My One Wish for 2012

It’s that time of the year when
many review the past, set goals for the next year, and make a few
resolutions and wishes. My goals are ongoing, and I have no new
resolutions, but I do have one wish—a very important one.

But first, a bit of background. For
only the fifth time in US history, we’re facing a momentous choice about
the nature of government. Both Republicans and Democrats believe this
to be true. In fact, Newt Gingrich
recently reached back to the 1860’s saying, “This is the most important
election since 1860 because there’s such a dramatic difference between
the best food-stamp president in history and the best paycheck
candidate.” That’s a completely inaccurate, cheap shot. Obama, however,
fully agrees that this election may well be the most significant
statement since Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency. 

Actually, there are four inflection
points in American history when the role of government was up for grabs:
the revolutionary period, the 1860’s consensus regarding the Civil War,
FDR’s initiation of the social net in the ’30s and the 1960’s attempt
by Goldwater Republicans to dismantle the social net. This choice will
be the fifth. It reminds us of one important fact: the United States is
not a static entity, but primarily an ongoing experiment. 

What drives my wish for 2012 is a series of very concrete interviews last week by Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker, asking voters about their favorite Republican candidate and why. The interviews revealed a shocking disregard for policy.

Jonathan
Gabhart, a 21 year-old college student from Spencer, Iowa, is leaning to
Ron Paul, because of the Texas lawmaker’s unpolished speaking style—a
“high-pitched, squirrelly voice.  He seems like a real person because of
his eccentricities.” 

Andy Schwaegler, a 45-year-old tree farmer from Orford, N.H., is drawn to Mitt Romney
because the well-coiffed candidate reminds him of his father, a
business executive. “It’s something about the way he carries himself,”
Mr. Schwaegler said.

Nancy Weaver, a 60-year-old retiree in Grinnell, Iowa, favors Representative Michele Bachmann because the congresswoman raised 23 foster children. “That’s a huge endeavor for any man or woman,” she said.

“It drives
me crazy,” Rose Williams, a retired teacher in Bridgewater, N.H., said
of Mr. Romney’s voice. “When he’s on TV or on a commercial, I put it on
mute.” 

Dwayne
Kriegel, a postal carrier in Grinnell, who is backing Mr. Santorum in
the caucus on Tuesday. “He’s passionate about his dedication to family
values,” Mr. Kriegel said. “The others say what they think the voters
want to hear, while he lives it.” 

Eva Dunn, 60, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, has no patience for Jon M. Huntsman Jr.,
the former governor of Utah. Her objection: his demeanor in the
debates. “He comes across as a preacher, and I just want to take his
hands and tie them behind his back because he’s always pleading,” she
said.

Again and
again, voters pointed to the candidates’ personal lives as a guide to
how they would lead the country. Mr. Gingrich’s two divorces, and his
admission of adultery, gave pause to a number of people. “You wonder in
times if it will affect his judgment,” said Zack Pickard, 36, a software
salesman in New Sharon, Iowa. “Are we going to be distracted by his
social missteps? It’s a distraction. Your leader should not be
distracted.”

Clearly, we are emotional beings and most of our decisions,
especially our voting decisions are based upon our gut and the state of
our glands. In his new book, Daniel Kahneman emphasizes the emotional
nature of our decisions and emphasizes the irrational in our lives. Although most
of us think that we are conscious, autonomous authors of our judgments
and our choices, the truth is otherwise. A study of voting patterns in
precincts of Arizona in 2000 showed that the support for propositions to
increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the
polling stations was in a school than when it was in a nearby location. A
separate experiment showed that exposing people to images of classrooms
and school lockers also increased the tendency of participants to
support a school initiative.

Such “priming” has consistently demonstrated troubling effects. Money
primed people are also more selfish: they were much less willing to
spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an
experimental task. . . . The general theme of these findings is that
the idea of money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with
others, to depend on others or to accept demands from others. . . .
(These findings) suggest that living in a culture that surrounds us with
reminders of money may shape our behavior in ways that we do not know
about and of which we may not be proud.
 

In still other experiments,
researchers asked Princeton students to rate pictures of men’s faces on
various attributes, including likability and competence. Observers
agreed quite well on those ratings. . . . The results of the electoral
races to the ratings of competence that Prince students had made, based
on brief exposure to photographs and without any political context. In
about 70% of the races for senator, congressman, and governor, the
election winner was the candidate whose face had earned a higher rating
of competence.
(
This leads me to wonder how Abraham Lincoln would have done in our world.)

In addition to our gut decision making, American history tells us
that personality and personal ethics have little impact upon
presidential decision making. More than half of our Presidents would
never pass the financial ethics tests, much less today’s sexual morality
test. It would be terribly shocking to 95% of the American population
to realize that when it comes to ethics, and especially sexual ethics or
personality characteristics, there is NO significant relationship to
the expertise and commitments of all to government policy and national
success. Some of our best presidents were what we’d label today as
flagrant womanizers, and that includes Jefferson, FDR and Dwight
Eisenhower. It’s a truism that character, personality and ethics play
little role a president’s decision making processes.

So I’m primarily concerned with a candidate’s policy commitments,
especially when it comes to his perspective on the role and nature of
government.  

To be specific, if you want an inconsequential government with no
social nets and no regulations then vote Republican. If, instead, you
prefer a modestly redistributive and regulatory government that the
country has relied upon since the New Deal, then be prepared to vote
Democratic.  And remember that all the talk about financial austerity is
primarily a subversive attempt to ignore the larger issue of the nature
of government.

Thus, my number one wish for 2012 is that voters will attempt
to set aside their tribal commitments and  base their presidential
deicision, at least partially, upon significant—truly significant—policy
matters. 

Yeah, I know. My beloved grandmother would respond to my wish with a
proverb from her English forebears about the utter futility of wishing
and the necessity of taking action: if wishes were horses, beggars will
ride. Still, I can make one wish for 2012, can’t I?

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