Political Emotivism

2003-03-16

In the early twentieth century, certain philosophers held a strange view in ethics called emotivism. The import of emotivism was that ethical statements have no import: they are purely emotional expressions. According to emotivism, when I say "Hitler is evil", all that I really mean is "Boo Hitler!". Although I've never thought emotivism was a very enlightened or enlightening view in ethics, I'm coming to think that in fact it's quite descriptive for many people's political views. Now, I don't tend to argue with people about politics, for a number of reasons: at this point I'm pretty a-political, my views are deeply unfamiliar to people who think the political spectrum runs from Democrats to Republicans, and I find that talking about politics doesn't change anyone's mind. This last point is connected with what I'm concluding about how most people think about politics: their political positions are the equivalent of "Boo Clinton!" (Republicans) and "Boo Bush!" (Democrats). The name of the current bugaboo changes (for the Democrats it was "Boo Reagan!" long after Reagan left office, and the Republicans still use Clinton in the same manner), but the lack of content remains the same. We see no principles, no thought, no reflection, just the kind of mindlessly emotional chauvinism that is more familiar from professional sports (in my town of Denver, "Go Avs!" and "Red Wings Suck!"). Just as in sports you need a rival or enemy, so in American politics each party feeds off the other in a kind of co-dependent symbiosis: the "Boo Clinton!" crowd feels at home among the Republicans and the "Boo Reagan/Bush!" crowd feels at home among the Democrats. Indeed, I would argue that there is little else uniting the members of these parties than a visceral emotional reaction against the other guys -- who are, of course, the bad guys. Thus the fear of a third party ("if you're not with us, you're against us"), whether that party challenges the Republicans (e.g., the Libertarians) or the Democrats (e.g., the Greens). Thus the ready willingness to hold one's nose when voting ("sure, he's a crook, but at least he's running against the bad guys"). Thus the unwillingness to admit that anything good could have happened on the other guy's watch (Republicans hate it when you point out that deregulation started under Carter and welfare reform was passed by Clinton). Thus the endless hectoring of those who are politically apathetic, as if the refusal to submit to party thinking and to vote "Yay" or "Nay" is the height of civic evil. It all comes down to political emotivism.


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