What if I'm Wrong?

I’ve been bothered by a thing or two of late: What if Romney is actually what America needs? What if my political views are wrong? It’s hard to tell.

How does, and how should, one decide? Does it really matter?

Many don’t bother. David Brooks, in his April 12 op-ed, described the “young idealists” in my generation – “bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project” – but yet disengaged from the national political process. He surmises that this group is “really good at thinking locally and globally, but not as good at thinking nationally and regionally.” Although Brooks’ view should perhaps be seen as an indictment of Capitol Hill’s failings, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong.

There’s another group that I frequently encounter – I’ll call them the “empiricists.” They evaluate politics “rationally” from their observations. This group cites all sorts of wonderful information to justify their political positions. Indeed, information is central to a flourishing democracy. Unfortunately, today’s information channels threaten to overwhelm our ability to make rational decisions. It’s not uncommon to see entirely opposite conclusions being drawn from similar data. Visit breitbart.com and you’d almost think that you’re in a parallel but radically different universe from the one in which huffingtonpost.com is published. You’d almost think one was satire, or a maybe big joke.  But let’s assume the empiricist’s observations and inductive reasoning tell them what is right (right being the policies that will result in a predictable and desired future outcome).

I’ll call the last group the “moral intuitionists”. This group is led by their moral beliefs in an almost deterministic manner. Jonathan Haidt, the University of Virginia psychologist, proposes a “moral foundations theory” to explain this. In his now-famous TED talk, Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives, he claims that each side evaluates care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation differently. For example, both liberals and conservatives ostensibly value fairness equally, but the liberal sees fairness in social justice, while the conservative sees it in personal responsibility. Haidt concludes that our judgments come from these moral institutions and not rational judgment and reasoning. Reasoning just embellishes our prior bias.

The truth is that our interpretation of political realities never quite corresponds to actual reality. There’s a rationalist and a “moral intuitionalist” in each of us – situations inform our views, but our views also affect situations. But what makes politics special is that our views can affect situations in very real ways. Politics can be reduced to neither a set of binary right-or-wrong problems nor a single end.

Often, people try to explain politics as a means to a single end. This is the historicist view most notably espoused by Marx. Historicists claim that history develops along “inexorable laws of historical destiny” towards a determinate end. One of them, Francis Fukuyama, wrote in 1992 that Western liberal democracies had reached the “end of history” in terms of sociopolitical development. I wonder what he’d say today.

A better view of an ideal democracy is perhaps Karl Popper’s “Open Society.” Popper describes this as "an association of free individuals… achieving, through the making of responsible, rational decisions, a growing measure of humane and enlightened life." Although we may not be sure whether what we know is absolutely right, we should in the spirit of civic-republicanism still strive to seek, critically evaluate, and express our beliefs. As Brooks says in his op-ed, there is no social progress without political progress. My generation cannot afford to ignore the political process.