis for every person in society? Specifically, we’re focused on items that are granted individually – e.g. Medicare benefits – that are either granted to some individuals or not others or have different pay-in/pay-out rates among individuals. How expansive should these benefits be for those who are unemployed, the elderly, those in poverty, or the mentally disabled?

2. How big a role should the government play in one’s everyday life?

The next question is how big a role should government play in other day-to-day decisions that you make? How much should the government regulate on things like education, corporate policies, your civil liberties, lifestyle choices, et cetera?

3. How should the government manage the power of corporations?

While corporation is often defined as “a business,” we’ll define it here as any organized aggregation of people. Managing the interests of those organized structures is a primary role of government that has become more and more critical as the US has become larger and more interconnected. It is similar in concept to the “tyranny of the majority,” first popularized by Alexander de Tocqueville. His statement was that “a government must protects the rights of a few against the interests of many” in order to sustain a functioning society and prevent mob rule.
The manifestation of this that we see today is in a wide array of businesses, special interest groups, and unions have become very large and powerful. All of these are aggregations of people which, if left unchecked, could infringe on the rights of others or inhibit the functioning of society. Our question is: how should the government regulate the balance between the power of a corporation and the power of individuals?

4. What is the role of the US in international relations?

What role should the US play in shaping the other nations of the world? There are a variety of viewpoints here, ranging from ambivalent observer, to respected diplomat, to world police.

5. When and how should we pay for the services we provide?

How do we pay for the benefits and services that we choose to provide based on the above beliefs? In other words, “How do we pay the bill?” The answers will vary over time and depend on the financing options available. Currently they would include: raising taxes, shifting taxes (essentially raising taxes on a subset of the population), debt financing, and monetary expansion. Ultimately it is a question of who should bear the burden for the costs of a civil society.

6. How centralized should our government be?

This was a defining issue of the Civil War era, and remains a fundamental pillar of political ideology. The question is at what level would we most prefer government to make decisions: at a national level, state level, city/town/county level? While the positions here can vary from issue to issue, each of us has a level that we philosophically prefer as the starting point for discussion on a policy issue.

Issue Categorization: A Closer Look at the types of Issues

Now that we have the questions at hand that we want to take a look at, let’s take a closer look at the three types of issues with a bit more detail and contextualize them with actual examples.
Fundamental Issues: meaningful issues which directly apply to the philosophical question of the debating parties
To be a fundamental issue, the issue must satisfy three criteria:
  • Have a material impact on the nation moving forward
  • Have a reasonable chance of action within an immediate timeframe
  • Be a subject of differing views and active debate
Some examples are: How should Medicare or Medicaid be adjusted? What kind of regulation should the government have over the internet? What should our tax policy be? How centralized should education regulation be? Should we act to intervene in other nations’ conflicts if basic human rights are being violated?
Pandering Issues: issues which are raised to win political points but lack the defining characteristics of Fundamental Issues
Issues that are not fundamental issues but that are often discussed are generally pandering issues. They still apply to the philosophic question, but they either a) won’t have a material impact on the nation, b) likely won’t be acted on, or c) the issues themselves are actually not controversial. If any of those are the case, the issue may be philosophically important, but it is not relevant to discourse today. Let’s take some examples failing each of the three criteria to understand why:
Example: Should we close tax breaks for oil companies?
Criteria failed: a) won’t have a material impact on the nation
Why? This is a popular talking point. However, it’s not important for two reasons. One, the benefit relative to the size of the deficit is immaterial. Two, the cuts would be passed on to consumers in higher energy rates. As such, the actual impact is extremely minimal.
Example: Should abortion be illegal?
Criteria failed: b) likely won't be acted on
Why? No matter how much both sides like to talk this up, the reality is very little has changed here since Roe v. Wade. Add that to the fact that a majority of Americans favor the status quo, and it’s very unlikely that anything will change in the near future. It is still brought up in politics as a rallying point for the bases of each side.
Example: Should we prevent banks from doing things that are dangerous to the economy but are not yet illegal because our regulations are ineffective?
Criteria failed: c) the issues themselves are not controversial
Why? Even though the answer here is obviously “yes,” both sides love to bring up how they will do this better than the other side. While the implementation does matter, it is not controversial philosophically, and we can all agree on the general premise.
It’s important to note that issues such as the above still relate to our underlying philosophical questions, and people will have opinions (occasionally strong ones) about the subject matter. However, they do not merit the attention they receive in general (due to one of the above failings). For the purposes of this discussion we will cover what they are and why they are pandering issues, but we will not focus on them too heavily as they merely obstruct our view of the key fundamental issues that divide.
Invisible Issues – issues that do not receive mainstream discourse but can or will have a large impact on our future
Invisible issues are relevant, but are not being discussed, presumably because we are focused on other issues. These issues way satisfy most of the criteria laid out for fundamental issues, but are lacking in contextual discourse because they aren’t being talked about, or often the technology that they relate to is not broadly understood yet. They also include issues that should be controversial, but aren’t at the moment.
Examples of these are a little tough to come by, but some examples include:
Should we invest in protected transformers to further secure our electric grid?
  • Why is this an issue? Studies have shown that the US grid is very susceptible to an EMP or Solar Flare which could take down electricity production for several months. There are methods that can be done to mitigate this threat, but they could be expensive. More broadly this could fit as a sub issue to the question of “What should the government do to protect from long-term risks/natural disasters that have a very low likelihood of happening within the near future?”
Should the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act be repealed or rewritten?
  • Why is this an issue? For anyone that understands technology at all, this bill is both unconstitutional and blatantly, stupidly, broad. Unfortunately, most in the media and politics are not technologically literate enough to bring this to the forefront.
Should human cloning be legal?
  • Why is this an issue? Technology that is in its infancy or technology that has not been created yet still presents us with big philosophical questions. While these issues are almost hypothetical, they are still political issues, and do relate to the philosophic questions oriented above them. As such, they still merit discussion.

A Conclusion: Why does this matter?

Establishing a hierarchy can organize our discussion, and frame political discourse in the right context. In doing so, we can isolate the key subjects (our philosophical questions), and further filter through the non-useful discourse (our pandering issues) to focus the discourse on the questions we should be focused on (fundamental issues, and raising the awareness of invisible issues). By doing so, we can find common ground and hone our discourse on productive discussion topics.
It’s also important to note that these classifications in-and-of themselves may be controversial. For instance, people on both sides may take issue with classifying abortion as a pandering issue. Certainly, abortion used to be a fundamental issue back in the years leading up to Roe v. Wade (a corollary: issue categorization can change over time). However, we take the relatively minor actions taken on abortion since, and the strong national support for the status quo as a sign that the topic is fairly settled.
Based on this hierarchy, we’ll frame the rest of our discussion. As mentioned, we’ll dive into each of these six philosophical questions in detail over the next few months, with the goal of explaining the various viewpoints out there on our philosophical questions in a way that someone with a differing viewpoint can understand (though they obviously won’t agree).While that is the point at which I’d really like people to join the discussion, it’d be great to hear your thoughts on the hierarchy laid out here. Does it make sense? Are there philosophical questions that are missing? Is the three way categorization of issues the right way to do so? Comment below!
Coming up next: Part III: How sufficient ought our personal “safety net” be?