Political ideology is less significant in U.S. elections than religious ideology. Whether or not a given American claims to be Christian, each of us has been influenced by this country’s history of Christian thinking, and this influence plays a role in how we think, how we communicate, and how we vote.
It’s difficult for any political party of wealthy elites to retain its power in a democracy. After a while, the people will begin to realize that their quality of life is either stagnant or declining, and they will stop voting for politicians who say one thing and do another. But suppose a politician claims that he represents God’s will? Suppose he panders to those who believe, either actively or passively, that offending God’s delicate sensibilities will result in harm to their country?
A ridiculous tactic, and one that has served both Republicans and Democrats quite well. The specifics of political ideology are not that important to many voters. Social norms, including how candidates dress, what sorts of hairstyles they wear, and whether they behave in a sober and calm fashion, have repeatedly determined the outcome of elections, over and above any serious discussions of policy.
Where do these social norms originate? Some of them are innate. Global evaluations, such as whether a person is likable, dominate our assessments of people, and our minds make such determinations faster than we are consciously aware. Does a political candidate smile a great deal? Well, then here we have a likable, confident person, who we can trust to occupy a position of power. Having nothing to do with any specific ideology, what psychologists refer to as the “halo effect” has elected numerous politicians who were, by any serious measure of their policy positions, wholly ignorant of the proper role played by government in human affairs.
But some social norms are culture-specific. In America, many people are preoccupied with essentially religious notions of virtue. Does a candidate use a swear-word? An atheist wouldn’t mind, so long as that candidate appeared to be educated enough to implement rational policies. Does a candidate have a nose ring? Again, a secular person would look at that candidate’s policy positions, not his or her jewelry.
Some policies work, others do not. It should be clear, in light of the collapse of the U.S. subprime mortgage industry, that government regulation is necessary to prevent capitalists from harming themselves and others. But a large number of lawmakers, and at least three presidential candidates, retain the support of those who judge political figures by their haircuts, their American flag lapel pins, and labels like “conservative” or “liberal,” instead of by the utility of their policy positions.
Just as many Christians believe that “impure” behaviors, such as homosexuality, contaminate entire communities, maybe even entire countries, inviting God’s judgment, many American voters believe that policies such as government intervention in free markets contaminates the economy, inviting corruption and poverty. Because these voters continue to believe such things even when unregulated markets are naturally, and all by themselves, vaporizing trillions of dollars in wealth, it is safe to assume that such beliefs are extensions of Christian ideas about purity. The indisputable fact that a perfectly competitive, “free” market is impossible, considering human nature and the inevitability of cronyism and favoritism, does not seem to trouble the faithful.
Conservative or liberal, Puritan or heathen, we can all look at various charts and numbers and arrive at a consensus regarding the present-day competitiveness of the U.S. economy. The dollar is tanking, personal and business bankruptcies are at record levels, government and consumer debt are dangerously high, home foreclosures and car repossessions are breaking records, and, most shockingly, CEOs are getting fired left and right. Our economy is not doing well. Should we continue blundering along with the same government policies in place? Should we assume that capitalism is self-regulating?
There are useful policies, and there are self-destructive policies. Preemptive war is not useful. Kidnapping and waterboarding terrorism suspects is not useful. Massive subsidies for coal-burning power plants are not a good idea. Massive subsidies for already profitable farming industries are not helpful. A U.S. military budget surpassing the combined military budgets of every other country on the planet is not a good idea. Failing to provide proper combat gear to soldiers is not helpful. Failing to provide adequate healthcare to soldiers, and to Americans in general, is not a good idea, not good for the economy. Failing to provide adequate funding for education, especially college, is not good for American competitiveness.
These are all examples of policies that represent, if you’ll excuse the expression, the absolute zenith of American stupidity. This is not intended to be insulting to America: this is a pretty good country, after all. But it could be a much wealthier, much happier, and much more stable place if American voters stopped believing, as a matter of faith, in the sanctity of lapel pins, military spending, and “free” market economics. We have so much money, so many opportunities to create something good for future generations, that it would amount to an unprecedented human tragedy if, as a matter of blind faith, we were not able to abandon such absurdly ineffective policies.
Is the perpetuation of such policies a question of ideological manipulation? Maybe for those willing to be manipulated. But if the rest of us don’t like the consistently disastrous results of such manipulation, we can always man up and kick the bums out by exercising some common sense and voting our interests. This is a free society, after all: we have the option of breaking away from the herd anytime we please.