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21.1.05

Zeno's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Edward_ reminds us of the tragedy (he provocatively, but not altogether inaccurately, decribes it as treason) of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" depriving our military of skilled personnel -- most notably the 20 desperately needed Arabic translators fired since 1998 because they were gay. In the comments, Katherine points out a poll showing that public support for gays serving openly has risen to 74%. (It's even higher in the younger age groups from which most soliders are drawn, though men are marginally less gay-friendly.) She hypothesizes that this surge in support is due to the prominence of gay marriage on the national agenda. Next to same-sex couples marrying, letting gays serve in the military seems moderate and reasonable.

This relates to a larger problem with the modern Democratic party -- or at least the Bill Clinton/John Kerry/Tom Daschle wing that holds the balance of power. Motivated by a desire to do whatever will win votes in the short run, and rationalized by an ideology of grass-roots agenda-setting, they make the mistake of taking the median voter theorem seriously. The median voter theorem states that you'll get the most votes if you take the position at the center of the spectrum of voter opinion. The problem is that the median voter theorem assumes that voter opinions are determined exogenously -- they make up their minds, then look to see what candidate matches their views. But in reality, the positions staked out by politicians are an integral part of the public disourse that helps voters choose their opinions. In a two-party system, the positions of the two parties help to establish what most voters -- particularly those not very interested in an issue -- see as the reasonable range of opinions. They then locate themselves within that scale. Chasing the median voter puts you in a sort of Zeno's paradox* as the positions to your extreme side are abandoned as outside the mainstream.

Thus Gavin Newsom made John Kerry possible. By setting up a firm and visible left border to the range of opinions on gay rights, people like Newsom made Kerry's stance seem like a comforting wishy-washy middle ground. Part of what now feels like the middle is the once-radical idea of openly gay soliders.

*I exaggerate a bit, since the parties' positions are not the sole determinant of voter opinion.

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