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Ask Auntie Pinko

August 19, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

I'm a moderate with no strong political ties to either party. I believe that both parties have put forth some very good ideas but I do not agree with either party completely.

For example I believe that welfare is a necessary program and that it helps the people who need it, but it needs to be revised to cut down on the abuses. I also believe that Bush's tax cuts helped me a little bit but for the most part they helped the exceptionally rich more than the middle class.

I believe that it is a woman's choice to get an abortion or not but also think that if the adoption rules were changed it would help out society as a whole. Many families who cannot have children are willing to adopt but as it stands right now adoption is horribly expensive.

Now these are just a few of the things I believe and when I run down the list of hot issues I often find myself in the middle. It all depends on the situation for me. So here is my question... why am I hated by both sides yet coveted as a voter?

I have heard and read so many mean, terrible things from both sides. I get called a repuke and liberal whacko in the same breath. Both sides have nothing but distain for people like me because I do not fully support either side. Yet at the same time I read that the middle will be deciding the election and both sides are trying to find a way to woo the moderate voter. Why should I vote for either party when I know that I am not wanted by either?

Thank you for your time,

Kurt W.
Lansing, MI


Dear Kurt,

It's very sad that people's enthusiasm for their own point of view often translates into contempt and ad hominem attacks on those with differing views. Even middle-of-the-roaders are sometimes guilty of this, writing off those with strongly-held views as "extremist crackpots." I would like to think that if they realized how thoroughly they are alienating people who might otherwise help them or at least listen thoughtfully to them, those rude people might think twice about casually pouring scorn over those with differing views.

Pointing out quietly that although you don't share someone's entire agenda, their expressions of contempt for those who differ discourages you from participating in achieving the goals you do share, might help in the long run. I'm not optimistic about the short-term effects, though. How much does the cause of civility and productivity in public discourse mean to you? Are you willing to persistently draw attention to the issue and offer alternatives, even in the face of the additional scorn you may evoke?

One thing that reinforces these misguided enthusiasts' behavior (at both ends of the spectrum) is their perception that, because they have spent time examining the issue and educating themselves about it (some thoroughly, some fairly superficially, but still, they do invest time and effort) they "know more about it" than people who express moderate positions.

Of course, this is a faulty assumption, because many who hold moderate views do take the trouble to inform themselves thoroughly about the issues - but, unfortunately, many don't. And that reinforces the "experts" with the strong opinions, who can often go into wearisome detail quoting statistics and studies supporting their views. (Which, of course only turns the moderate folks off even more, because they suspect, usually accurately, that there is just as large a body of statistics and studies and illustrations supporting the opposite view, and they're only hearing what the enthusiast has selected to support their own view.)

Still, folks with moderate views often assume that "common sense," "fairness," and their "feelings" about "how things work," based solely on their own experiences or biases, are sufficient for them to make sound judgments about public policy. And nothing could be further from the truth. Almost every public policy issue has complexities and implications that go far beyond a simple statement of feeling.

For instance, you state "welfare is a necessary program... but it needs to be revised to cut down on the abuses." You may know a lot about this, have specific abuses in mind, and be aware of operational modifications that can be made to the program that will curb those abuses for a cost less than the cost of the abuses themselves. However, Auntie has heard very similar statements from other people who have never really thought beyond the vague notion that "some people are gaming the system and they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it."

Which is a notion that appeals to everyone's sense of fairness, and seems hard to refute. But if we look at the whole general concept of "welfare abuse" - parsing it out, looking at who, how, how much it costs - and compare that to the overall effects of the program, the cost of eliminating all of the different types of abuse (or catching all of the abusers - and then protecting their vulnerable minor children from the consequences of the abusers being caught and perhaps jailed) the bottom line might be surprising. Then if we look at those cost trade-offs against the ultimate goals of the program (saving money that would have to be spent later on the jails, health care expenditures, social decay and other human misery caused by persistent child poverty) it might change how we look at the tradeoff between short-term "fairness" and long-term outcomes.

Even those enthusiasts of strong views who wouldn't dream of rudely berating someone with moderate views can get frustrated by what seem like simplistic, thoughtless assumptions, and tired of saying "Well, I understand your views, and agree that they need to be considered in crafting our approach to this problem or issue, but it's really far too complex to be able to 'solve' that way. I worry about the impact of X, the cost of Y, and the potential for unintended consequences from Z."

This, by the way, is the essential problem that Mr. Kerry's campaign is having in communicating. No matter how clearly an issue seems to be A vs. B, there is always an X, a Y, and a Z to be factored in. Ignoring the Xs, Ys, and Zs, practically guarantees unintended consequences that can be as bad or worse than the original problem. Promising simple, unambiguous, feeling-based, black-and-white A or B solutions has gotten us into a lot of messes, but people still don't want to hear about the Xs, Ys, and Zs much.

Finally, while I do sympathize with your unhappiness about the level of incivility on both ends of the spectrum, I can't offer much of an answer to your basic question: "Why should I vote with either of these nasty, rude groups?" You can always cast a protest vote with the third party of your choice - but very few of those third parties have agendas that are friendlier to a moderate viewpoint than the Democrats or the GOP. You can stay home - but then you're letting everyone else decide for you.

If you're really committed to a better future for America, pick a party (heck, flip a coin if you have to) and start participating actively and working to change it from within. You can accomplish a lot more that way. Remember, the world is run by those who show up for meetings! Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Kurt!


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