Political Issues. Both Kinds

It doesn’t actually matter much what the issue is, apparently. It can be put forward this way or that way. We are going to have a Hillary v Donald campaign apparently and I would expect that “the issues,” whatever they turn out to be, are going to be presented in these two ways.

The Bookies were in Newport, Oregon for the last several days. Most years, we spend a few days together at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. [1] During that time, we walk on the beach and through a part of the north end of town.

IMG_0153You don’t have to walk very far to see these two signs. There is going to be a vote, apparently, on whether to “put” (Boo!) or to “restore” (Yea!) fluoride in the water. “Put” emphasizes the novelty. This is new. It could be dangerous. “Restore” emphasizes the familiarity. We used to have this. Remember how nice it was? We could have it again if we wanted.

This is the sign that was most prominently displayed in the neighborhood of the hotel. It says two things. First it identifies the process that is being proposed. “Fluoridation” is the name of the process by which fluoride is added to a public water supply. It does not say anything about possible outcomes which, when you stop and think about it, seems odd.

The second thing it does is to postulate and in-group and an out-group. “Our” is the possessive form of “us” in the objective case and of “we” in the subjective case. We and us and ours all belong together. When they are being emphasized the way they are here, it is reasonable to presume that there is a “their,” which is the possessive form of “them” in the objective case and of “they” in the subjective case. They and them and their all belong together and they all mean “not us.”

It is reasonable to presume, from the sign, that “they”—for the purpose of in-groups and out-groups, it really doesn’t matter just who “they” are—want to put fluoride into the public water supply. “Into our water,” is the way this side would phrase it, I am pretty sure. We don’t know, from this sign, who they are or why they think fluoride should be added or what would happen if it were added. What we know is that “they” are not “us” and that “they” are trying to make a choice that rightfully belongs to “us.”

I hope you will forgive my spending a little time on this. We will be hearing it non-stop at the national level from now until November. Also, please do not imagine that these are subleties. They are clearly there and they clearly work. They are not often remarked on so they may sound unfamiliar, but they are a part of everyday discourse.  They are about as subtle as a punch in the mouth.

Back to work. There really ought to be a sensible reason for dividing “us” from “them.” Here’s an example. “They want to fluoridate our water, while leaving their own water free of fluoride.” There is no reason to think that is the case in Newport, but a situation like that would certainly justify the emphasis on “our choice.”

I imagine that the case in Newport is that some residents want fluoride in the water and some do not. So the water is “our water” and the choice properly belongs to “us,” that is, to “the people who will be voting on the measure and who will be drinking the water.” So “our choice” in this formulation would mean “all of us here in Newport.”  It is inclusive.

That is not what it means on this sign.   Some citizens of Newport are being referred to as “they” because they have different preferences than “us” about the water. It is exclusive.

IMG_0152Here’s the other sign. It just comes from the other side of the conflict, but it might almost have come from another planet. Notice first how the policy process flows. Back in the good old days, we had “healthy water.” [2] Presumably, we made the water “healthful” by adding fluoride to it. And the fluoride produced  healthy water and the healthy water  produced healthy teeth. They don’t say that, but you can see the healthy teeth.

This is an outcome-based argument, where the opponents of Measure 21.164 use a process-based measure. The argument is that we can do something good together and we should. The value of the outcome simply walks past the question of “whose agenda is this” or “who should be making this decision.” We all want healthy teeth and big smiles and so we should all vote Yes on 21.164.

I don’t know anything at all about politics in Newport, but I would guess that this measure is going to lose. Identifying an out-group and opposing them is easily done and it is emotionally powerful. Identifying a policy outcome we all share and trusting that the action we are proposing will achieve that outcome and  benefit us all is done only with difficulty. And the power it has is the power of our common intention—the wish of all of us. That isn’t really very powerful by contrast with an appeal to “us” and to rejecting “them” because they are trying to make a decision that ought to be “ours” to make. That’s where the emotional power is.

You will be hearing more about this from me if, as I confidently expect, it is the dynamic underlying the Hillary v. Donald campaign. Are we having fun yet?

[1] The one thing you need to know about the Sylvia Beach Hotel is that each of its rooms is named after and decorated in the style of an author. They change from time to time, but only slowly. The room where Bette and I stayed is now the J. K. Rowling room, which means that it is the Harry Potter room. The room is filled with “artifacts,” including a painting of Moaning Myrtle on the wall above the toilet. But before that, it was the Edgar Allen Poe room, complete with one wall of bricks and with a pendulum over the bed.
[2] I really don’t like this use of “healthy,” although it is becoming distressingly common. “Healthy water” ought to mean that the water is healthy, which is a good thing. But no one is Newport is arguing that we would be benefitted by having diseased water. They mean “healthful,” i.e., productive of health benefits, water. We want water to be healthful because we want to be healthy.



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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