Principles, Actions, and Consequences

Published online 6 March 2011.

This is a diary about talk, and its relative unimportance in the scheme of things.  It is also about action, and its limited efficacy, and consequences, which are the future.

I see three levels of reality here:

1) Principles — generally speaking, participants in political conversations are “for” some stuff, and against other stuff.  Let’s take, for instance, the standard meme in a number of Internet discussions of Obama: “I criticize Obama, but I support him.”  People who invoke this meme are generally laying out a set of principles: this is where I agree with the President, this is where I disagree with him.

Refusing to support Obama, on the other hand, is sometimes suggested in the form of a principle by those who are frustrated over Obama’s policy moves.

he’ll walk head on and jump right on that third rail of politics, knowing that the programs will be cut

This particular objection in the link suggests that not cutting Social Security is (as a principle) a priority for this commenter.2) Actions — now, stating one’s principles (verbally, over the Internet, in a paper publication, or maybe on the radio or TV) is indeed a form of action.  But from the action perspective, “talk is cheap” and what counts in terms of meaningful principles is one’s willingness to act upon what one says.  Thus, from this perspective, saying “I criticize Obama, but I support him” seems like a pose.  Why criticize Obama if all one is going to do is vote for him anyway?

Refusing to support Obama, on the other hand, would be seen from the action perspective as an attempt to make one’s principled objection to (some) Obama policies “count.”

3) Consequences — this is the realm in which voting for Obama, or withholding one’s vote for Obama, might actually matter.  We can see how this is so from an analysis of this post:

People act here as though the fact that they won’t vote for Obama is a big deal.It isn’t.  So what?  Almost all of the polling indicates that the rank and file liberals and Democrats support Obama overwhelmingly.

I hate to say this to people: but no one really gives a damn if you hate Obama and think he is a sell out.

From the perspective of consequences, however, refusing to vote for Obama could (if of course this were to be done by enough people in the November, 2012 election) tip the election result to Obama’s opponents.  There would also have to be enough of a challenge to Obama to create what is typically called a “tight race.”  The idea expressed here that “almost all of the polling indicates that the rank and file liberals and Democrats support Obama overwhelmingly” is not necessarily going to decide the election in Obama’s favor.  Obama cannot count on winning an election based on how the “liberals and Democrats” vote — moreover, if enough “liberals and Democrats” refuse to vote, Obama will lose in 2012.

There is, of course, a big caveat to this objection: if one’s vote is to “decide a Presidential election” in any important sense, one must cast a swing vote in a swing state.  My vote, for instance, is rather unlikely to decide a Presidential election, since I will be casting it in California, a state whose electoral votes will almost certainly be going to Obama.  Obama would be correct not to worry that I might refuse to vote for him.

(All of this analysis is also to leave aside the unlikely possibility that Obama will be primaried, although that possibility would become quite real should Obama decide not to run for re-election for whatever reason.)


Generally, actions have consequences — but not all actions are equally likely to have consequences.  This distinction is typically called efficacy.  Those of you who are members of the Frustrati group are familiar with the concept of the Elmer Fudd Theory of Electoral Victory.  It goes as follows:

1) Praise our favorite politician’s big resume2) Show how bad the Republicans are


The point of this parody, of course, is that the Elmer Fudd Theory of Electoral Victory is not likely to be efficacious in winning a re-election for Barack Obama.  Sure, it might be nice to have some sort of relative quiet about Obama’s supposed misdeeds (if, that is, all we’re planning to do is to re-elect the guy).  But politicians are supposed to WIN our votes through good deeds, and so it remains an open question as to whether Obama (and the Democratic Party as a whole) can win a lot of votes with (and this is obviously his main problem) a weak economic recovery.  “He’s better than the Republican” might encourage reluctant votes for Obama, but not all voters are reluctant voters.  The resume, then, is Obama’s main selling point — but as I’ve pointed out before, Obama’s resume is something that looks really good as a list of actions he’s taken, but not so great in the realm of consequences.  There’s still a problem with jobs, no traction on abrupt climate change or the oil bottleneck, still an out-of-control military industrial complex.  The PPACA that Obama pushed through still has no cost controls.  Dick Cheney’s war on the world continues.  “Race to the Top” continues.  How much of this can be blamed on the Obama Presidency is beside the point: people tend to like their politicians when things are looking up.


So there you have a too-brief consideration of the Obama Presidency, according to the criteria of principles, actions, and consequences.  One can use this as a template to examine any issue one chooses.  Principles are necessary to guide action, and action to force consequences, but the ultimate end of principles is given in consequences, the ideal consequence being a better world.  As a population of American voters, we can either work for Obama’s re-election, or not.  The consequences either way are hard to pin down, though there are plenty of clues.


Perhaps another example would spell out the usefulness of the template.  Abrupt climate change is certainly a controversial issue, with the potential to be planet Earth’s most pressing problem.

Perhaps the main principle of abrupt climate change is the connection between higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and hotter average global climate: if you don’t believe that such a connection exists, you don’t believe in abrupt climate change.  (It’s a bit tough at this point to dispute the notion that fossil-fuel burning has put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than was there before industrialism.)

A secondary ground for abrupt climate change principle would be the matter of how severe one expects abrupt climate change to be.  The deniers won’t debate the secondary ground — if you don’t believe in greenhouse gases, you don’t worry about their impact.  Generally, I tend to subscribe to the “more severe” school of thought.

Action to deal with abrupt climate change is more difficult to pin down, which is probably why the US government has so far failed to achieve any sort of traction on the matter.  Here at Kos I have argued, persuasively, that real action on abrupt climate change means “keeping the grease in the ground” — if we are to do something real about abrupt climate change we must somehow refuse, as a collective of the human race, to pump out oil or natural gas or mine coal.  Actually doing this means a transition away from the capitalist system toward some sort of more humane form of political economy.

Consequences of abrupt climate change are likely to be severe.  The human race is likely to experience what Charles Darwin called a process of “natural selection,” as those areas which will be devastated by abrupt climate change will wind up with fewer survivors than those areas which are to get off likely.  There will be much in the way of human migration, as well as of resistance to human migration, in the politics of the future.  What we’re seeing today with the “Minutemen” in Arizona is probably only the beginning.

You’d think that the dire forecasts of climate scientists would motivate people to do something.  They don’t.  The problem lies in our failure to reason through the matter of principles, actions, and consequences.  We are not yet ready to face up to the fact that only a transition out of capitalism, of the growth economy and of the commodification of Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, will provide the human race with an effective means of coping with climate change.  Thus our reasoning goes as follows: Principles: “Let’s stop abrupt climate change.”  Action: “What can we do that will be easy, safe, and which won’t impede our lifestyles?”  (or “what can we do when we’re too busy trying to survive?”)  Consequences: “How can we pretend that climate change is innocuous enough so that we don’t have to worry a lot about it?”  Since our standard questions about action and consequences have no real answers, our cognitive processes have stalled.


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