Saturday, February 27, 2016

Skeptical Therapy for the US Presidential Primary Season

Here in the United States the 2016 Presidential election has been going on so long already that we can trace its origin back to the mists of antiquity, back to a time when Jeb Bush was a presumptive frontrunner, nobody felt the Bern, and Donald Trump was a funny joke instead of a terrifying absurdity.  History has finally rolled into the season of primaries and caucuses, where voters start to decide who the nominees of their respective parties will be when the general election finally takes place in November, a day that has been prophesied for generations by the mystical class of political pundits.
Major US Presidential candidates, minus John Kasich

The internet is already full of arguments for or against specific candidates: Hillary versus Bernie, Rubio versus Cruz, Trump versus everybody, Carson versus staying awake, etc.  Some of that is good stuff.  You should read it.  But that's not what I'm doing here.

My academic interests in ancient skepticism may seem like a long way from contemporary American politics.  What do people like Sextus Empiricus, Nāgārjuna, and Zhuangzi have to do with people like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump?  I think the kind of skeptical therapy offered by ancient skeptics can help those who feel political anxiety about the 2016 election.

I should state for the record that I think you should continue to research the candidates and that my fellow Americans should vote and take part in the political process.  I will be voting in Super Tuesday (March 1) in my home state.  I've decided who to vote for, but that's not what this post is about.  Nor do I mean to start any debates about specific candidates here.  There's plenty of that elsewhere.  My aim is to try to soothe the anxiety created by those kinds of discussions.  Maybe you don't feel like you have that anxiety, or maybe you're in denial about it.  In either case, this post can't help you.  If you find yourself with anxiety about the outcome of primary season, then read on.  There may be something for you here.

Ancient Skeptical Therapy

While the concern of modern philosophical skepticism is whether anybody really knows anything, ancient skeptics were concerned about the anxieties and mental rigidity that philosophical thinking can induce in some people.  Your mind might be disturbed by wondering what the correct answer to a philosophical question might be, whether your answer is really right, how you'll be able to defend your answer against other people, and so on.

The ancient skeptics had the idea that the therapy for dogmatic attachment might be to use certain types of philosophical arguments as a cure for one's tendency to philosophize dogmatically.  Sextus used the method of equipollence, in which you oppose each argument with an equally powerful counter-argument.  Nāgārjuna used the method of finding unwanted consequences (prasaṅga) in all of his opponents' views as well as other possible views on a subject.  Zhuangzi used a combination of fanciful stories, philosophical arguments, and clever plays on words to counteract rigidity in one's way of thinking.

But these therapies are not themselves another philosophical system.  In both the Hellenistic and Indian traditions, skeptics used the metaphor of a purgative drug that purges itself along with whatever ails you.  The result of this therapy would be a mind free from dogmatic attachment and ossified conceptual categories.  You can read more about the specifics of these types of therapy in my post, "Is the Believing Feeling Good for Us?, Part Two."

Therapy for Contemporary Politics

The contemporary political scene, especially in the United States, seems as prone to dogmatism as the philosophical scenes of the ancient Hellenistic, Indian, and Chinese worlds.  Everybody is sure that their candidate is right, and they're even more sure that the others are wrong.  I'm going to try to soften the edges of this dogmatism, because in politics, as in philosophy, our beliefs about a situation are often just as anxiety-producing as the situation itself.

If you support Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton is the nominee...
... that's really not so bad.  Sure, Clinton isn't going to press for Sanders's loftier legislative goals, but at least she'll hold down the fort to prepare the ground for another candidate further to the left in a future election cycle, maybe someone like Elizabeth Warren.  And there's also that fact that, with the exception of a few high profile issues, Clinton and Sanders actually agree about something like 90% of the issues.  The occasional assertion that Clinton is really a Republican could only be believed by a person who has never actually looked at her stated policies.  And why should what she supported 20 years ago be any indication of what she supports today?  People change with the times.  You probably have different beliefs now than you did years ago.  Of course there are legitimate concerns about whether Clinton can win the general election given the intense hatred of her in many quarters of America (some of them, surprisingly, in the Sanders camp itself, which is odd considering most of those anti-Clinton narratives were first woven by Republicans).  But surely one has to admit that Sanders, a Jewish socialist from Vermont, would face different, but perhaps equally significant, challenges in a general election, so it's not entirely clear who would fare better in the general election.  And, as any political scientist will tell you, you simply can't trust those general election match up polls this far out.  It would seem that neither candidate has an obvious edge in electability.  So, it's really not so bad if Clinton is nominated.

If you support Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders is the nominee...

... that's really not so bad.  First of all, Clinton and Sanders do agree about most of the issues (see above).  Unless Sanders's "political revolution" materializes (and there's little reason to think it will given the low Democrat turnout in primaries and caucuses so far), Sanders will face intractable Republican opposition from both houses of Congress, which means that his loftier legislative goals won't happen.  Indeed, one doubts whether even Sanders supporters believe they will happen, at least if they have any inkling about the current state of American politics.  But, aside from wielding his veto pen to block the Republicans' more terrible ideas, Sanders might accomplish something in the long term: a Sanders presidency might push the political discourse of this country to a place where we could stop debating whether to abolish the accomplishments of the Obama administration and begin conversations about building on them or replacing them with something better (see especially: the Affordable Care Act).  Clinton supporters also can't deny that she would face huge obstacles in a general election given the Republican hate machine that has been controlling the narrative about her for 25 years, which affects not just Republicans, but independents and even some Democrats (just look at the Clinton hate on the part of some - I said some - Sanders people, which to Sanders's personal credit, he has publicly denounced).  While Sanders will have his own difficulties, perhaps the candidates' strengths and weaknesses in the general election are more closely aligned than we think.  Also, the fact that someone as far to the left as Sanders (relative to most Americans) is so popular with younger voters could be a hopeful sign for the future: we may not live in a country that would elect someone like Sanders or pass his legislation in 2016, but maybe we will in eight, 12, or 16 years.  So, it's really not so bad if Sanders is nominated.

If you support Cruz, Rubio, Kasich, or Carson, and Donald Trump in the nominee...

... that's really not so bad.  I'm lumping four Republicans together, because it seems like the Republican race at this point is really between Trump and everyone else.   Maybe you wanted a more sensible or mainstream Republican like Rubio or Kasich, or you're a tea party type like Cruz, or you love Carson's dulcet tones and lack of political experience.  If you didn't nominate Trump, he might run as a third party candidate, and then the Democrats will almost surely win.  If you do nominate him, and he doesn't win the general election, then maybe the Republican party will get its act together to prevent another Trump-like candidate in the future.  If (God help us all) Trump were to win the presidency, then, having alienated and angered the establishment of both parties, there would seem to be little he could accomplish.  His lack of political experience, which is somehow an asset in the election, would be a detriment when it comes to doing anything in office.  He may not be a true conservative, but at least he wouldn't be the liberal that Clinton or Sanders would be.  And maybe getting whatever fervor he's tapping into out of Americans' systems at this point could clear the ground for successful Republican candidates in the future.  So, it's really not so bad if Trump is nominated.

If you support Donald Trump...

... I admit I've got nothing for you.  I've come to suspect that Trump's supporters may not respond to reason at all and have little idea how the American political process actually works.  I understand that people are mad at the establishment, but there is such a thing as constructive anger.  Is voting for Trump a constructive use of your anger?  People who want a racist, sexist, xenophobic blowhard celebrity rich guy as president just to shake things up or watch it all burn down or whatever seem to be so far gone that nothing I could say here would help.  I mean, are you serious?  Really?  How is this happening?  I'm reminded of a great story about Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonian skepticism.  He was supposed to remain serene as a result of his therapy, but he was scared when he was attacked by a dog.  When asked whether he was betraying his principles, he supposedly responded that it is hard to completely divest oneself of one's humanity.  Trump is a terrifying, authoritarian attack dog who uses his celebrity to suck up all the oxygen in the room of American politics.  I simply can't divest myself of my humanity on this one.  Trump's candidacy started as a delightful joke, but the joke is on us, America, for letting him get this far.


  1. I have one word for you: BINGO!

    You know, I also question why anyone would vote for someone who chooses hate. I can't help but wonder what Trump's anti-human supporters think will happen if he gets into office.

    Now, I'm not saying I have a particular candidate in mind. I don't really like any of the candidates to be honest and can't wrap my head around why/how a bunch of immigrant descendants could see something wrong with foreigners being in the country.

    I honestly feel like this election is some kind of sick and twisted joke. And to be honest I knew that people would vote for Trump because anyone who is a blatant racist, xenophobic, sexist, misogynist pig gets respect from extremely 'conservative'/closet racist Americans.

    Ironically these same people sit around the camp fire talking about who is 'anti-American' and how far gone the country has 'become.' These same people justify the killing of American citizens who don't look like them or share their ethnicity. These same people believe in building coalitions and terrorizing entire groups of people. These same people raise their hate flags and claim that America is doing them wrong because their mediocrity is not being celebrated. These same people remind me of terrorist organizations and yet their voices are plastered across the walls of American social media.

    *sigh* We have some major issues that need to be dealt with in this nation. It's pitiful and shameful.

    1. Yeah, the whole Trump thing is a sad mystery. Part of it may be the cult of celebrity, which I think gave him the name recognition at the beginning. And I think some of it is a general outrage, which in itself is somewhat understandable, but it makes no sense to channel it to a vote for Trump. And of course a lot of it is, as you point out, simple bigotry, which has now been given a "legitimate" face in one of our major political parties. *sigh* indeed...