Until today, I have failed to uphold one of the most sacred responsibilities of the guild of bloggers: that of weighing in on the Democratic primary. This is not because of any desire to keep politics out of this blog: I’ve never succeeded in keeping anything out of this blog. Rather, it’s because I find the question genuinely difficult.
The general election is so damn easy by comparison. There, the only questions I need to ask myself are, “do I prefer the Enlightenment or the Dark Ages that preceded it? Is the Earth 4.6 billion years old or 10,000? Do anti-gay laws spring from a less repugnant part of human nature than Jim Crow laws?” While I look forward to the day when my answers to such questions won’t determine my vote, so far they unfailingly have — thereby eliminating the need for me to adjudicate more complicated social and economic issues that I don’t really understand.
In other words, my view of Democrats and Republicans couldn’t possibly be further from that of (say) Eliezer Yudkowsky, who sees the general US election as a meaningless, Kang vs. Kodos popularity contest. Like Yudkowsky, I can easily imagine two political parties fighting over nothing — but what I see in reality is a clearly-identifiable neo-Union and neo-Confederacy, who every four years re-fight the Civil War. As many others have pointed out, even the geographic boundary between America’s two subcountries has barely changed since the 1860’s; the one real irony is that the “party of Lincoln” now represents the Confederate side. (And yes, if the free-market/libertarian wing of the Republican Party ever broke free of the medieval wing, then this correspondence would break down. I’m only talking about things as they currently stand.)
On the other hand, as Clinton and Obama debated their subtly-different proposals for health insurance, subprime lending reform, etc., I realized that, in a race between Democrats (or a general election in a more normal country), my “go with the Enlightenment” approach can only take me so far. Faced with two non-lunatic candidates, you almost have to, like, know something about policy or economics to make a sensible choice.
So being an ignorant computer scientist, what can I say? Let’s start with the obvious: that after seven years of Bush, to ask whether I’d “prefer” Hillary or Obama is like asking a drowning person surrounded by sharks which of two lifeboats he prefers to be rescued by (and adding, in case it’s helpful, that one lifeboat is rowed by a woman and the other by a half-Kenyan). It’s a shame we can’t elect both of them, and then send one back in time to have been president for the last eight years. As the next best option, I wish the candidates would just agree right now to choose the winner by an Intrade-weighted coin flip, and thereby save money for defeating the religious-right-courting hypocrite McCain.
But of course they won’t do that, and hence the question of whom to prefer. Until recently I had a mild preference for Hillary, my reasons being as follows:
- Because she’s been despised for so many years by so many people who I despise (and the worse they say about her, the better she seems).
- Because she’s been doing better than Obama in crucial swing states like Florida.
- Because with her you get all the advantages of her husband but with considerably less chance of a sex scandal.
- Because on one issue that I actually follow — ending the Republicans’ “war on science” — her position paper is full of excellent specifics, whereas (so far as I know) Obama has only said much vaguer things in the same direction.
Recently, though, I’ve been tilting more toward Obama, for five reasons:
- Because he’s winning (still, after last night). This, of course, would be an important piece of evidence about his likelihood of winning the general election, even if it weren’t also a prerequisite to winning.
- Because unlike Hillary, he’s clearly stated his position on the inefficiency of bubblesort.
- Because I’m told that some Americans now supplement their reading of text by the viewing of “YouTubes” and “tele-vision boxes” — and in those settings, Obama clearly does better. His jokes succeed where Hillary’s fail.
- Because the 2000 and 2004 elections suggest that experience is now a severe liability: it simply translates into more stuff that an opponent will twist against you.
- Because people whose judgment I respect, and who follow politics more closely than I do, seem to prefer Obama by a wide margin. As in Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, the mere fact of these other people’s opinions ought to change my own opinion if I’m a rational agent. Whether for rational reasons or not, it has.
Incidentally, so far as I can tell, the accusations of anti-Semitism against Obama that have filled the right-wing blogosphere are completely baseless. The assumption underlying these accusations is that admiration is a transitive predicate: that is, if x admires y and y admires z (where, say, z=Farrakhan), then x must admire z, even if x claims to “reject and denounce” z. But it’s easy to think of counterexamples: I admire Sakharov who admired Stalin (at least for part of his life), I admire Bertrand Russell who admired all sorts of thugs and poseurs, etc. Of course it’s impossible to know Obama’s heart about these matters, but I don’t think one needs to: it’s enough to know his brain.