He who decides to involve himself in politics, but without personal aspirations to public office, will often have a single motivating issue in mind. This is commonplace today, when so many subjects of public discourse are of intense interest to some but little or none to others. I’ve known several bright and articulate folks who had such a narrow focus. One of these, an exceptionally capable engineer, has made it the all-consuming center of his existence.
If you have the usual quota of friends and acquaintances, you probably know someone like that too. They’re getting pretty thick on the ground.
Such “single-issue voters” might not be the critical margin between the major parties. Yet they make up an increasing fraction of the politically engaged. Those of us who treat with a greater spread of issues sometimes dismiss them as “cranks.” That, I’d say, is a terrible mistake – and not because the issue on which they focus is more or less important than any other.
At this point in American political evolution, a citizen’s position on a single issue can reliably predict which of two opposing visions of the good he regards as correct. He might never have expressed such an attachment where others could hear it. Even so, you could elicit it, if you have the skill to draw it forth…and both you and he might be surprised by the strength of the attachment.
If you know anyone who’s unusually intense about a single issue, it’s worth trying this. With some issues – e.g. the right to keep and bear arms; the protection of children; the legality of abortion – the correlation between his position and his place on the Left / Right spectrum approaches 100%. With others – unfunded federal liabilities; social-welfare programs; environmentalism – the correlation will be less absolute, but likely still strong.
However, in some cases, something more will become visible: some single-issue folks will absolutely refuse to give any time or attention to anything else. Some even become angry at those who try to nudge them “off topic.” When they call themselves “single-issue” voters, they really mean it.
If you’ve ever needed a demonstration of why passion is not an unalloyed virtue, Gentle Reader, you have it now.
Despite the importance of incremental trade-offs, the language of politics is filled with categorical rhetoric about “setting priorities,” providing basic necessities,” or “assuring safety.” But incremental decisions differ as much from categorical decisions as trade-offs differ from solutions. If faced with a categorical decision between food and music, every sane person would choose food., since one can live without music but not without food. But if faced with an incremental choice, the decision could easily be just the opposite. If foods were categorically more important than music, then we would never be prepared to sacrifice resources that could be used to produce food, in order to produce music. Given this premise, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach should all have been put to work growing potatoes, instead of writing music, if food were categorically more important.
This is the sort of proposition that would strike most as irrefutable. Yet there are “edge cases” that would test it: for example, a post-apocalyptic scenario in which the survivors simply cannot spare anyone from the labor required to feed them. However, this resembles the “lifeboat ethics” problem in moral reasoning. Unless Mankind’s circumstances were to change radically, it may be neglected.
Perhaps here we have the litmus test that would separate the crank from the person of wider vision. If radical departures from the current context are all someone can offer in defense of his monomania, he’s likely to be a crank. Such persons make annoying activists. If there are any in your circle, be careful around them…and not just about what you say.
This subject has me toying with hypothetical propositions that would greatly disturb a single-issue crank. For example, here’s one to boggle the transgender-rights activist:
“Let’s imagine that a magic wand exists that could produce a state of society and politics in which every other issue under the sun is settled to your exact, personal satisfaction…except for one: the public absolutely rejects your position on transgenderism. I have the wand in my hand; I offer it to you, to use as you please. Would you use it?”
You can easily alter the above to address any single issue, and thus to perplex any single-issue fanatic. (However, I don’t recommend trying it on a gun-rights activist.) The information provided by the answer may be of importance to you. Imagine if “the balloon should go up” and face you with a choice of whom to allow into your survival bunker. While you wait for the fallout to fall out, intelligent, varied conversation might prove as vital to your well-being as any other aspect of gracious living.