April 5, 2012 columns

Politics Makes Us Worse

Powell describes how politics “strips us of our civility,” arguing that we should decrease the sphere of political influence in our lives.

In the United States, nothing makes us hate each other quite like politics. Not even religion, the source of so much violence throughout the rest of the world, compares.

The base vitriol of Fox News and MSNBC, the hateful tempestuousness of the partisan blogosphere, and the unthinking moral posturing of Ed Schultz and Sean Hannity, do nothing to promote human flourishing. They do nothing to make us happier or better. Politics only makes us worse. It coarsens us, strips us of our civility and our capacity for measured thought. And it cheapens many who participate. To despise your fellow American because she supports a Republican or because he supports a Democrat is to let the inconsequential destroy what matters most. Politics, at best, is something we suffer through because it is occasionally necessary, but we ought to regret every moment of exposure.

Tribalism and heated rhetoric aren’t unique to politics, of course. One need only look at professional sports fandom to see striking similarities. Yet, while Yankees fans may say they hate Red Sox partisans, they don’t really mean it. But when Republicans talk about the evils of liberalism? Or when Democrats sneer at conservatives? The anger and condemnation are very real.

What’s more, much of this hatred of our fellow citizens flows from vanishingly small policy differences. One can imagine a situation, where, in three weeks’ time, the country will vote to either enact state socialism or libertarian minarchism, with no middle ground. Here it makes perfect sense for the debate to become heated. If you genuinely believe either of those options would amount to hell on earth, then you have every reason to fight viciously against it. But this is not how politics works in the United States. The two parties have very little to distinguish them in the policies they actually pursue when in power. There’s not much room between President Obama and his predecessor. And a Romney administration likely wouldn’t look a whole lot different from what we have now. This lack of significant distinction makes our extreme partisanship and in-group/out-group grandstanding even more destructive and degrading.

Further, what differences there are between the policies of the major candidates remain poorly understood by most who get angry about them. Heightened emotions rarely motivate deep learning. Contrast this to sports: hardcore sports fans, who care deeply about the fortunes of their teams, become fonts of trivia about the minutest details of the rules and players. Yet how many anti-immigrant voters know much of anything about the economics of immigration? How many proponents of increased funding for public schools know where the money goes or how it’s used?

Outside of politics, we typically avoid forming strong opinions about topics we remain ignorant of. Yet, unlike the veracity of string theory or the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays, the outcome of the political process–as well as what becomes part of the political process–matters in our daily lives. The decisions political actors (voters, legislators, regulators) make impact us. Or, at the very least, we’ve been lead, through heated rhetoric, to believe they will gravely impact us. So we genuinely care about those outcomes in a way we don’t when it’s the local football team up against the crosstown rival. And the more decisions that become political decisions, the more cause we have to care–and the more invested we become in outcomes, giving us even more reason to despise those who might advocate outcomes that (we think) are harmful to us.

Knowing this, I can’t for the life of me fathom why so many seek to expand the sphere of politics, to grant it more power over our lives. Politics gives others authority over us. It raises the stakes of decisions. When healthcare remains a private issue, the fact that my neighbor holds different views than I do about what’s healthy and what isn’t impacts me very little. But when the healthcare I get becomes a matter of his vote against mine, I have every reason to become emotionally involved–even if I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about.

If you think the political debate is rancorous now, just imagine what it’ll be like when it determines even more of our lives.

Seen from this perspective, the libertarian vision is not to have our particular politics win out. Instead it is to do away with politics, to limit the reach of the state to the minimum necessary to allow everyone, in a culture awash in pluralism, to live the sort of lives they cherish. The libertarian dream is to reduce politics to something so minor that it isn’t worth investing in. As libertarians we care about politics precisely so that, we hope, some day we can turn our attention to more valuable things.