Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

The Red State Purple Team Blues

If this column was a song I’d call it “The Red State Purple Team Blues.”

The two biggest obsessions on the web are sex and politics. If you can’t fill your web site with pictures of celebrities in bathing suits, the best way to drum up traffic is to post about politics. Pick a side and join the eternal war of Red vs. Blue.

Post for a few weeks and you’ll notice a pattern. The closer you get to the party line (either of them) the more you’ll attract comments and site traffic. The meaner you are to the other side, the more the faithful will flock to you. You’ll get consistent hits from people “on your team” and your opponents will waste more of their time defending themselves against you.

This works as long as you stick to the talking points. Comment on the hot issues of the day and parrot whatever you see on Fox News or MSNBC. But don’t go too far off message. Don’t let your team catch you sounding too moderate or too radical. Stay in that sweet spot of mainstream Republican or Democratic thought and don’t let yourself lean too far right or left.

I know this strategy works because I’ve benefited from it myself. In 1994 I was a rabid Newt Gingrich supporter, caught up in the promises of the 104th Congress. I listened to Rush Limbaugh every day and cheerfully drank the kool-aid. I sat in the front row and pestered my political science professor with quotes from The Heritage Foundation.

I was 23 years old, right at the age when kids (hopefully) stop believing what their parents told them and start making political judgements for themselves. I had a blog and my own usenet newsgroup. I decided I had a duty to educate the unthinking masses and bring them into the light.

I started reading mainstream Republican blogs and reposting anything that could embarrass Democrats. I was so intent on this crusade I started putting political posts in places where they didn’t belong. I was a regular in a usenet humor group. I didn’t know the political composition of the group when I started but I found out quickly that I was in the minority.

It was actually quite tacky of me to post political screeds in a humor group, but I didn’t care about netiquette. I was on a mission to save my country from the Democrats. These people were my friends, after all. Some of them were getting ready to go out and vote, and if I didn’t do something, they were going to vote the wrong way!

It didn’t matter if these people were older than me — fully-formed adults with informed opinions and a solid command of political history. It didn’t matter if they knew all my arguments and were, in many cases, more familiar with my side than I was. These people were sheep. And I was their shepherd.

Sure, maybe they could quote 30 years worth of facts about other Republicans, but Newt was different. Newt was going to fix everything, if those stupid Democrats would just back off and leave him alone!

Soon, I was picking fights all over the Net. I charged in with my talking points and my Cato links and made dire predictions about what would happen to America if we didn’t pull together and get with the program.

Most of the time people just blew me off, but every now and then, someone would fight back. I wrote enough copy in 1995 to fill twenty full-size books — thousands upon thousands of words. I wrote posts all night and started typing first thing in the morning — refreshing my browser every five minutes hoping for a new reply.

Then something funny happened. I branched out into some new newsgroups and started fighting with people who were smarter than me. Some of them were Democrats. Some of them were Republicans. Some of them were Libertarians. Some of them had renounced parties altogether, but they taught me to look beyond the theater of contemporary politics and look for the patterns underneath.

I stopped reading about current events and started reading about economics and political philosophy. I stopped ranting about Bill Clinton and turned my eyes to history. My core values didn’t change, but I stopped worrying about party labels and started looking at historical trends.

I stopped pasting links from think tank sites and started to actually read them. And somewhere down the line I stopped looking at things in terms of good and evil and just started to see these authors as people.

Why did Newt Gingrich think technology could save the world? Why did Hillary Clinton think it took a village? What if my opponents weren’t evil; what if they were just wrong? As I dove deeper into the philosophy and process of politics, I realized just how big and complicated the system was.

And slowly, the tone of my posts changed. I stopped telling people what to think and started asking questions. Life was so much easier when I was playing for the Red team. I didn’t have to ask questions then. All my questions were answered already. The guys in the red ties were right and the guys in the blue ties were wrong. If the world looked broken it was because the guys in the blue ties had broken it. And whatever the problem was, the guys in the red ties were ready to step in and fix everything, if we could just give them a little more power.

But the more I studied, the harder that was to believe. What if neither side had the right answer? What if my country was split down the middle because this stuff is really big and complicated and none of the evidence was good enough to settle argument?

What if both sides were wrong? What if I was wrong? What if I had been wrong for a long time?

It’s a terrible feeling, to give up the certainty you get from belonging to a team. It’s a terrible burden to think for yourself, to lose your faith in the wisdom of groups and live in a world with no easy answers.

I see this drama played out every day on forums and blogs around the Internet — talking points and talk radio gibberish blurring together until it sounds like a football game. I don’t even see individual words now, when I see people post political cliches on the Internet.

It just looks like people screaming “Red!” and “Blue!” at each other across a digital divide.

I’m not saying everyone who picks a team is a brainwashed college kid. I’m not saying everyone who posts about politics is as obsessed as I was. But if you want to get some perspective, try an exercise that would have been a wake-up call for me.

One day this week, take some time and post something critical of your own party. Not just a cynical “they didn’t fight the other team hard enough” but a genuine philosophical disagreement. Pick an issue where you think the other side might just be right.

Your opponents should respect you for it, and the people on your team will learn that you’re more than just a cheerleader for Red or Blue.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 6, 2009 at 15:49

Posted in Politics

5 Responses

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    (hurls teabags at Duff)


    Scott Slemmons

    August 6, 2009 at 18:02

  2. “What if my country was split down the middle because this stuff is really big and complicated and none of the evidence was good enough to settle argument?”

    Agreement doesn’t require strong evidence; everyone could be uncertain to about the same degree: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aumann's_agreement_theorem

    Randall Randall

    August 6, 2009 at 19:00

  3. Thanks, Randall Randall ~ that stuff was really hard but I’m going to try to study it some more.


    August 8, 2009 at 17:52

  4. While the agreement theorem is interesting, I was presenting it semi-ironically, given Michael’s description of pasting links… 🙂

    Randall Randall

    August 11, 2009 at 22:27

  5. Duffer, did I finally succeed (anonymously) in getting under your skin re the Quacky Doc’s new requirements?


    October 13, 2009 at 17:52

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