Saturday, September 13, 2008

Read Me at Donklephant Exclusively

Thanks for stopping by Maverick Views. If you are looking for Alan Stewart Carl and his opinions, please visit Donklephant where Alan now writes exclusively.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Seven Things

Annie tagged me with a wandering blog meme last week. I’m just now getting to it. The rules are simple. I link to Annie and then I reveal seven weird or random things about me. So here you go…

1) The first time my name appeared in print, it was in the Letters section of an ill-fated comic book called The Comet.
2) I’ve never seen Casablanca.
3) I’ve often had the urge to jump on the stage during a live play and start interacting with the scene, just to see what the actors do.
4) I sometimes can taste words.
5) I believe places can be haunted but I don’t believe in sentient ghosts.
6) I’ve won more than one multi-table poker tournament in Vegas but the winnings were small.
7) I’ve eaten javelina.

I’m supposed to tag 7 more people. I’m not going to. I doubt 7 people will even read this post as all my work is being done at Donklephant these days.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Of Obama and Pastors and Grace

I haven't been cross-posting anything I write for Donklephant. But I feel strongly about this topic and wanted to put my words up here as well. The original post is here and I ask, if you feel like linking to this piece, please link to the Donklephant version. Thanks and here's the post:

As we’ve already covered, Barack Obama has condemned the controversial words of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But what now – particularly what now for those of us who aren’t Obama supporters?

My feeling is those who want to use this as a political bludgeon will continue to do so, regardless of what Obama or anyone else says. There is a profound difference between matters of the spirit and matters of the state, but we’ve so often and so purposefully intertwined the two that few can even grasp the difference between a pastor and a political advisor (and that goes for some pastors themselves).

Theology is not my forte, but I know this much: there is no easy reconciliation between the eternal spirit and the transient body. And there is nothing more temporary or less divine than politics. Pastors often wrestle with how our faith should influence our choices as citizens. There is nothing wrong with that. But when they start adulterating theology to achieve political ends, they move themselves and their congregations away from the divine and into the corrupting world of the physical. For some pastors, the move away from the divine is momentary, a sermon here, an off-hand remark there. For others, it defines their entire religious career.

Christians often talk of grace. The concept is both simple and theologically complex. But I think an apt definition for grace is the complete absence of politics, not just of governmental politics but of all the worldly power struggles that so define our lives. Grace is seeing another human not for how they may benefit us or harm us but for their eternal selves, for their equal and equally divine presence in the Body of Christ. From grace comes love as well as compassion, mercy and forgiveness. But there is often very little grace when we twist ourselves up in the political.

Rev. Wright exhibited gracelessness when he said we should sing “god damn America” and when he blamed 9/11 on America’s perceived imperialistic sins. But we should not further that act of gracelessness by continuing to tar Obama with the pastor’s words. The Senator has unequivocally condemned them and has gone so far as to say, spiritually, he believes in universal compassion and he believes that’s what his church teaches.

Religion is attacked often in this country, and people are even attacked for suggesting religion is attacked. But those who attack religion often get it wrong. It’s not religion that’s to blame for intolerance and sins of pride. It’s the politicization of religion that’s to blame. Politics corrupts. But I would like, for once, not to play politics with a man’s faith. Let’s judge Obama for his policies, for his plans for this nation, for his leadership experience or lack thereof. Let’s take his condemnation of his former pastor’s words at face value and move on. If we who lean to the right can’t do that for a religious liberal how do we ever expect those on the left to do it for us and our religion?

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Thursday, March 13, 2008


Last fall, amidst the kind of “well, what now” crisis of self us 33-year olds are good at, I decided to stop being so damn practical about my career as a writer and just embrace my fiction writing whole heartedly. Being of the cohort who gets degrees, I applied for MFA writing programs.

After polishing my best short stories, writing different personal essays for each school, taking the GRE and begging for recommendations from some of the kindest people in the world, I am now waiting. One rejection tumbled in a week ago, needlessly long and polite. I’d be happy with a 3x3 card with a big YES or a big NO. You’d think a writing program would keep to the old axiom that brevity is at the foundation of quality writing. Leave the long-winded, soft letdowns for professionals who don’t spend 95% of their careers opening rejection letters.

Four more schools have not yet responded. One is the Big Daddy school whose acceptance of me would be both profoundly surprising and fabulously validating. The others are more likely shots, drawing to the flush rather than the inside straight. Any school would be nice. No school would be disappointing but writing ain’t medicine, they still let you do it even without a degree.

It’s the waiting that makes it painful. I’m good in a chase, quick, resourceful, tenacious to the point of being infuriating. I’m pretty good with results too, appropriately humble or stoic depending on the outcome. But I suck at waiting. I fidget, I obsess, I drink, I write blog posts that are neither interesting nor brief. I grew a goatee that revealed my scraggly Irish heritage in full, patchy glory. I shaved it. Now I’m considering abusing the concept of sideburns.

Soon I’ll know what the Great University Readers have decided and I can go on, make plans, stop leaping to my feet the moment the mail smacks into the box. I hope for the best, I expect something less. But I just want to know. I hate living in the in betweens when you can neither prepare nor recover.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mary Ann Meets Mary Jane

This story required me to write that headline before I saw anyone else pounce on the obvious. Maverick Views has really turned into a quality blog, hasn't it?

Hopefully you're reading my daily contributions at Donklephant. They're a little less leafy.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

You Know the Wild Years are Forever Gone When...

You've spent your evening feeding, bathing and tucking in the children and then relax to an episode of Myth Busters. And it's Friday night. And you didn't even realize it was Friday night until about 10:30. And then you blog about it...

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Snake Oil

I love it when science wins.

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Political Slogans, Clinton's Chances, NAFTA's Success, Texas' Absence

Here are my most recent political posts up at Donklephant:

On the debasement of language in politics here.

On Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning here.

On Texas and protectionism here.

On how the primary campaign ignored most Texas-specific issues here.

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Then We Came to What Exactly?

I have high expectations for fiction. I want stories that are exceptionally well written, offering up a unique way with words as subtle and gripping as the performances of the best musicians. I want deep characters who propel plot and are not merely propelled by the plot. And I want a story that is compelling to read, that is not bleak for the sake of bleakness, clever for the sake of cleverness or so self-possessed as to be terminally boring.

That said, my tastes aren’t particularly divergent from the usual cohort of reviewers and awards panels. I usually like most well-reviewed and/or award-winning books and, if I don’t, I at least understand what other people saw in them. But I am at a loss to explain the acclaim received by Joshua Ferris’ novel Then We Came to the End.

The trick of this workplace novel is that it’s told in first person plural. The use of “we” is apparently designed to make us feel part of this group of characters but it generally made me feel as if the novel had no center, no one character or characters for whom I was inclined to root. Instead, we get a whole novel featuring secondary characters, almost all of whom are petty, annoying, paranoid, frightened little people devoid of anything but the most transient of heroic or even noble characteristics. They are “real” in the sense that they are believable but they are not compelling.

Normally I’d lay a book like this down after 100 pages, but the novel’s acclaimed status as well as the thought that “certainly these characters will redeem themselves” kept me reading. I wanted to find out what became of these people but, at the end, I was disappointed with how little anyone had changed despite the histrionics throughout the novel. I suppose that’s how things are in the real world – slight shifts, small turns – but I expect more oomph from a story. I expect more consequence.

The writing itself is decent with some excellent turns of phrase, some keen observations and some nicely funny moments (although it’s not nearly humorous as reviews would have you believe). But for the most part the writing is flat with all the economy of a Hemmingway but little of the poignancy. The first twenty pages are so devoid of style that I’m guessing Ferris had the good fortune of never having to get this piece by a first reader. If I think “I write better than that,” there’s clearly a problem. My usual reaction to a good book is “I’ll never be that good.”

As for the plot, it’s about an ad agency that’s going under in 2001 and how the tide of layoffs is affecting the staff (the “we”). Maybe to all the reviewers who’ve spent very little of their life in an office, this was a revelation, a peek into the pathetic yet strangely vibrant lives of office drones. To me, it was mundane – even the parts that dealt with life and death seemed somewhat ordinary. I desperately wanted to be moved by these people and their circumstance but I just couldn’t bring myself to truly care. A plot driven by the need not to get fired (or not to stop working) is a weak basis for a story. Our lives have far more dramatic moments, which is why the office novel is a less-than-vital literary subset.

If the novel had received little notice, I probably would have enjoyed it as a nice diversion, some fun little stories about some odd little people. But with acclaim comes greater critique and I can’t say this was a noteworthy work of fiction. Good, sure. Great, not so much.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Lovin' this Country

This weekend I went to a wedding reception where the groom was Hindu and the bride was Muslim (the happy couple are both American born, their parents are immigrants). Why was I there? The groom’s sister married my brother (Anglo Christian) four years ago. For more cross-religious romance, I can look to my wife’s side where her Roman Catholic uncle married a Jewish woman (he later converted).

I don’t have to say all of this happened in America. You know it happened in America because where else does this happen regularly and with no fanfare? Not only do these kinds of marriages occur every weekend, they occur without so much as the thought they might lead to violence. Sure, not every family is as warmly welcoming as those involved in my ever-growing list of relations, but our culture supports this blending of peoples and traditions like no other. Being American is not about ethnicity or religion or country of birth -- it's a moral and intellectual ideal to which anyone can subscribe.

At our best, we are a wonderful people with a magnanimous culture. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t take grand events to make us proud of who we are and where we live. Sometimes, just a few cocktails with new relations is enough to make you thankful to be American.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The On-Demand Generation

Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that my children are growing up in a vastly different media world than the one in which I came of age. It’s not just the endless amount of content, it’s the on-demand availability of all that content. I’ve got to wonder how this is affecting their relationship with the world.

Between my parents generation and mine, the only real innovations of mass media were the color television set and UHF. When I was my son’s age (4) back in 1978, we had three networks, PBS some local channels and no VCR. If I wanted to watch Sesame Street, I could do so just once a day at the scheduled time. If I missed the Big Bird segment it was lost to the ether. If I wanted cartoons at noon, too bad, Gilligan’s Island was all that was on. This really wasn’t that long ago but the technology seems ancient.

My son has a list of twenty or so children’s programs he likes to watch and which we have saved on TiVo. Whenever he wants, click, click, it’s on. He misses something, we rewind. He gets bored, we change to one of the other sixty or so saved programs or any of the piles of DVDs. What the hell is this doing to his sense of the world? He already gets quite agitated if we happen not to have a saved version of the exact show and episode we wants.

O.k., disparage my parenting skills for letting my children watch television (we do spend a lot of non-media time with them too, I promise), but my family is hardly alone. We have a whole on-demand generation growing up. They (well, the privileged ones) will live in a world where whatever entertainment they want will be available immediately. There is a structure-less nature to on-demand. How will this affect their relationships with each other, with politics, with more static versions of culture (the novel, sculpture, painting, even live theatre)?

I wish I had an answer for that. But I guess, as one of the pioneering parents of the on-demand generation, I’ll have to do what all parents do – figure it out as I go.

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McCain's Class, Buckley's Death, Clinton's Support & Texas' Craziness

If you haven't been checking Donklephant, I have four posts up over there since yesterday. Here are the links.

On McCain here.

Briefly on William F. Buckley Jr. here.

On Clinton's waning support here.

On the screwy Texas primary here.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Newest Way to Show Off: Go Locavore

By now you’ve probably heard of the locavore food movement, generally defined as only eating food grown or raised within a 100 mile radius of where you live. Great if you live in, say, San Francisco where the movement began. Not so wonderful if you live in the thorn brush of deep south Texas, unless you really enjoy prickly pear puree and javelina barbeque.

The idea behind local eating is that the food is fresher and it’s more environmentally friendly, not only because it promotes varied land use but because the food doesn’t have to be trucked or flown great distances in fossil-fuel burning trucks and planes. It’s also good for the local farmer and rancher who, as we all know, are a dying breed.

Part of me, the crunchy con part who shops at Whole Foods and takes long nature hikes, wants to laud this movement. The other part of me, the wise-ass contrarian part, wants to point and laugh at the pretentious urban hipsters who have found yet another way to broadcast their privilege while acting all concerned for the Earth.

Can you imagine what kind of effort and expense it takes to only eat food from within 100 miles? When you drive a Lexus, you’re saying “I have more money and better taste than you.” When you go locavore you’re saying “not only do I have more resources and better taste, I am more morally attuned.” Too critical? Of course. But it’s hard to deny the element of snobbery in the locavore movement.

Guess I’ll just have to stick with my Whole Food artisanal French cheeses and line-caught Atlantic salmon. That’ll make me look so much less pompous than those arrogant locavores.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

News About Maverick Views

Here’s the news: Justin Gardner of Donklephant has invited me to become a fulltime writer for the site rather than just an occasional poster. He’s looking to diversify content and make sure a wider spectrum of opinions are available throughout this election season and beyond. I’m happy to say, I’ve taken him up on the offer and will now be Donklephant’s regular right-of-center voice (except, of course, when I’m left of center or just out in left field).

Beginning next week, my political posts will be at Donklephant. I’ll post links to them here at Maverick Views but I will not be cross-posting. Maverick Views itself will stay active but the focus will be much less political and far more cultural and personal. Consider this site my private reserve where I retreat from politics a bit and let my mind ponder other matters.

The good news for those who like reading my words is that my commitment to Donklephant means I won’t be disappearing from the blog world again anytime soon. Of course, you’ll have to visit two sites to get the full breadth of my opinions, but isn’t that a small price to pay for knowing you’ll be able to read new posts from me almost every day? Please, don’t answer that.

See y’all around the ‘sphere.


So, You Want to Be a White Person?

This snarky, funny as hell site has all the details on stuff white people like.

My favorites? Standing still at concerts. Expensive sandwiches. Being the only white person in ethnic restaurants.

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They Thought Reagan Was "Just Words" Too

Stephen Hayes of the Wall Street Journal recounts the criticisms of Ronald Reagan and notes the similarities to what people are saying about Barack Obama.

Then again, maybe it's not Reagan whom Obama resembles. Maybe it's Jimmy Carter.

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A Healthcare Plan I'd Like to See

Shay at Booker Rising calls me to task for my post on McCain and healthcare. But she misinterprets my viewpoint – which is probably because I didn’t actually say what kind of healthcare proposal I’d most like to see. So, here it goes…

First, I do think the federal government has a role to play. This is a national problem involving millions of citizens, thousands of businesses and plenty of interstate commerce. However, I do not support nationalized healthcare as that just reconfigures the system without addressing the cost/quality conflict at the heart of the current problems.

Healthcare costs are high for a variety of reasons. Some are uncontrollable, such as the increasing number of older Americans whose advancing age requires a great amount of medical care. Others are directly related to the high quality of care we’ve come to expect: we use the newest (thus most expensive) technology and produce highly skilled (thus well-compensated) medical professionals. We could fairly easily lower costs if we substituted older technology and less-skilled medical providers, but we’d have to settle for lower quality care.

In many ways, we’re already making the cost/quality tradeoff. Healthcare providers, following the demands of the free market, are increasingly using nurse practitioners in lieu of board certified physicians and hiring lightly trained medical assistants over more highly trained nurses. Many insurance companies take a more draconian approach, telling patients and doctors what level of quality care is acceptable based partially on what the insurance company is willing to spend. That kind of cold, cost-benefit analysis results in the rare but heart-wrenching stories of people suffering because they were denied treatment.

Using fewer physicians and registered nurses can only go so far until quality of care becomes dangerously insufficient/incompetent. There’s little reason for the federal government to force even more lesser-trained providers into the system. Similarly, mandating what insurance companies must pay for would require a massive government intrusion into private business with unknown and likely undesired results. The solution, therefore, will not come from artificially controlling the cost/quality relationship. Instead, we need to look at the risk management aspect.

Where the plans of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton go wrong is in their assumption that lack of affordable insurance for millions is the core problem when it’s actually just the most obvious symptom of larger issues. Making sure every American has insurance is a nice idea but without addressing the underlying risk/reward problems, simply shoving more people into an already unbalanced system will decrease the quality of care for everyone.

The lack of affordable health insurance is not due to greedy insurance companies or the quality-control initiatives of theAmerican Medical Association or even because we Americans are leading relatively unhealthy lives (the obese and smokers actually cost less to treat over their lifetime than do more healthy individuals). Health insurance is expensive because high quality healthcare is expensive. Insurers must take on significant risk and thus charge significant prices. The most expedient way to lower prices is to spread the risk over larger numbers but, thanks to ridiculous regulations, many Americans are not allowed to buy insurance as part of a group and instead must opt for staggeringly expensive individual plans.

So, step one is deregulation/re-regulation. Allow individuals as well as small businesses to band together with others and buy group rates. More radically, instead of requiring businesses to provide health coverage for their employees, we can sever the business/insurance relationship and let each individual citizen choose a plan based not on where they happen to work but on their healthcare needs.

Without large corporations footing the bill, insurers would have to innovate to create plans affordable for individuals. Plus, individuals would have fully portable plans that would allow them to change jobs or start their own businesses without fear of losing coverage. A more fluid and less risk-adverse workforce would be a boon to our economy, as would freeing our businesses from the burdens of paying for healthcare.

Deregulation alone will not be enough. Step two is increasing the level of choice available to consumers and the level of responsibility expected from them. Right now, health plans are stratified but not particularly customizable. It’s a collection of prix fixe menus with designated courses at each price level but no real choice. This has the effect of disconnecting the consumer from the real costs of what they are purchasing. If it’s covered, they’re going to opt for it, even if it’s not medically necessary. The current coverage system creates a disconnect in patients’ minds between care and cost and is actually one of the leading causes of higher healthcare expenditures.

However, if more customizable plans were available, individuals could choose coverage based on the level of risk they were willing to assume and the level of premium care they desired. There could even be different deductable levels for different procedures and medications, rather than one flat deductable. That way, patients would know the cost of the care they seek and have to take personal responsibility for choosing excessive procedures and medications. This, of course, is not something the government could mandate but it could encourage innovations by providing tax incentives to those companies willing to reform their coverage.

The final significant way the federal government can help is through providing tax credits which individuals and families can apply to health insurance (John McCain’s otherwise gaunt plan, has this provision). Additionally, the government can expand health savings accounts allowing families with more expensive coverage or additional health needs to put aside extra tax-free funds.

Clearly and inarguably, what I’ve laid out here has huge holes. This is a profoundly long blog post but a terribly insufficient description of a healthcare plan. My thoughts are really nothing more than the very basic outlines of ideas I’d like to see developed and advanced on the federal level – I realize they are not devoid of fallacies or complications and I do not consider them anywhere near a complete list of available remedies. There is a lot of room for states to promote their own plans and take other measures such as preventative care initiatives and malpractice lawsuit reform. There is also a lot of room for free market solutions from both insurers and providers. What’s important is we avoid restricting the marketplace of ideas by federalizing the healthcare system and cutting out the vast majority of the innovators in this field.

As a general rule, I like a narrow federal government focused more on clearing the road of obstacles than trying to design and drive my car. Right now, Obama and Clinton are focused on building the car while John McCain is either unaware of the huge piles of junk blocking the way or is unmotivated to develop the bold actions needed to remove them. I think the best solutions will come from a conservative-leaning mindset, but I’m still waiting for a Republican to champion pro-market, limited government ideas that can win out against the Democrats’ big government plans.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Still Endorsing Obama -- UPDATED

Yeah, I'm a John McCain guy, but I did endorse Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination and I stand by that. Want to know why? This nasty Hillary Clinton trick is a good example. We don't need her type or the type with whom she surrounds herself. I really don't care what policies she has, I don't want the Clintons' style of politics around anymore.

I may just go vote for Obama in the primary, since McCain will win the nomination regardless of the Texas results. Clinton's resort to fear-mongering has left me that disgusted. I'll let you know what I decide.

h/t: Captain Ed

UPDATE: There's debate as to whether this photo really was distributed by the Clinton campaign. They deny they did it. I think it fits their pattern but what proof do I have? None. Kids, this is why you should never link to Drudge. Facts are elusive there.

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McCain's Healthcare Problem

Michael Reynolds nails John McCain to the wall on the issue where he’s most vulnerable: healthcare. My number one reservation about McCain has been his less-than-comprehensive healthcare proposal. It’s not even really a proposal, it’s some superficial adjustments and free market bromides.

You don’t have to be a policy expert to know our healthcare system is ineffectual. Despite our world-class technology and highly-skilled physicians, far too many Americans have trouble obtaining basic care. We have a high cost, high quality, low access system. This is not only creating undo hardships for many citizens but is weighing down our global competitiveness by creating an immobile and risk-adverse workforce at just the time job fluidity and entrepreneurism is most needed.

We’re long past the point where tweaks might work – heck, incessant regulatory tweaks are one of the reasons we’re in this mess. We need big ideas now. Unfortunately, John McCain doesn’t seem to have them.

I’m not specifically arguing for Barack Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s approaches. I think both focus too much on creating new layers of bureaucracy and not enough on removing the unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles already in place. However, at least the Democrats recognize the existence of a problem as well as the American people’s desire for a solution. McCain is apparently content suggesting the same “the system ain’t really that bad” proposals advanced by Republicans and others who just haven’t been paying attention.

By no means does McCain’s lack of a comprehensive healthcare plan disqualify him from serious consideration (to be fair, it’s just February and this wasn’t an issue important to winning his primary). But I’ll be listening to him. Just as I hope the eventual Democratic nominee develops a more rational Iraq plan during the general election I hope McCain develops a more workable healthcare plan. His failure to do so may not cost him my vote but it could very well cost him the election.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Like a Broken Record, Nader's Back

In 2000, Ralph Nader shook up the race by highlighting a growing disaffection with the two-party system. In 2004 he wanted to see if what he started in 2000 was a movement or a political blip (answer: a blip). Now, he’s running again, apparently because he still feels the two parties are locking out too many citizens.

Back in 2000, I bought into the whole “there’s nothing different between the parties” myth advanced by Nader. What can I say? I was in the beginnings of my own ideological crisis/quest and saw little to like in Al Gore or George Bush. I reached for Nader as much out of protest as out of congenital lefty sentiment (it wouldn’t be until 2001 that I stopped reflexively assuming only liberals had good and moral answers).

In the years after 2000, I think we all learned that, yes, there are significant differences between the two parties. And although there will always be voices shut out of the two party system, the spiritedness of both parties’ nomination process this year proves that a great range of opinions are well represented and can find a space within one of the two parties.

There is really no compelling reason for a Nader candidacy this year. But, hey, it’s his right to run and I’m always in favor of more voices, not less. Besides, at 74 years of age, Nader gives John McCain the chance to point out he’s not the oldest person in the race.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Ideology vs. Outcomes

In a column about the difficulties the Republicans find themselves in, Mike Rosen asserts:

Two-thirds of voters may reliably support either Republican or Democratic candidates, but the other third goes either way. Most of them have no loyalty to parties, coalitions or philosophies. They just want nice outcomes and they want them now! And it's they who decide elections. When the party in power can't deliver, they try the other party.

To make sure we fully understand what regard he holds these members of the electorate, Rosen later refers to them as “discontented, gullible swing voters.”

But I have to ask, what’s so wrong with caring more about outcomes than ideology? Most Americans just want a functioning government that manages the economy well, that provides reliable services and that keeps us safe. Does it really matter if those ends are achieved through big government liberalism or small government conservativism? To a lot of people, it doesn’t.

Ideologues believe their way is the only acceptable way. If they fail, it’s a matter of internal corruption (we’re not conservative/liberal enough!) or external perfidy (the conservatives/liberals are deceiving the voters!). Somehow this is supposed to be a wiser approach than simply voting for whoever has the idea that seems most likely to work right now.

There’s room for ideology in politics. In fact, it’s essential to the development of grand ideas. However, there’s just as much room for (and legitimacy to) voting based on which candidate or party will most competently manage the government. Sneering at swing-voters for not “getting it” is just puerile. If that’s the best conservatives like Rosen can do then they are headed for quite the defeat.

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