This is all I have to say about politics.

I’m not really into politics. I have some opinions, just like anyone else, but I’ve never cared much about politicians or “issues” until an election rolled around. Back in Canada, an election would be called, campaigned for, and over, all within a month or so. Since moving to the DC area, I feel like I’m bombarded daily with political news, and that an election is always imminent. It’s exhausting. And it makes so many people so agitated.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook on election day:

No longer Republican, not a Democrat, I am voting based on the issues that are important to me. Regardless of what happens tonight I will go to sleep happy, knowing that I did my part and I voiced my opinion.
I responded with:
That’s how *everyone* should vote. It’s not about “our team” vs “their team” – it’s about what you want your government to do for you. Can’t wait till I get the right to vote.
And that’s really the heart of the matter the way I see it. I realize partisanship happens in Canadian politics too. It just seems so much stronger here, with folks self-identifying decidedly as Red or Blue and then holding on tight to their team color. This past election, I felt like I was watching a bunch of Leafs fans and a bunch of Habs fans, yelling about how the other team sucked and their jerseys were ugly. (American friends, please substitute “Ravens” vs “Steelers” or “Red Sox” vs “Yankees”, if you’re having trouble understanding the metaphor).

The “us” vs “them”, “Go Team” mentality that seems to pervade American politics has to be contributing to a lack of cooperation and productive debate among politicians. Even the official presidential debates weren’t actual debates. They were a stage for the candidates to repeat their talking points and tell us how much they feel solidarity for the little guy. Not enough information about what they want to do, or, more importantly, how. Just a series of jabs at the other guy, so they can show the public just how wrong he is and how horrible it would be if he won. Once the opposing party has been made out to be the enemy, the antithesis of all you stand for, how can you then work with them and come to a compromise on an important issue?

Why base your vote on which letter appears in the brackets beside a politician’s name? Why not vote for the guy whose plans for the country (or the state, or the county, or the school board) line up better with your opinions? Furthermore, it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure your opinions are well-informed. I feel like that’s harder and harder to do, in an age where pundits get more TV time than budget analysts, and opinion polls get more attention than forecast studies by economists. Sure, maybe 75% of people polled think that giving everyone a new car will help the economy. But what do the numbers show?

Some issues are indeed based on opinion, and that’s understandable. We’re human, and we’re going to have feelings about things. For example, whether you believe that sex education should be taught in school is completely your opinion, and I can’t tell you you’re wrong if you say you’re against it on moral grounds. If your gut and your spiritual beliefs are against it, so be it. I support your right to believe that even if I disagree with you. But it seems like many politicians have no problem saying that opinion is a matter of actual fact instead of personal belief, and as a scientist that pisses me right off. 

There are ways to test whether a statement is factually true. For example, you can’t claim that abstinence-only education is the best way to prevent teen pregnancy, because it just isn’t true. There are numbers available that you can look at, add up, and compare. You can believe it’s the best way, according to your moral stance, but an assessment of the actual numbers involved show that it is not objectively true.

Opinions do indeed matter in politics. But facts also matter. The problem arises when opinions are given the same weight as facts, and are stated as facts, when evidence says otherwise. If a politician is trying to tell me that his plan will cut taxes, or fix Social Security, or anything else, I want him or her to back it up with facts. Show me how you think it can be done, and give me some objective data to look at. I think we need to demand more of our politicians, whatever the color of their political jerseys. We can’t keep accepting promises and pretty words without any rationale or explanation.

I had a great chat with a coworker last week. He’s got political leanings opposite to mine, and we talked for an hour about the economy. We agreed on many things, but were able to respect our differences in opinion about how certain things should be cut or spared. If it was our job to come to a compromise over those differences of opinion, I don’t doubt for a minute that we would be able to pull a plan together that we could both be satisfied with, and one that we collectively believed would be in the best interest of the country. If we can do it, the folks in the House and Senate surely can as well. After all, it’s what we elect them to do.

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