2 August 2004

Culpable Ignorance

    On the NewsHour
on Friday night, Spencer Michaels ran a focus group of “average”
people, had them watch the Kerry speech from last Thursday, and then
asked them what they thought.  (You can find the transcript here.) 
I shouldn’t watch these things, because they just make me sick, with
the sort of willful stupidity that people — from both sides of the
political divide — say.

    I can’t say I found
Kerry as vague as these likely voters did.  I recall that he gave
some specifics and some generalities.  But I don’t expect a
point-by-point plan.  I’ve got a copy of the Kerry speech in front
of me, as I did when he gave it.  Perhaps that what makes the
difference, but it still doesn’t seem to be solely the platitudes that
this group whined about.  They seemed to want a policy brief, but
if they had gotten that, they would have shut the TV off or they would
have complained that he was too boring.  I think that no matter
what these voters had received, they would not have been satisfied with
it.

    Now, the partisan members of the group —
the ones who seem to be involved in campaigns — were their typical
selves.  Lu Ryden, a committed Republican, said “liberal” over and
over, spitting it out as a distasteful epithet, which it probably was
for her.  Probably a dirtier word that “s***” or “f***”.  And
Iris Winogrod, “as Democratic as Lu is Republican,” could only offer
the idea that the party looked centered and happy.  The same
charge that Lu leveled at Kerry, I return to both of them: Lots of nice
things said, but no substance.

    Then we moved
onto the “independents” and “undecideds.”  Jeff Wheeler, a
self-described “finance guy”, said the Kerry plans don’t add up, that
you can’t only raise the taxes on the top 2 percent and get all the
programs that he proposed.  Jeff also thinks that the economy must
be on its way back up, “because if it wasn’t there would have been a
lot more focus on it.”  I’m not sure how Jeff’s self-described
“finance guy” job makes him an expert on the accounting and funding of
the federal budget, and I wonder if he’s seen any numbers.  But
more importantly, Jeff’s reasoning on the economy and the discussion
thereof (or not) proves extraordinarily faulty.  He reasons that
no mention of the economy means it is good, because if the economy were
bad, they would have mentioned it.  But what he does is to support
his assertion by a lack of evidence.  It’s similar to making the
following statement: “Because I do not see the cancer, it must not be
harming me.”  You can’t actually draw the conclusion.  There
may be other intervening explanations.  Perhaps the Democrats saw
that the war was the issue of greatest concern to address in the main
speech.  Also, since I was there, I can tell these focus group
people that there was almost as much emphasis on the economy and its
performance throughout the convention as there was on the war. 
But not in the way that these voters seemed to want.

  
 The economic focus was partially on the numeric sides of the
policies — unemployment, inflation, trade and current account
balances, and so forth.  But much of the economics of the
convention was in a focus on the specific sorts of people involved and
what the impact of the radical realignment of the nation’s taxation and
fiscal policies has been.  And more important than the aggregate
numbers for the whole country or a specific geographic region are the
numbers that indicate the effects of our fiscal and economic policies
have had for different classes of people.  For example, the
richest twenty percent made thirty times what the poorest twenty
percent did in 1960; by now, that has increased so the upper quintile
makes 75 times what the lowest quintile does.

  
 A couple of the voters complained that the discussion of
economics in America reeked of “class warfare.”  Lots of Americans
seem to believe that any discussion of class whatsoever constitutes
“class warfare.”  And Americans often like to claim that we are a
“classless” society.  Only in the sense that our class is not
determined by our blood ancestry or ontological standing, as in the old
societies of Europe.  But we still have much differentiation in
manner and mores for people, based upon their overall wealth standing:
we still have classes.  The borders are a bit fuzzier than in the
old aristocracies, but they are still there.  But if we speak of
how some people are doing worse than others, how we might want to see
that inequalities in wealth and income are leveled out (because we know
that wealth generally accrues to itself), how we might want to see that
those who do not have natural access to capital can obtain that access
and use it to better their lives, that hardly seems to me to be “class
warfare.”  “Class warfare” seems a vestige of our latter twentieth
century obsession with Communism and socialism, which spoke of class
incessantly.  By invoking the specter of a coming war between
classes, it’s as if we can paint people once again as being “red.”

  
 But only one of these voters seemed to get the problem. 
Large numbers of people remain without jobs or visible means of support
through no fault of their own.  Almost a fifth of America’s
children live below the poverty line.  And just because one
doesn’t know such people personally does not mean that one can remain
willfully ignorant about those who are much less fortunate than oneself.

  
 My overwhelming impression of this group, after the segment was
over, was of a people who are formidably ignorant about what any life
besides their own might be like, Democrats as well as
Republicans.  And if that’s the case, then they’re as culpable for
the state we’re in as either Kerry or Bush.

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