September 17, 2007

Politically confused.

Posted in Politics at 10:49 pm by Caleb Winn

I am a Republican, and loyally so. I have great affection for the Grand Ol’ Party. I love Ronald Reagan, and think that Democrats are, by and large, the “bad guys.” But these emotional attachments don’t necessarily translate into corresponding policy views, which leaves me wondering where I lie.

The nature of partisan politics

The party establishments tend to hold opposing and divergent views on almost everything. This is caused by their divergent constituencies, and is dramatically worsened by fierce antagonism between the parties, which accentuates those differences and makes compromise virtually impossible.

The GOP establishment depends on corporate fat cats, upper-middle-class suburbanites, rural rugged individualists, and angry evangelicals for support. In order to win in primary elections, Republican candidates have to adopt positions that appeal to these voters, sounding ‘tough,’ ‘fiscally responsible,’ and ‘values-oriented.’ A “real” Republican must be pro-life, pro-gun, anti-illegal immigration, hawkishly pro-war, anti-environment, and no matter how low taxes are already, they can always be cut again!

Democrats, on the other hand, must answer to a myriad of interests all their own. Labor unions, feminists, environmentalists, the GLBTetc lobby, anti-war doves, and the urban poor, especially among minorities. This leads to a whole host of policy commitments that most democrats must honor if they hope to be successful. While some pro-life, pro-gun Democrats may be successful in Congressional elections in states like Tennessee, they often find themselves snubbed by their national caucuses, and could never succeed at the national (Presidential) level.

To make matters worse, these groups don’t really like each other very much, which leads to reactionary policy-making. If the Democrats propose an idea, Republicans will often oppose it regardless of its merit, or vice versus. Additionally, niche groups within the party will adopt the political views of the party that extend beyond their niche, so that evangelical Christians borrow the economic policies of the corporate fat cats, simply because the opposing economic views are held by the “other team.” For this reason, people whose moral convictions cause them to be pro-life are also, by extension, anti-tax, anti-welfare, and pro-gun. We have these bizarre groupings of tangentially-related interests in place of a consistent political ideology, wherein the economic libertarians are married to the socially fascist, and the social libertarians are in bed with the economically socialist.

So where does that leave me?

I am a very partisan man. I really do like the Republican party. At some level, politics is an exciting game, and I want “my team” to win. But while this makes for engaging (if sometimes soul-destroying) political showmanship, it almost certainly makes for bad, inconsistent policy. The fact of the matter is, I am not in lock-step with the GOP. On a whole host of issues, I might break ranks with my party and try to find common ground with the Democrats. On some issues, I just think that the Democrats have it right, and the GOP needs to get its head on straight.

So how does that work? As a political non-entity outside of the power and influence of the Beltway, I suppose it doesn’t matter what I think. I can borrow ideas from both sides without anybody really caring. And when it comes to selecting a candidate, I just have to choose which issues I care about more passionately. Do I suppose the candidate who shares my social views, or my economic views?

It’s just a darn shame that a candidate can’t succeed in this political climate without spreading divisiveness and vitriol. It’s a shame that a candidate can’t transcend constituencies and seek meaningful compromise on important issues. Well, maybe he can, but we’ll see how successful he is.

Policy laundry list

Economic policy

I am in favor of a guest worker program (call it “amnesty” if you want), with or without securing our borders.

I am opposed to universal health care, especially of the nationalized variety.

I do, however, support Bush’s plan to make all medical insurance costs tax-deductible, whether through an employer or not, and may even support a Massachusetts-style plan to mandate health care coverage, with limited government subsidies.

I also support Bush’s approach to social security reform, though I may also consider lifting the $90,000/year cap on FICA-eligible earnings in order to increase the pot. Regardless, the Democratic head-in-the-sand approach to Social Security reform is as shameful as it is asinine.

I think that sometimes we honestly just need to raise taxes, or at least stop cutting them. Deficits are sad.

Social policy

I am ardently pro-life. This is a (the?) big one for me.

I don’t have a problem with affirmative action, gay marriage, or sex education in public schools.

I don’t believe in an innate right to bear arms, and generally favour gun control, though it’s probably best left to localities where possible since NYC and KY have rather different threats and needs.

I oppose the death penalty, Megan’s Law, Jessica’s Law, and a whole host of other wrong-headed anti-crime bills that are based more on anger than on common sense.

Security policy

I am opposed to torture in all instances, and support the legal rights of the very worst in society.

I hold to a fairly Neo-conservative foreign policy, and think that withdrawing from Iraq would create a situation so violently awful that it would make Darfur look like Disneyland.

I think that the UN is generally a good thing.

I believe that Globalization leads to greater security through greater economic interdependence, provided that our bilateral investments are diversified.

I believe that the United States probably isn’t doing enough to engage in the ideological, intellectual struggle against Islamo-fascism.

In conclusion

I support John McCain for President, because he isn’t a partisan hack. The man is the Real Deal, a principled Statesman who holds firmly to his beliefs even when it hurts him politically (see immigration reform), and is willing to stand up for what’s right to Democrats and Republicans alike (see torture). But he is a man who is willing to meet in the middle, to try to reach meaningful bipartisan compromise on the details wherever possible. He’s a man who understands what is at stake in the Global War on Terror, and can be trusted to be an effective Commander-in-Chief.

Sadly, I suspect that a Statesman cannot succeed in the modern political climate.


August 17, 2007

Honest Abe vs. Tricky Dick: Ambition and the American Presidency

Posted in Philosophy, Politics at 12:40 am by Caleb Winn

As alike as they are different

Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon had a lot in common. Both were Commanders-In-Chief during bitter and divisive wars, and both left an indelible mark on the nature of American government. Both Presidents dramatically increased the power of the Executive Branch during their tenure in office. And yet these two men represent the best and the worst of the American Presidency. Abraham Lincoln is as revered as Richard Nixon is reviled. The former fought for lasting justice, freedom, and equality for America, while the latter resigned his office in disgrace.

This is most perplexing in light of the overwhelming personal similarities between the two characters. They possessed many very similar personality traits, and were driven by many of the same motivations. Most relevantly, both men were motivated by deep struggles with depression to pursue a life of ambition.

Bound together by the common thread of melancholy

As Joshua William Shenk argues in his book: Lincoln’s Melancholy, Lincoln was a well-known depressive during his life. He suffered at least two major depressive episodes. Especially as a young man, these bouts of depression were very acute, causing him to say things like, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.” He also wrote melodramatic poetry about suicide, and his friends took his discussion of suicide seriously enough that for a time they kept him on “suicide watch” and refused to let him be alone.

But even after his two chronicled Major Depressive Episodes, Lincoln continued to struggle with feelings of chronic depression. (Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, argues that Lincoln was simply “melancholy,” rather than clinically depressed, but for our purposes, the distinction is relatively unimportant.) Throughout Presidency, Lincoln would often seem to buckle under the stress and strain of life. As he faced dwindling support for the War from Congress, even among his own party, Lincoln remarked darkly, “They wish to get rid of me, and I am sometimes half-disposed to gratify them.”

This sort of statement might have been transcribed straight from the White House tapes of President Nixon, if only it had included a few choice expletives. In fact, it sounds a great deal like Nixon’s proclamation after his failed 1962 gubernatorial bid, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Like Lincoln, Nixon was a deeply unhappy, insecure man. Even his most loyal staff members, such as Chief of Staff Haldeman, and senior advisor man Henry Kissinger, often referred to him as child-like, and described nights in which the President would call numerous times to seek reassurance that a speech had gone well, and that he had support of the American people. In at least one point during his Presidency, Nixon grew depressed and physically exhausted to the point that senior staff members considered it an issue of grave concern. Robert Dallek’s biography Nixon and Kissinger describes Nixon as “an introspective man whose inner demons both lifted him up and brought him down.”

One particular story illustrates this idea very well, and is worth developing at length, because it really highlights the deep insecurities that drove Nixon to pursue political power. On May 9th, 1970 — a mere 4 days after the Kent State University incident in which four student protesters were killed by National Guard troops– Nixon spontaneously visited the Lincoln Memorial at 4:30 in the morning. There, he met with a group of college students and tried to engage them in conversation about foreign policy. When they would not come around to his viewpoint, he instead began to talk with them about sports. One of the students described the President’s speech and conduct as “absurd.” And, according to Nixon and Kissinger, “as he [Nixon] left, he implored the students not to hate him.” There has, perhaps, never been a greater example of the pathetic hunger for approval that sometimes drives the ambitions of men.

A shared response: ambition as an anti-depressant

It is important to understand this hunger for approval and meaning if we are to truly understand the nature of political ambition. For both Nixon and Lincoln, the melancholy temperament that depressed their spirits also drove them to pursue their political ambitions. As is so often the case, it was their dissatisfaction that drove them to pursue greatness. Becoming President of the United States was their way of giving direction, purpose, and meaning to their lives. In many ways, personal, political ambition was their cure for depression.

Nixon sought to compensate for his insecurity through attaining personal power and prestige, in order to appear tough and in control. He personalized major policy issues, making important decisions based on whether or not his actions would show that “the man in the White House is tough.” He spent his first four years preoccupied with securing his own re-election. He was hungry for a reputation as a foreign policy expert, often using less qualified subordinates so that they would not out-stage him or steal any of his limelight. And years after he left office, Nixon continued to crave the respect and approval of his successors. For Nixon, ambition was a way of earning the happiness and love that he could not find for himself.

Lincoln similarly responded to his depression by pursuing greatness. During a particularly intense period of depression, a close friend named Joshua Speed told Lincoln that he must either improve, or die. Lincoln responded by saying that he could kill himself, but he wanted to leave a mark on his generation, and “so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow men,” and that this was that he “desired to live for.” His thirst for power was a direct answer to his deep melancholy.

A dangerous path to walk

How could two men so similarly ambitious pursue that ambition in two deeply divergent ways? And what is it about the nature of human ambition that causes some men to be destroyed by it while enabling others to transform the world for generations? At first glance, ambition seems like an intrinsically dangerous character quality. While it may not always be dangerous to the self, it poses great threat to social stability and political order. Lincoln himself argued in 1838 that the greatest threat to the American experiment was surely the ambition of great men, for they will place personal gain over political principle, and do anything necessary to achieve notoriety. He writes:

 Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.   

 Why Lincoln succeeds where Nixon fails

This last sentence highlights the difference between the destructive ambition of “Tricky Dick” Nixon and the noble ambition of “Honest Abe.” Ambition is dangerous when it exists for its own sake only, and is not restrained by principle or nobility of character. But while personal ambition can be a seductive foe, Lincoln escaped its clutches. I believe that he did this in three ways: 

1) Lincoln transformed personal ambition into transcendent purpose.

There was a reason for his Presidency beyond his own re-election. Lincoln writes, “Slavery is founded on the selfishness of man’s nature – opposition to it is his love of Justice.” Shenk concludes, “He looked at imperfection, and sought redemption.” 

This was not always the case. When he first began to pursue political ambition as a young man, he did so for his own sake. When he expressed his desire for greatness to his friend Joshua Speed, he said that he wanted to “link his name with something.” This is a personal, non-specific ambition. Lincoln’s initial motivation, at least, was not to “preserve the union” or “free the slaves.” He wanted to do “something.” great. These important cause were the means of fulfilling his ambition, but he was not ambitious because of them. 

But although he was initially motivated by a desire for personal greatness, Lincoln found that the magnitutde of the cause in which he was engaged eclipsed his own personal ego. He began selfishly – perhaps all great men do – but he ended nobly. Through depersonalizing him ambition, Lincoln was able to hold power with humility, and accomplish far more than Nixon ever could. By maintaining an external focus, by pursuing a goal higher than himself, Lincoln largely escaped the seductions of ambition.

2) Lincoln was willing to sacrifice personal success for the success of his transcendent purpose.

In many ways the controversial and unpopular policies that he pursued were detrimental to his own ambition. But he did them anyway, because his personal popularity was less important than the preservation of the Union, and eventually the abolition of slavery.

Having studied the abolitionist movement in England, Lincoln realized that he may well have undertaken a task which would be impossible to complete in a single lifetime. Upon this realization, Lincoln remarked, “I can not but regard it as possible that the higher object of this  contest may not be completely attained within the term of my natural life.” This did not discourage him, however, nor did it cause him to give up the fight. Since  his purpose was external to himself, because he gave himself to the service of a cause, instead of selecting and discarding causes to serve himself, he was content to see failure in his lifetime in the hope that Justice would be done in the end. 

3) He did this by understanding his calling in the context of divine sovereignty.

Many historians, Joshua William Shenk included believe that Lincoln was a fatalist, who expressed belief in the “Doctrine of Necessity” – all things which will happen, will happen, and must happen. This was a view that he developed in his youth, and appears to have never abandoned.

But as he progressed in years, and especially into his Presidency, this “Doctrine of Necessity” took on new meaning for Lincoln in light of his growing belief in a personal God. Lincoln’s friends and visitors during his last few years reported that they often found him in prayer, or studying scriptures. He seemed to be especially fond of the book of Job, which shows that temporal hardship and suffering can have a deeper, spiritual significance that we cannot understand. His 2nd Inaugural Address really highlights this point – for Lincoln, human life could only be understood in the context of a transcendent divine will, though that will is often difficult for men to understand.

His own words and writings really attest to his belief that his life and work were a part of God’s sovereign plan. He was known to say that he was merely an “instrument” playing a part in “so vast, and so sacred a trust” that “he felt that he had no moral right to shrink; nor even to count the chances of his own life, in what might follow.” He really did seem to disregard his life for the sake of his life’s work. When his friends expressed fear that he might be assassinated, he responded, “God’s will be done. I am in His hands.”

This resignation and self-sacrifice would not have been possible if he did not believe that he was in God’s hands, working His will. It was this belief in the transcendent will of God that enabled Lincoln to de-personalize his ambitions and give himself to a cause that transcends personal success. His increasingly firm belief in the providence of a benevolent God enabled him to combine his fatalism with a sense of hopefulness, and gave him the strength to press on. Within this context, his personal responsibility was understood as part of a whole that was greater than his own successes and failures. Instead of hungering for personal glory, Lincoln now said, “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty. . .” 

As different as they are alike

Both Lincoln and Nixon sought to leave a mark on the world, but Nixon did so for his own sake, and Lincoln did so for the sake of the world. Nixon’s ambition was conceived in his own ego, while Lincoln’s was conceived in liberty. Nixon was dedicated to his own success; Lincoln was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And long after Nixon’s greatest achievements have been forgotten, people around the world will continue to celebrate the legacy of Lincoln: a nation by the people, of the people, and for the people, that shall not perish from the earth.

That is what separates great Presidents from terrible ones, and turns ambition from a fatal flaw to a noble blessing. 

July 31, 2007

Lincoln, suicide, and the War in Iraq

Posted in Politics, War on Terror at 10:19 pm by Caleb Winn

I’ve been reading through a truly amazing book called Lincoln’s Melancholy, which considers our 16th President’s lifelong struggle with depression, and the impact that it had on his life and work.

The book is interesting for its portrait of Lincoln as the victim of chronic depression. It reveals that Lincoln spoke often of committing suicide, and considered the subject seriously enough that he refused to carry a pocketknife out of fear that he might end his life in a moment of exceptionally dark despair. His friends put him on “suicide watch” on several occasions, worried that he might take his own life. He even appears to have written poetry about suicide, in which his first-person narrator acknowledges the terror of hell, but concludes that an eternity of damnation will only help him forget that he is damned while yet living, and calls his knife “my last — my only friend!” as it draws him from life to death.

The author points out that Lincoln’s explicit acknowledgment of Hell makes this a peculiar statement for a potential suicide. A true suicide doesn’t really give serious consideration to where he or she will go after death. Indeed, the point of suicidal depression isn’t to go to anywhere. The point is simply to go away. Quoting psychologist Edwin Shneidman, the author writes, “The single most dangerous word in all of suicidology is the four-letter word only,” as in “only one thing to do … only one way to get away from it … jump off something good and high.” There is no complicated, rational weighing of costs vs. benefits. The suicide is overwhelmed with a myopic understanding of his or her own misery, and unable to consider alternatives. The pessimism of melancholy leads to the despair of depression, and “cognitive restriction” renders the sufferer incapable of complex rational thought about how to improve his or her position.

This concept, especially the idea of “cognitive restriction,” is incredibly useful for understand Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and perhaps in framing the debate over the War in Iraq.

Lincoln was President during the darkest time in American history. No period before or since presented such an enormous challenge, and no enemy before or since posed such a great threat to the future of the American experiment. If ever there was cause for a President to despair, it was the near-loss of the Civil War. And yet Lincoln, fully cognizant of the challenges ahead, pressed on. In many ways, his pessimistic, melancholy attitude served him well. He possessed a level of “depressive realism” that enabled him to recognize the real threats facing the Union, and this awareness enabled him to confront those threats head-on instead of hiding behind a veil of deluded optimism. Although he understood the gravity of his task, and although this understanding was indescribably discouraging at times, Lincoln did not experience “cognitive restriction”. He weighed options carefully and deliberately, neither overcome by despair nor blinded by foolish hope, and a led a nation forward through her darkest hour.

This stands in stark contrast to the leading voices in the debate over the War in Iraq. Anti-war Democrats are unwilling or unable to rationally consider alternatives to the status quo. The rhetoric of the anti-war movement is predominately depressive and reactionary, focusing on how miserable the current predicament is, but offering few positive steps to alleviate our national suffering, or the suffering of the people of Iraq. The liberal consensus calls for withdrawal, but does not consider the implications or consequences of such a retreat. Their thinking on the issue is binary: the choice is to remain, or to leave. To remain is an unacceptably bad fate, and so the only alternative is to pull out now. There is no real consideration of the likely outcome of such a withdrawal. There is no discussion about whether post-occupation Iraq will be better than the status quo. The anti-war movement is not moving forward towards any particular goal — certainly not toward peace. They merely want to move away from the insufferable state in which we live, and the only way to do that is by giving up. Psychologically speaking, this reeks of the “cognitive restriction” of a suicide, whose thoughts are so dominated by an obsessive awareness of misery that escape becomes the only possible choice, even if the so-called escape leaves the person worse off than ever before.

Surely there must be a middle ground between the Administration’s blind, unwavering optimism, and the Democratic Party’s cognitive paralysis. Surely there must be a path that takes us between ignorant bliss and depressive suicide. Where are the leaders who can understand our challenges, but not be incapacitated by despair? Where are the leaders who can recognize the difficulties that lie ahead, and summon the fortitude to press on and overcome them? Where is our Abraham Lincoln?

And would we recognize him if we saw him?