You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Benefit of the Doubt

It’s hardly a secret or an accident that much of politics revolves around the elimination of doubt among voters on public policy issues. Base-mobilization strategies for elections typically involve convincing people with clear preferences but weak civic engagement (or doubts about their own “team”) that any given trip to the ballot box is of epochal importance. Swing-voter persuasion strategies also tend to focus on efforts to convince the undecided that one’s party or candidate will make the country a much happier place. And while doubt’s evil twin, fear, most definitely has a place in both base and swing strategies, it’s still aimed at convincing voters there is a clear and unambiguous, if largely negative, difference between the consequences of voting this way or that.

I mention the dubious political status of doubt in the context of a long and fascinating piece I just published on The Democratic Strategist by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, director of The Progressive Project, entitled “Zero For Thirty-One: Lessons From the Loss in Maine.” A veteran of the struggle for LGBT rights and marriage equality, Beach-Ferrara concludes that ballot measures to stop gay marriage keep winning in no small part because equality advocates don’t talk much to conflicted voters, particularly those for whom religious dogma pulls them away from their own personal sense of fairness--i.e., non-bigots who are lumped in with bigots in most LGBT-rights strategies.

Based on her first-hand interviews with torn voters, Beach-Ferrara contends that marriage equality activists would do well to spend some time convincing such voters to reflect their true convictions by conscientiously passing up the opportunity to make a choice they aren’t prepared to make. In other words, rather than pushing people to come down on one side or the other, activists should have looked at doubt as a political asset.

Beach-Ferrara’s provocative article immediately reminded me of the only politician I’ve ever heard talk about doubt as a religious value: Barack Obama. In his famously controversial but ultimately effective commencement speech at Notre Dame in May, Obama addressed the faithful in terms that Beach-Ferrara (herself a divinity student) would find congenial:

[T]he ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame..

Given the usual tendency of progressives to deal with conservatively inclined religious people by pandering to them, steering clear of the subject, or offering the faith-based counterdogmas of the Christian Left, Obama was indeed offering something new: pluralism based on conscientious doubt, or as it was once called, the fear of God.

But doubt can obviously become a political asset beyond the ranks of the religious. We normally think of doubt on political or policy questions as an inherently conservative force, leading to a preference for the devil you know. At a time like the present, however, when “wrong-track” sentiments are exceptionally strong and most major public and private institutions are held in low repute, doubt can lead in very different directions depending on how that emotion is deployed.

That’s one important reason why health care reform has been so difficult a topic for progressives. Democrats have been focusing much of their efforts reassuring people with health insurance that reform won’t degrade their coverage. But this message has come at the expense of accurately describing the terrible unfairness and inefficiency and unsustainable trajectory of the current system. Reassured voters have no real stake in reform. Doubters may, but only if they are convinced the status quo represents as much or more of a risk than a new system.

The bottom line is that doubt is going to be an important popular sentiment on complex topics like health care, climate change, globalization, or the long-term fiscal challenge. It can work for progressives, or against them, but the prevailing unhappiness about current conditions in the country ought to make doubt-based decisions—or in the case of gay marriage, decisions not to make decisions—friendlier to real change. So long as we treat certainty as the object of every political communication, and write off the doubtful as stupid, cognitively challenged, or unmotivated, we miss that opportunity.

Ed Kilgore is Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.