Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Political is the Personal

For me, politics is in large part an intellectual pursuit, aimed at figuring out what government policies will do the most to make our country a good one to live in. Not entirely, of course, but I try, and I am susceptible to arguments showing me that the policies I support will actually make things I care about worse.

Much of the world approaches politics differently. For millions of Americans, politics is about identity. Their political positions are not so much attempts to create a certain sort of world, as expressions of who they are. Criticism of their politics feels to them like an attack on their identities. I mention this now because Conor Friedersdorf, who leans libertarian and supports Tea Party positions on many issues, vented his frustration last week about the reception he gets when he tries to talk to Tea Party supporters:
But sometimes I find the exquisite sensitivity of these Tea Party correspondents exhausting. I tire of engaging with people who present themselves as my put-upon victims, wronged by prejudices I do not harbor, especially if they start quoting Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh, which makes me suspect that projection is a factor. That is to say, they harbor general disdain for broad categories of cultural or ideological adversaries—liberals, atheists, community organizers, academics, public employees, journalists—and presume that anyone arguing with them must harbor a similar disdain in their political disagreements. Yes, some people criticize Tea Partiers out of cultural prejudice. Get over it. There is plenty of criticism grounded in honestly-held disagreements too.
He offers a bunch of great comments he got from Tea Party supporters after writing that the protest over the closed war memorials was silly. My favorite:
What is wrong with your article is that it is totally elitist and completely dismissive of the people who did that. Basically, you don't think that the Tea Party are the right kind of people and therefore all they really do is embarrass themselves and everyone else.
Rod Dreher has had similar experiences with many sorts of political activists:
That’s what I’ve come to see as a defining characteristic not only of many Tea Partiers, but of many Republicans: an intense personalization of politics, such that it makes it impossible to disagree in good faith with them. They can be such drama queens, believing emotively that feeling something must be true makes it true — something that renders it impervious to criticism, because you can’t criticize somebody’s feelings — and assuming that all opposition, even mere disagreement, comes from personal animus.

It’s the right-wing political equivalent of the black liberal who assumes any non-black person who disagrees with him must be doing so because he’s a racist. Or the gay person who chalks up any disagreement to one’s “homophobia.” Or the Muslim who answers criticism with, “You’re an Islamophobe!” I’ve had to deal with all three over the course of my career. What you realize in short order is that this is not just a cheap rhetorical tactic; your opponents more often than not really do believe that the only reason you don’t see things that way is because of your own bigotry, or some other form of moral failure. These are all just politicized, or culturally politicized, forms of the eternal whine of the teenager whose parents won’t let her get her way: “You hate me! You hate me!”
The older I get, the more I think that these emotional issues completely dominate politics, rendering reasoned discourse a side issue.

I find this maddening. There is a whole swath of issues about which it is almost impossible to hold a reasoned conversation with most Americans, from taxes and deficit spending to drug policy and health care. How are we ever going to find solutions to our problems if people regard any discussion of them as a personal insult?


Unknown said...

"For me, politics is in large part an intellectual pursuit, aimed at figuring out what government policies will do the most to make our country a good one to live in." In other words, how you approach politics is an expression of who you are, no? And doesn't Friedersdorf's disapproval of the Tea Partiers' approach--a disapproval you and I share--speak for itself? Is he not disapproving of their very way of being? How is this not personal?

John said...

Yes, the way I approach politics is guided by my understanding of myself as a rational, intellectual person. In that sense I am very much like the activists I decry.

But something they are missing is that politics does not just exist to reaffirm out identities. The government does a huge number of important things; therefore, it must make a huge number of decisions. Some of them are very technical, viz., how banking should be regulated, or how taxation distributed. Should we be making those decisions in the way that most flatters the identities of a majority of citizens? Or are there other criteria we should employ?

I think the choices made by governments have big material impacts on our lives. I think we should make those choices in the way that best accomplishes our ends. Our justice and law enforcement systems should be built around preserving order; our military on protecting our interests; our transportation policies should be about getting people from place to place efficiently. I think identity politics often interferes with making the best decisions about these and many other matters. It also leads to the waste of a gigantic amount of money.

Plus, as I said, a rational approach in which we agree on goals and then discuss how best to achieve them offers a much greater for productive compromise than an identity approach, in which any compromise is felt as a surrender to the other side.