Republicans, Democrats, and Helium
I watch a lot of cable news, which often prompts my kids to ask me some version of: what’s the difference between a Republican and a Democrat? It should be an easy question to answer. I’ve taught political science classes at NYU. I have a bunch of degrees. I’ve published articles that might lead one to believe I should know how to answer this question. But I usually begin my answer with stammering, followed by equivocation, and finally I meekly land on, “Democrats usually support more government involvement in the economy and Republicans less.”
But that answer kind of sucks.
First off, from the standpoint of a kid, my definition is sort of useless—like describing helium as an inert gaseous element, rather than describing it as the stuff inside a balloon that is lighter than air so it makes the balloon fly. My Republican/Democrat definition is formal, top-down, and macro, when it should probably be utilitarian, bottom-up, and micro. I say this as a father of six children—the youngest a toddler and the oldest a newly minted teen—and as someone who spent much of the last decade working on digital curriculums and public interest projects for kids of all ages. Kids want to understand how things work and they want concrete examples. They want to know how the stuff inside the balloon makes the balloon fly.
We can help kids grasp larger concepts like politics or party affiliation through bite-sized pieces of information and examples. It would probably be better to say something like, “Republicans and Democrats have different ideas about how to spend money that we all own—like if we had a family bank account and we all got to vote on what we spend our money on. President Trump, a type of Republican, would rather increase the amount of money that goes to the military and reduce the amount that tries to protect the environment or goes to the poor.”
I can hear some Republicans saying, well that’s not an entirely fair representation of Trump or Republicans and I would agree. There are two basic problems we confront when we try to define a concept that is deeply connected to values. First, when we make a generalization or put forth an abstract model of human values, we are purposefully leaving out a lot of details, and those details may be very important to proponents of a particular view. Second, human beings are often limited, very limited, in their ability to distinguish between empirical facts (what is) and normative arguments (what ought to be), and this is especially so in the realm of politics.
To be completely transparent, my main interest in writing this piece is not child-appropriate definitions of Republicans and Democrats. Truth be told, my kids probably don’t even care about the differences between Republicans and Democrats—they’re probably just trying to distract me so they can steal the remote from the news-obsessed guy hogging the TV. My main reason for writing about definitions of Republicans, Democrats, and helium is that I’m concerned that vast majorities of thoughtful Americans have lost their ability to discuss politics rationally.
Some of the problem lies in the capacity of smart, passionate, and patriotic individuals to distinguish between the empirical (facts) and the normative (beliefs about what values are important). When I watch Fox, and to a lesser extent MSNBC—yes, I’m a liberal and this may reflect my own bias—I get the sense that many of the talking heads begin with their normative position and then marshal arguments to support their claim. The problem with this type of reasoning is that it assumes the conclusion, and then proceeds to bury any facts that might get in the way. This is poison to a healthy political process.
I recognize that we live in a political system that embraces the basic liberal (libertarian) concept of a marketplace of ideas, one in which interested parties promote their ideas in the public space, and fingers crossed, the best arguments rise to the top. But we can look at any number of issues and see politicians—as well as the press, teachers, clergy, parents, and others we trust—concocting, twisting, and sometimes plain-old ignoring empirical facts just so they can prop up their own normative arguments.
Global warming is a good example. If I were advising a pro-business Republican skeptical of sweeping government regulations designed to combat global warming, I might suggest saying something like this: “It seems that the scientific community has reached a consensus that global warming is caused by humans and its effects may be significant [empirical facts], but now we need to have a long and difficult discussion about the financial sacrifices that are being required of businesses and the consequences for every American [framing a normative argument].” I think I know where liberal Democrats like me would land after this debate—and it probably wouldn’t be on the side of business—but at the very least that pro-business Republican would have framed the argument in a way that is relatively open, honest, and helpful in moving political dialogue forward.
How we discuss political issues, frame arguments, and marshal evidence matters greatly, especially in today’s balkanized political environment and siloed echo chambers. We need to show humility when it comes to our normative positions and fervor when it comes to ferreting out the facts.
So the next time I’m watching the news and my kids ask me the difference between Republicans and Democrats, I will give them some concrete examples, and in my own typically inarticulate way, try to explain the differences between empirical facts and normative arguments. Then I’ll quickly hide the remote.