Decoding South Park’s Lessons for Voters
What South Park & the Ancient Greeks can teach us about presidential elections
Over the Labor Day holiday, our house was overrun — I mean blessed — by the arrival of my in-laws. Conversation stayed mostly banal but suddenly turned political when my brother-in-law summed up his view of the present election as a choice between two different versions ofAmerica. Is America a place that helps me when I can’t help myself or is America a place that lets me become the person I work to become?
He’s not alone. The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll picks up this theme of two competing versions of America, drawing a distinction between “…the president’s vision of a country that emphasizes community and shared responsibility,” contrasted with a vision of “…self-reliance and individual responsibility, a distinction at the core of the debate between the Republican and Democratic tickets about the proper role of government.”
Both Mitt Romney and President Obama, inadvertently or not, underscored which version they support, with Governor Romney telling an intimate gathering of supporters that he stands with the self-reliant in opposition to those that rely on government and then State Senator Obama calling for redistribution of wealth “…to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.”
How we frame this question, though, is more important than the answer, because the nature of a question dictates its answer. The question — as posed by my brother-in-law, the New York Times, and the candidates — is about a change in the absolute condition, the very definition, or soul, of America.
It’s a flawed premise, a flaw perhaps best articulated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone from the cartoon SouthPark. In their retelling of American history, they demonstrate that it is the fact that these visions compete that gives America its strength. The tempering influence of the doves allows the hawks to claim a righteous cause when going to war. Our self-reliant ethic prevents our communalism from dulling our competitive edge.
We not only need these two visions in constant conflict, we need them to continuously trade places in power. A better restatement of the question facing us in this election is which version do we need in power right now?
The temporary nature of the question makes it possible to do two things: first, concede the legitimacy of the other side during the election, and second, come together enough to make progress after it.
When we cast things in absolutes, we make it impossible to compromise. It’s the absolutist part that makes the Israeli-Palestinian question so intractable. If it was simply an argument over “land for peace,” then the matter could be put to bed quickly. Just make the trade. But if God told me that land is mine, then to compromise is to sell my soul, to betray God.
Same thing in the present election. If I’m voting about the very nature of America, then by definition no matter which side I pick, the other side must be a bunch of heretics with ideas dangerous to the soul of America. Tamping down the permanency of the question means that I’m really just choosing between which of my own instincts to give the lead at the present moment.
Looking at the question this way, the decision comes down to this: are we in a time of crisis — like the Great Depression or WWII – that requires collective action and shared sacrifice? If so, then we take one course for now and when the crisis is over, we can revert back to self-reliance and shameless pursuit of selfish interest. If not, if we simply find ourselves in a bad economic cycle, then we just need to take certain steps to kick-start growth.
Regardless of which conclusion you draw, by rephrasing the question and emphasizing the temporary nature of the decision we preserve the legitimacy of the other side and leave enough room to work together regardless of the outcome of the election.
Any one who seeks to casts these decisions in terms of absolutes should look both at the modern Middle East and the Ancient Greeks. The modern Middle East, with its tendency to rapidly degenerate any question into violence, shows what can happen when the ability to compromise disappears. The Ancient Greeks show us what happens when we overreach, trying to win too much. Greek tragedies followed the cycle of koros – hubris – ate – nemesis.
The tragic hero, having gained great power, would get greedy (koros), grow over-confident to the point of overwhelming arrogance bordering on moral blindness (hubris), go mad with power (ate), and then get brought low (nemesis). In our modern setting, I’ll pick on Karl Rove. He set out to create a “permanent Republican majority” and now we watch as the Republican party becomes a reductio ad absurdum shade of its former self: representing a smaller and smaller sliver of true believers.
I pick on Mr. Rove as an archetype. These tragic heroes exist on both sides of the aisle, pulling us into a continuing spiral of hardening absolutist positions. The only way out is by reframing the original question.
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