Friday, February 7, 2020

Mitt Romney on How our Self-Interest Misleads Us

In an interview with the New York Times podcast, “The Daily,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney made an extraordinary observation about the human (and his own) capacity for self-delusion. The comment was made in the context of Romney’s vote to impeach president Trump on Feb. 5. He began by noting that, as he thought back on his political career "my guess is that I was influenced in some cases by political benefit and I regret that." He said he wished he had “taken a different position” on an “item or two,” then he added this:

As is often the case, I have found in business in particular but also in politics, that when something is in your personal best interest the ability of the mind to rationalize that that’s the right thing is really quite extraordinary. And I’m talking about myself and I’ve seen it in others and I’ve seen it in my self…. And by the way you could swear on a Bible that you were doing exactly what is right and that’s because our mind has the capacity to do that. In this case, I worked very hard to prevent my personal feelings and my personal desire from influencing a decision that was going to be an important decision and the most important decision I was ever going to make.
I don't think that Romney is alone in this.  By voting for impeachment, Romney has incurred the wrath of the president, and the ire of his party and so now he will find out what happens when you make a decision opposed to your own personal best interest.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Hold Your Nose and Vote: Coalitions and Democratic Power

I've never met any two people who agree on everything. Even my identical twin daughters, who are the product of the same one sperm and the same one egg and existed for a moment as one cell; who were raised by the same two parents, attended the same schools, and sometimes even had the same teachers seem to agree on nothing, as far as I can tell, given the bickering that plays as the background music of our family.

So how could enough people ever manage to gather together into two political parties to win an election? The answer is, they form coalitions. People who disagree with each other on many if not most issues manage to stick together long enough to vote on one candidate that no one in the coalition fully agrees with about everything. They put aside their differences at least as long as it takes to vote. This is the key to wielding power in a democratic system. Perhaps the only thing they really agree on is that the other party’s candidate is even worse. I’m sure that many of the movement conservatives, evangelical Christians, and so-called deplorable people who voted for Donald Trump did so with thumb and forefinger firmly pinching their nostrils. As did many who voted for Hillary Clinton.

As the teacher of a course on American politics, and a student of African-American movement politics, I’m deeply interested in this process of coalition formation, and how movements like civil rights, labor, and anti-war try to get their way through this process.

Out of that interest I have put together the following excerpts from a classic of African American protest movements of the 1960s, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, by Stokely Charmichael (aka, Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton, 1967, (reprint, 1992), excerpts from Chapter 3, “The Myths of Coalition,” 75-83.

They make some valuable observations about the role of self interest, which certainly is important in people’s political calculus, though I tend to think that we are not quite as exclusively selfish as they seem to think and that the conscience does play a role (as Martin Luther King would surely agree; he and many other black leaders and intellectuals put a lot of effort into appealing to the white conscience—to productive effect). Still, I think their arguments here needs to be considered. Here is the excerpt:

Political relations are based on self-interest: benefits to be gained and losses to be avoided. For the most part, man’s politics is determined by his evaluation of material good and evil. Politics results from a conflict of interest, not of consciences...

No group should go into an alliance or a coalition relying on the ‘good will’ of the ally... 

The fact is that people live their daily lives making practical day-to-day decisions about their jobs, homes, children. And in a profit-oriented, materialistic society, there is little time to reflect on creeds, especially if it could mean more job competition, ‘lower property values,’ and the ‘daughter marrying a Negro.’ There is no ‘American Dilemma,’ no moral hang-up, and black people should not base decisions on the assumption that a dilemma exists. . . All parties to the coalition must perceive a mutually beneficial goal based on the conception of each party of his own self-interest....

It is hoped that eventually there will be a coalition of poor blacks and poor whites. This is the only coalition which seems acceptable to us, and we see such a coalition as the major internal instrument of change in the American society....

Poor white people are becoming more hostile—not less—toward black people partly because they see the nation’s attention focused on black poverty and few, if any, people coming to them.

On an unusual coalition, between the Congressional Black Caucus and conservative legislators based on interests and in defiance of party loyalty, see: https://interc.pt/2zTiaik. Note the role Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders played in forming this coalition. And here's an article on an alliance between the Black Panthers and the "Young Patriots" of Chicago, a group of poor, white, Confederate Flag-waving Appalachian refugees.