The biggest divide in America is not between those who believe in war and peace. It isn't between one vision of Jesus or another. It's between the people who believe the world is a fundamentally simple place and those who don't. In essentially every political debate, one side tries play up complexity and the other tries to simplify. Inevitably, simplifying arguments come from the right.
Right-wing political theory stems from an understanding of the world in which everything (and everyone) can be understood through one-sentence descriptors. Got an issue with the President? Then you hate America. Got drugs? Then you're just a criminal. You say you want a revolution? Then you must be a terrorist. Indeed, lines of argument from the right always break down into a simple three step process:
1. Identify an individual or small group with a vague descriptor that covers a lot of ground.
2. Identify a trait that seems to fit with the descriptor, according to your gut.
3. Assume that the traits apply to everyone in the group, and blame the target for those traits.
This simple process is the basic formula for the right wing's attack politics. Not only is it used to generate talking points at the highest levels of government, it is used by conservatives right here on Newsvine. The right wing is on a perpetual search for simple little name tags that they believe say everything you need to know. It isn't a conspiracy, nor is it a strategem. It's how American conservatives think.
This is evidenced by the fact that it's not solely used as a negative. Among the groups presented in strict and simplistic terms are Americans themselves. Immigrants, for example, legal or not, represent a threat to the fabric of society (so the logic goes) because they don't fit in the "American" box. They might not be good with English. They might not be Christian. They might have strange cultural values. Because "American" is considered by most conservatives to be "me and my neighbors," anyone who doesn't fit the label is "un-American" and therefore a threat to "America" as an idealized concept. Multicultural values are seen as destructive because they violate the simplistic definition of "American" that conservatives rely on.
This train of thought it particularly difficult to derail because any attempt to point out the often-contradictory nature of simplistic statements requires adding complexity, which simply isn't digested. The three-step process systematically excludes additional information, so introducing complex ideas to the debate is impossible. If a liberal candidate gives a 40-minute speech, conservative critics will look for the simplest violation of their values and focus on it, regardless of context.
This simple vs. complicated battle has been the Right Wing's greatest strength for the last fifteen years. Much has been made of how Republicans are winning the "war of language" involved in putting policy in simple, palatable terms. The Clean Air Act, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, Homeland Security: these are all very appealing terms. Of course, they aren't true. The Clean Air Act does not necessarily clean the air, because it has loopholes. Children are always left behind, because bureaucracy is difficult. And so forth. But the ideas are simple and appealing.
The fact is that Democrats have made advances despite a failure to master this disingenuous use of language. Democratic "straight talk" is complicated. Republicans have become unpopular because their policies don't seem to be working as hoped, especially in Iraq, not because Americans understand the issues. Democrats still face an obstacle in trying to woo conservatives, which is their greater reluctance towards any argument that fails to simplifying everything.
By now, an astute reader will notice that this article, so far, is guilty of exactly the simplistic thinking it is criticizing. I have spent the last eight paragraphs talking about "conservatives" and "Republicans" as if they, as a group, are all a bunch of simplistic idiots who think in exactly the same fashion. This is by design, and I apologize for it. I even followed the process: I identified a group (the 'simplifiers'), I assumed they were conservatives, and I went on to accuse all conservatives of simplifying everything. My objective here is to make a point, and doing so while also embodying the problem kills two birds with one stone.
Many Americans think in the way that I've described, and they aren't all conservatives. Some conservatives are open to complexity, and some liberals are unwilling to think any way but simply. The gulf isn't the Left vs. the Right: it's the extremes vs. the middle. Fact is, it's not hard to look around Newsvine for self-described liberals who sound just like I do above, asserting in fiery tones what "the problem with Republicans" without specifying who they're talking about. America's moderates are more likely to see things in complex terms, because more have avoided falling into a black-and-white worldview. Meanwhile, hard-line partisans are less likely to accept compromise, or consider all the evidence, or listen to their opponents. And it is the hard-liners who represent the political backbones of their respective parties.
I call this simplifying process "sockpuppet politics," because these sort of arguments evoke the following image in my mind: the simplifiers are wearing sockpuppets, and whenever they want to make a point about some other group (political parties, social classes, etc.), they debate with the puppet and make sure the puppet says the stupidest things possible to make sure it's a one-sided debate. Why debate with a real candidate when you can debate with the SNL parody of that candidate? The latter is always easier.
Even better, why debate a real person? The specters and boogeymen of political rhetoric often have their role grossly exaggerated or don't exist in the first place. The 'Muslims who want to take over America,' for example, are not a real group, much less a real threat. There is not a vast Muslim conspiracy to populate America and change the money to say "In Allah We Trust." But that doesn't stop the likes of Rep. Virgil Goode from evoking such imagery.
I think that simplification is something that Republican politicians are more likely to indulge in than Democratic politicians. There is a common misconception, for example, that "simple government" means "small government," as is evidenced by conservative support for "simple" programs like No Child Left Behind, whose bureaucratic complexity is actually staggering. But the problem of simplistic thinking is something both parties have in bulk among voters.
My position is (predictably) that everything is complicated. Making wise decisions, I think, comes only from doing the research, getting the data, and applying the findings. If any other process gets good results, it's luck. Things don't work the way they should (or else things like car accidents, software crashes, and hyperinflation wouldn't exist). Things work the way they work, and they do it anything but simply. Anyone who claims to have a simple solution to any big problem is selling snake oil. And anyone who describes large groups of people in single, unqualified sentences is probably at least a little bit wrong.
Again, my apologies to self-described conservatives reading this. I'll admit that this could be taken as trolling. By showing the problem in action, I hope to have made clear what it is I'm talking about. When you know what to look for, this kind of simplification starts to pop up everywhere.