Why I take it personally

A confession: I have never been able to just “agree to disagree” with American conservatives, to just see politics as a place where reasonable people can simply hold differing values and preferences. I feel a little guilty about this. Very Serious People are not supposed to succumb to this kind of demonization of the other side.

Reading a year-old profile of Chief Justice John Roberts in the New Yorker, I was reminded why I am this way:

In 2006, however, Roberts devoted his entire [annual report of the Supreme Court] to arguing for raises for federal judges, and he even went so far as to call the status quo on salaries a “constitutional crisis.” Most federal judges are paid a hundred and sixty-nine thousand dollars, and at that point they had not had a real raise in fifteen years. This request to Congress was universally popular among Roberts’s colleagues, who were long used to watching their law clerks exceed their own salaries in their first year of private practice.

Congress, however, snubbed the Chief Justice. Six-figure salaries, lifetime tenure, and the opportunity to retire at full pay did not look inadequate to the elected officials, who make the same amount as judges and must face ordinary voters. Roberts’s blindness on the issue may owe something to his having inhabited a rarefied corner of Washington for the past three decades.

During the heart of his career, Roberts’s circle of professional peers consisted entirely of other wealthy and accomplished lawyers. In this world, a hundred and sixty-nine thousand dollars a year might well look like an unconscionably low wage. “Some judges have actually left the bench because they could make more money in private practice, and some Justices have complained privately about how it’s almost impossible to educate your family on that kind of money,” Prettyman said.

Let’s recap: these people are in government. Their jobs are to make legal decisions that have an impact on 307 million Americans. And yet to them a most pressing issue of those jobs is that earning 4x the median US income – a level that makes you richer than at least 95% of US households – is not enough, because their kids must under no circumstances go to public schools. These people are federal judges, and thus I refuse to believe that they are too stupid to realize that this kind of inequality in their country is something they should probably take into account when interpreting the law. Which means I’m left with only one plausible reason for such an attitude: gross moral failing.

  1. It’s probably worth noting that Federal judges’ rulings effect far more people than 307 million Americans, since they set precedents that will have effects on future generations as well (not to mention rippling effects on people in other nations).

    Also, I wonder if your “moral failing” is simply the result of inexperience, a sort of liberal provincialism? That’s meant as an honest question, not as a criticism. If you’ve always been of a certain political bent, and have typically been surrounded by others with similar or identical views, then it’ probably harder to see those that disagree with you as anything but “the other.”

    For example, if most of your contact with conservatives and their views is through a media lens, then you’re like my grandmother, whose only experience with minorities is through the negative portrayals that she sees on the evening news.

    That’s also not to say that “agreeing to disagree” is the better course, but it’s easier to do if you’re disagreement is with your parents, friends, or younger self (through time travel, I guess).

    • To some degree, I think there’s something to your idea. I’ve lived in major urban areas all my life and my only conservative family members that I know of were my paternal grandparents. So the lens through which I see the world is always going to be colored by the facts that I’m the child of big-city Jewish people, went to a Big Liberal College, currently live in Giant Gaytown, etc. Though I do think I’m exposed to a pretty good cross-section of conservative thought through the blogs I read.

      That said, when I say I “take it personally” I don’t mean that every interaction I have with a conservative ends up being uncivil because I treat them like a moral monster. I’m typically pretty good at keeping a lid on myself that way. But inside, it’s hard for me not to think of them as having a pretty twisted moral compass. What I was trying to get at in this post was a bunch of things that went something like this (this won’t amount to an argument, but it’s a bunch of reasons I think go beyond simple provincialism for explaining my attitude):

      1. American politics is an exceptional beast in terms of the ideologies that are within the bounds of acceptable discourse. For a variety of reasons these boundaries are already shifted far to the right. Rather than expand my definition of what I consider “acceptable discourse” ever farther right, there’s a point at which I, personally, need to put my foot down and say “no, that’s totally off the deep end – and moreover, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

      2. People’s beliefs don’t necessarily make rational sense. So I can understand more or less how they arrived at their beliefs…but it’s often hard for me to have respect for those beliefs if they can’t articulate good reasons for them.

      3. It’s a lot easier for me to excuse the ignorant (your grandmother, for example) on account of their ignorance. I realize that we live in a country of (to put it bluntly) rubes who a dysfunctional media fails to inform. Call it liberal elitism, but I can’t blame the average person for his beliefs, because almost invariably the facts that they think they have about how the world works are going to be, at best, weirdly distorted. But I can’t excuse the conservative intellectual and political elite for the same thing. They have the facts and for a whole variety of reasons they’ve made it their life’s work to deny and obfuscate them. That’s who I really see as morally flawed.

  2. I think it’s more than fair to separate the elite from the majority of their followers. When I think of “conservatives”, I’m much more likely to think of family members than a politician. I’m more than prepared to call Dick Cheney a monster, but I can’t call my parents that, even when they share certain beliefs with the man. I can justify this in the same way that you do – they’re misled.

    The danger that I see in refusing to engage with the right is that it hinders our responsibility to educate voters. There’s a reason the “elitist” smear sticks so well to liberals. People, and I think modern Republicans in particular, identify with their leaders, so every snarky Palin joke just reinforces their belief that liberals think they’re stupid. This creates new hostility to the very policies that are meant to help them.

    Sorry, it’s the latent preacher in me.

  3. I get that. At the same time, I think a lot of that stuff is damned if you do, damned if you don’t – if you snark, you’re a snobby elitist, and if you don’t, you’re a nerdy weenie. So I think there is a place for (well-targeted and judiciously applied) ridicule. If nothing else, it establishes that you have balls; I’ve been in arguments with conservatives like this and they almost have seemed shocked that I wasn’t taking their smearing lying down.

    Also, I’ve given up on the idea that there are many self-identified Republicans who can be honestly convinced that their ideas are mistaken. Much of this stuff is really just a performance to impress the people in the middle who have no idea what to think.

  4. A post from Digby that’s very apropos to this thread today. I suspect I might not be a big fan of most of Hazlitt’s writing, but the passage she’s quoted here is, to me, spot-on: http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/on-spirit-of-partisanship.html

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