Morality and Political Polarity

Feb 04 2008 Published by under Do Something

Over the weekend, ScienceBlogs was treated to a view of how at least one European views American politics. Archaeologist Martin Rundkvist looked at our spectrum of political belief and compared it to normal politics in his native Sweden. From his perspective, all of American politics is right-wing. Even the Liberal Party, he tells us, is part of the political right in Sweden - and not because they are advocating for things that are all that different than liberals do in America. Lest you think that this is just a European perspective, Australian John Wilkins agrees that the range of acceptable political choices is much more compressed in America than it is elsewhere in the world.

American Chad Orzel took exception to Martin's description. In politics, the physics professor argues, there's no such thing as a privileged reference frame. Instead of claiming that all of American politics falls on the right side of the European spectrum, he points out, one could just as easily argue that all of European politics falls on the left side of the American spectrum. Had he stopped there, I probably would have sat this argument out. But he didn't. Chad went concluded his post with an argument that reflects a very dangerous, and all too-common belief about the political landscape:

What irritates me about this is not just the fact that the reverse comment-- "you Europeans need to become more conservative"-- would be (and is) met with high dudgeon by the same people who will happily tell Americans how to re-shape our political system. It's that the whole thing is completely pointless.

Noting that American politics takes place in a compressed range of ideology relative to the European system is about as productive as noting that European geography takes place in a compressed range of latitudes relative to the United States. It's a fact of the landscape, and you work with it as best you can.

When viewed on the scale of human experience, geography is fixed. If you don't like the mountain that's blocking your view, your only choices are to learn to live with it, or move. Unless you are a major corporation that mines coal, moving the mountain is not an option. The same is true for many other features of geography. It's not true for politics.

Political landscapes can move, and they can often move rapidly. That's certainly been true in Europe over the last century, and it's also been true in America. Groups - even small groups - of committed individuals can create a great deal of change. If you don't like the political landscape in the United States, learning to live with it as best as you can is not the only option. It's just the easiest one.

4 responses so far

  • Chad Orzel says:

    Yeah, I waffled a bit about that analogy, but decided to leave it in as a hook for comments. You'e absolutely right to note that the political landscape is changeable.
    I'd stand by it, though, at least as a starting point. If you want to accomplish some political goal in the US, you're not going to get anywhere with strategies that assume a similar politcal landscape to that in Europe. You may be able to shift the landscape to be more favorable to your cause in time, but you need to start by recognizing that a shift is needed, and work for that shift first and foremost.

  • Sally Dunford says:

    QA's Mom, here.
    I'm a Community Organizer by profession -- we're just as big on process as scientists.
    The 1st rule of organizing is "Start Where You Are."
    The 2nd is "Harness Self-Interest"
    As I see it futile to expect Americans to view things from a non-American point of view ----
    unless you can demonstrate that it is in their interest to do so.
    People in other parts of the world are much more apt to try to understand how Americans think because it does effect their self interest.
    The problem, as I see it, then becomes the need to get Americans to think globally --- something that is really just beginning to happen
    And the challenge will be to keep this new debate/conversation from embracing the racism, and nationalism that has way too frequently, been part of American thinking.

  • IanR says:

    It seems strange to me that anyone would consider US politics to consist of anything but a truncated right-wing view of things. Europeans have always had an especially broad base - from neo-fascists to communists - holding elected office. But it isn't just that.
    In how many countries is the idea of socialised health care a fringe idea? In how many countries is opposition to the death penalty a kiss of death? For that matter - how many democratic countries see the idea of electing a woman leader as radical? The biggest Islamic countries (Pakistan in 1988, Bangladesh in 1991, Indonesia in 2001) have all elected women leaders.
    There is no spectrum of opinions on the military. You couldn't be elected dog catcher if you didn't say "I support the troops". In countries which don't have a truncated political spectrum there would be politicians who are opposed to having a military at all. And guns? Not only has gun control proved to be political suicide, it also was never more than a tentative idea.
    Sure, it isn't fair to judge the American political system from a Swedish perspective. But it is fair to judge it in a global perspective. There really isn't much of a "left" in American politics.

  • Amadan says:

    I have to agree with IanG, there seems to be an abundance of shibboleths in American political discourse which narrow the range of debate. The most likely reasons seem to me the fact that your States are very United - your 'national' media set the agenda for a very dominant federal political system; and secondly that it is nearly 150 years since your country was truly divided by a cataclysmic political upheaval. Here in Europe we're still trying to reinvent ourselves since the collapse of the old imperial system (and arguably since the French revolution!) We are surrounded by reminders of Great Experiments that have come and gone (and good riddance to most of them), and we have disabused ourselves of many of the myths and illusions that fed them. So debate tends to be open to more radical ideas, though in practice we tend towards concensus because we still have bruises from when we got too radical in action.
    Concerning attitudes to America, a lot of what is portrayed as 'antiAmericanism' is really a jaundiced view of American hegemony: we've seen Great Powers rise before, and we've got the monuments to prove it. But we recognise the signs of decline, and, well, you're family, so we hope you don't mind us pointing it out.