Evan and I both recently put up pieces reflecting on the delicate political situation in which we Americans find ourselves. At first glance it may seem that we are on opposite sides of the issue, but I don’t actually think that is true if you adopt a Straussian reading of my last post. In fact, I very much share Evan’s concerns about the coming years in American politics. But at the same time I simply don’t care, at least not in the tribalistic way that so many Hill-watchers seem to. I recognize that some who read this will have an immediate negative reaction to this statement and will feel compelled to vociferously denounce me, a well-off individual safely tucked away in the United Kingdom, for not appreciating that political decisions are not just an intellectual exercise for the less fortunate among us. I therefore feel compelled to clarify that I am emphatically not suggesting that politics does not matter; instead I am merely offering that the political theater around politics is irrelevant. Moreover, the kind of political hobbyism it engenders is deeply corrosive to good governance and functional democracy (especially in a two-party system). So instead of approaching politics as a team sport, my advice is to instead focus on the fundamentals of the game.
In the very long term, very little in politics matters. There are certainly key pieces of legislation and pivotal legal decisions that echo far into the future, but the showmanship and rhetoric is largely unremarkable and quickly forgotten. Even less important are statements made by Twitterati and other hyper-partisans on social media. These kinds of low importance, high drama aspects of politics are like candy: they’re addicting and enjoyable to consume in the short-term, but over the medium to long-term they cause poor health and listlessness. It is much better to eat the marginally less tasty but nutrient-dense foods that promote vitality and vigor. The same holds with politics. While it’s no doubt amusing to highlight gaffes from the other side and gleefully point out hypocritical statements and actions, it doesn’t do anything to improve the quality of governance. That’s because it’s entirely superficial and lacking in substance.
Rather than fixating on politics, then, Americans would be better served by digging into policy. What are the arguments underpinning one party’s preferred outcome, and what assumptions do they rely on? Are there inherent contradictions in parties’ preferences, and how should we conceptualize the parties’ underlying philosophies given these tensions and contradictions? I think these are far better questions to prioritize because they get at the heart of the issues driving disagreement and debate. Put differently, the American political institutions are merely a vessel for channeling and organizing policy disagreements. They cannot be ignored, of course, but they are secondary. The prior question is what ideological and policy disagreements should be inputted into this institutional framework. It does not matter much whether the Senate will block trade agreements or whether Biden will rejoin the Paris Climate Accords, for example, if those issues lack inherent significance. And there is no way to know if they are significant without some level of knowledge ex ante. In other words, it’s not good enough to simply take your party’s word for it; you as a voter and advocate have to dig into the issue. Otherwise, you lack the tools to critically evaluate the claims.
This is why I feel that many of the gripes from both sides of the aisle put the cart before the horse. People are mad that their side lacks complete political power without having a coherent explanation for why they deserve power. I acknowledge that to some degree this is a silly complaint. Of course people want the side that more closely mirrors their convictions to have power. But at the same time I feel that the vast majority of partisan voters and activists very rarely examine their convictions. In fact, they’re not even consistent about their views. The same Floridians so opposed to the center-left party voted to raise the minimum wage while Democratic Californians who constantly demonize big business voted to exempt companies from reclassify gig economy contractors as workers. These voters have one set of preferences when in the context of partisan politics. But as soon as the issues are taken out of the two party framework and are instead placed in a referendum, their preferences change. This suggests that these voters don’t join political parties out of some deep intellectual affinity or compulsion toward public service, but rather because they want to be part of a club and have a team to cheer for.
Does it not strike people as weird that voters tend to have completely bundled preferences? If you know a voter’s views on abortion or military spending, for example, you can predict their views on just about every other policy issue with a high degree of certainty. This seems obviously ridiculous: a view on any one issue should not necessarily entail a specific view on another completely unrelated issue. And yet that’s how so many Americans approach politics. They’re like rabid sports fans that view every action by the other team as an obvious uncalled foul and every call against their team as bad refereeing regardless of the specifics of the incident. It’s simply unfathomable that their political rivals could be correct about something. The especially puzzling thing is that despite being so utterly convinced of the righteousness of their views, these proud partisans almost never possess more than a superficial understanding of the issues.
This is particularly damaging at the moment because there is no obvious consensus position within the country. The recent election hardly provided a mandate to either party, which suggests that both Democrats and Republicans are significantly misreading Americans’ preferences. Yet despite the obvious dissatisfaction with the policy visions being offered, most politically engaged voters are just doubling down in their assertions that the election proves them right. If they lost a particular race, they suggests it’s only due to electoral fraud or people voting against their interests.
Instead of recognizing that their message is a loser, they blame voters. This is, to be blunt, absolutely absurd. Party politics is always a two-way street between constituents and their representatives, but it seems to increasingly serve as a one-way conduit where voters simply adopt whatever party lines their titular head (be it Trump or Bernie or Biden) promotes. This slavish devotion serves as a blank check to politicians to engage in whatever nonsense they want “for the greater good” without any sharp vetting from their constituents. At least on the left there exists both a progressive and moderate wing, but the GOP seems now to be uniformly pro-Trump, artificially narrowing conservative perspectives.
This zero-sum mindset also makes the stakes artificially high, as it suggests that any win by the other side is necessarily a total loss for you. But this is only true if the other side is literally wrong on every issue, which strikes me as an extremely conceited view to hold. Yet, because everything is framed in a partisan, tribalistic manner, people are increasingly incapable of weighing the merits and demerits of the two parties. This turns every election into an existential struggle between good and evil, between “communism” and “fascism,” between American greatness and the Götterdämmerung. And when this becomes the framing, it permits anything. It’s suddenly OK to steal an election because it’s to protect the country. Packing the courts is a necessary evil in order to prevent fascism. And slowly but surely every democratic norm is eroded until there are no guardrails left. To be clear, the Republicans have been far guiltier of this behavior than their Democratic opponents, but the reality is that norm violation is a vicious cycle and neither party is completely free of blame.
And it’s for this reason that in my last post I sought to provide voters in both parties reasons for optimism. Because when you can move away from worrying about political survival and toward political achievement, there is more space for positive-sum thinking. If Americans can get away from simply regurgitating the talking points promulgated by Hannity, Maddow, and that random hyper-partisan page sharing misleading information on Facebook and instead seek knowledge from actual subject experts (on both sides of the issue, of course), we would all be in a better position to hold politicians to account. And we’d also be less stressed because we’d realize that neither party has a monopoly on good policy ideas. No matter who wins, some good will occur and some terrible policy errors will be inflicted upon the country. One party might have more good ideas than the other, but neither represents pure virtue or pure vice.
This is why I say I don’t care. It’s not that politics is unimportant, but it becomes meaningless unless you have a framework with which to evaluate it. So instead of obsessing over specific personalities and scandals, I suggest thinking more abstractly, theoretically, and historically and then applying your conclusions to contemporary politics. What explains Rome’s fall? Why didn’t China conquer the world? What is a morally virtuous society? Why was economic growth so high in the 20th century? Is religion on balance good? These are not partisan questions, and yet they offer clear suggestions for contemporary policy. They’re also far more intellectually stimulating than listening to comedians and talk radio hosts dunk on prominent politicians.
None of this is to discredit the fears of many who worry about Trump’s unprecedented attack on American elections and the bad faith efforts of people like McConnell. Nor am I trying to intellectualize the many pressing problems confronting America. The U.S. has a flawed institutional framework that empowers a minority group at the expense of the majority, and that results in obviously biased policies, perverse incentives, and damaging political equilibria. But the reality is that we cannot resolve these problems in the status quo. What we as individuals can do, though, is contribute to more substantive and less vitriolic political conversations.
Until we can begin to question the partisans’ aims and challenge their dogma and propaganda by forming our own beliefs, any institutional reform is doomed to failure. Right now is a crucial period because neither party is completely powerless and out in the wilderness, but neither is so secure that they can afford complacency. So take a step back from the circus – read more books, talk to others without denouncing them, and please stop listening to bombastic, ill-informed loons who seek power without knowledge. Intellectual humility and curiosity will not heal the country, but it’s a step in the right direction. And if people can adopt a more positive-sum vision and introduce uncertainty over the veracity of partisan claims, there may be more resistance to the wanton destruction of political norms and institutions occurring right now. To me, that seems like a good place to start.