American politics as the clash of symbols

by Emrys Westacott

My Facebook profile describes my political views as “very liberal.” In the US this is a shorthand way of indicating that I support gay rights, government-run health care, stricter gun laws, abortion rights for women, abolition of the death penalty, reduced military spending, environmental protection, campaign finance reform, the United Nations, Charles Darwin, the Toyota Prius, and higher taxes on people richer than me.

When I get together with other very liberals—which is quite often, since I'm married to one—a favorite topic of lamentation is the blindness of our political opponents. Why don't they get it? Why don't they see that we'd all be better off if we spent more on education and less on weapons systems; that if they really want to see fewer abortions they should support rather than oppose sex education in school and universal healthcare; that violent crime in the US is more likely to be reduced by having stricter gun control laws than by increasing the number of executions.

Our discussions of such matters follow a predictable course. After a round of annoyed tongue clicking, irritation gradually mounts until we reach a crescendo of infuriation and incredulity, from which we subside, with much headshaking, onto the soft but comfortless pillow of our usual answer. Why don't they get it? Because, to quote Samuel Beckett, “people are bloody ignorant apes!”

I believe something like the same kind of incredulity characterizes the view that many Europeans have of American politics. Whether the issue is denial of climate change, teaching creationism, resisting even minimal gun control, or opposing a more efficient health care system, the first impulse is to shake the head and ask, “How stupid can you get?”

As an explanation of why millions of people don't agree with me, the “ignorant ape” hypothesis has the virtue of simplicity. But I can't help feeling that it lacks depth. After all, in other areas of life conservatives aren't any more stupid than me or my fellow VLs. They make perfectly good parents, neighbors, and colleagues. So why do our wonderfully cogent arguments have so little purchase on their thinking?

I believe one key reason is that when it comes to political topics and stances, rational cogency often counts for less than symbolic meaning. ImagesIn any debate, on any topic, the ideal is for the outcome to be determined entirely by the force of the best evidence and arguments. Indeed, submission to the argument is largely what we mean by scientific or scholarly objectivity. But submission to the argument seems to be less common in politics than in most other spheres. Instead, it is the symbolic significance of a political position that often decides whether a person endorses it or rejects it. This is true in every society; think for, instance, of the headscarf controversy in France. But it is perhaps more true in the US than in most other developed countries because for some reason symbols seem to play a bigger part in American political culture.

Some examples:

· Gun control The symbolic significance of the issue derives from the symbolic meaning of guns. And guns symbolize many things: the frontier; hunting; masculinity; martial values; rough and ready justice; self-sufficiency; the individual versus the state; strength; power; toughness; courage. So stricter gun control laws are seen as assaults on these values along with the traditions and identities steeped in them.

· The death penalty Support for capital punishment expresses and symbolizes a commitment to biblical law, natural justice, traditional justice, individual responsibility, just deserts, tough-mindedness, and clear-cut thinking about morality, crime and punishment.

· Same-sex marriage Opposition to this symbolizes affirmation of heterosexuality, traditional gender roles, the traditional family, tradition in general, old-time religion, the “natural,” the “normal,” and a moral outlook based on these.

· Immigration A “tough” attitude on immigration (e.g. making the Mexican border more secure, denying illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, requiring police offers to check the status of anyone stopped on suspicion, requiring all transactions with government to be conducted solely in English) symbolizes identification with “true” Americans, distrust of things foreign, and a preference for preserving a white majority in the population as a whole.

· The Keystone XL Pipeline This proposed pipeline would transport oil from the oil sands of Alberta to Steel City, Nebraska. To environmentalists it signifies callous, economically motivated indifference to environmental dangers; to its defenders it symbolizes an affirmation of capitalism, free enterprise, freedom from government interference, and sticking it to the tree huggers. “Drill, baby, drill!” the Republican mantra during the 2008 election, stood for something similar with reference to the idea of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, as well as for the frontier, self-sufficiency, toughness, and (with a nod to Freud) masculinity.

The same sort of symbolic charge electrifies many other issues: abortion; euthanasia; posting the ten commandments in schools or courthouses. And sometimes it is symbols themselves, understood as symbols, that are the subject of controversy. The confederate flag is an obvious example of this that has recently been in the news. Those who favour flying the stars and bars claim it honours the cultural heritage that they identify with as well as their ancestors those who fought bravely under it. Critics see it as a symbol of racism and oppression.

I am not saying for a minute that all these debates are unimportant, or that they are purely symbolic, or that the policies being debated don't materially affect people's lives. Nor am I saying that those committed to one side or the other are insincere. But I do believe that the symbolic dimension of the controversies is the main reason they are so intense and the participants so entrenched. We hold onto symbols like precious objects; and like Gollum's “precious,” they come to exercise a hold over us.

In some instances, the essentially symbolic nature of the political stances in question is apparent from the lack of expected consequences that follow from one side or the other winning the day. For example, in New York State, the incumbent governor Mario Cuomo was unseated in 1995 by George Pataki. The death penalty was a major issue in the election: Pataki was for it, Cuomo opposed it. Shortly after his victory, Pataki signed a law permitting capital punishment by lethal injection, following which, between 1995 and 2004, when the New York Court of Appeals declared the law to be in violation of the state constitution, there were exactly zero executions in the state of New York.

Another example of a different sort. Bill Clinton was in favor of abortion being legal and approved of Roe v Wade. George W. Bush opposed legalized abortion and supported the idea of a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v Wade. For many anti-abortionists, this was (and still is) a decisive issue. Yet from 1990 to 2000, when Clinton was president, the number of abortions performed each year in the US dropped by over half a million (from1,359,146 to 857,475). Under Bush's presidency, from 2000 to 2008, the number went down by less than 32,000 (from 857,475 to 825,564).[1]

While the issues are diverse, the symbolic meanings of the positions people adopt form overlapping clusters. Because of this we assume that people who agree with us on gun control will also agree with us on capital punishment or affirmative action. If they don't endorse the whole package, so to speak, we often feel that they are betraying the cause.

Obviously, progressive types do not have a monopoly on Reason; they, too, are also often swayed by the symbolic force of political stances. For many environmentalists, nuclear energy symbolizes extreme technological danger, even though it may, in reality, be one of the most feasible ways of greatly reducing energy-related emission of greenhouse gases. Support for affirmative action symbolizes sympathy for the oppressed, commitment to equal opportunity, and recognition of past and present injustice; consequently, many liberals automatically distrust evidence suggesting that affirmative action may not have the effects it is intended to have.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that over the past few decades symbolism has played a greater role on the right than on the left of the American political spectrum. I realize that to some this will sound both arrogant and condescending: we defer to argument and evidence; they are in thrall to the emotional power of symbols. Yet I think it is true. And I think there is a reason for it.

Underlying all these debates is a struggle over which aspects of modernity to embrace and which to resist. The stances taken both symbolize and are informed by sets of values, and on the whole it is liberals who identify more with the characteristic values of modernity such as secularism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and respect for science. These values hail from the Enlightenment, which sought to elevate the use of evidence and argument in reaching one's conclusions over alternative ways of thinking that rely on appeals to scripture, appeals to tradition, and thinking associatively through symbols.

Again, I am not denying for a moment that the issues we debate and the stance we take often have symbolic importance for all participants. But the rationalistic ideal of injecting into politics the sort of respect for evidence and argument that we expect to find in the sciences is a more integral part of the liberal agenda. And that makes a difference.

[1] Numbers taken from the US government Centers for Disease Control as reported in “Abortion Statistics: United States Data and Trends []