Friday, February 26, 2016

Politics and Anti-Politics

Reaching for a definition of politics, David Brooks settles on this one from Bernard Crick:
Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.
Much reminiscent of my favorite definition of justice, from Learned Hand:
the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society.
Democracy is and always has been the art of compromise. And yet within all democratic societies there are people with no interest in compromise, people who think that the other side is evil and justice demands the complete victory of their own cause. Uncompromisable conflicts are very dangerous to democracies; the one over slavery nearly destroyed America and left at least 600,000 dead.

Brooks is very worried that opposition to compromise, which he calls "antipolitics," is on the rise in America. Groups like the Tea Party, he writes are not political but antipolitical:
Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.

This antipolitics tendency has had a wretched effect on our democracy. It has led to a series of overlapping downward spirals:

The antipolitics people elect legislators who have no political skills or experience. That incompetence leads to dysfunctional government, which leads to more disgust with government, which leads to a demand for even more outsiders.

The antipolitics people don’t accept that politics is a limited activity. They make soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations. When those expectations are not met, voters grow cynical and, disgusted, turn even further in the direction of antipolitics.

The antipolitics people refuse compromise and so block the legislative process. The absence of accomplishment destroys public trust. The decline in trust makes deal-making harder.
And Donald Trump, says Brooks, is antipolitics personified:
People say that Trump is an unconventional candidate and that he represents a break from politics as usual. That’s not true. Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.
The hardening of attitudes in American politics is indeed rather mysterious. First of all, it is not the desire of the majority; in 2012 majorities of both Republican and Democratic voters told pollsters that they wanted politicians to work together to find solutions to our problems. I think partisan gridlock is partly the result of our political system. The combination of geographic districts with a society strongly divided along sectional lines seems to multiply our partisan differences, since most Congressmen represent either deep blue cities or deep red exurbs. Plus, most Americans don't care enough to vote in primaries, leaving them to hard-core partisans.

There is also a strange, apocalyptic mood in the country. Last week I picked up a science fiction novel by a young writer that had gotten some good attention, and discovered that it was yet another post-apocalypse story about the collapse of civilization. Why has popular culture turned so dark? Some people think it is a reflection of bad economic times, but the 1930s gave us a huge explosion of happy stories and silly musicals. Against this cultural background the claims of politicians like Ted Cruz that America is "sliding over the cliff" seem almost normal. The sense of crisis fuels hard-line politics; if you think we are on the edge of disaster, you have little interest in compromise with the forces of ruin.

Given all this, I find the rise of Trump rather encouraging. Instead of an actual fascist with a private army of black shirts, we have a reality television star who likes to insult people via twitter. Trump talks tough, but I think he has less interest in political extremism than Cruz, Rubio or Sanders. I think a wall along the whole Mexican border is a little silly, but it would hardly be a grave threat to our democracy. If the result of all our political gridlock and angst is the Trump campaign, I am left feeling that things could be a whole lot worse.


G. Verloren said...

The problem I have with this notion of "anti-politics" is that while it could be applied to inter-idealogical conflict, it fails to address internal conflicts within a single group.

So using this sort of terminology, that would mean a system like Fascism which seeks to achieve total dominance against other idealogies is "anti-political"... but at the same time, the disagreements within the ranks of Fascists themselves would still be entirely political as different figures and factions jockey for influence.

I just simply can't get behind the use of such rapidly opposing constructs of terminology. But since the context Brooks seems to be speaking of is specifically American democracy, I think it's far easier to just use an existing term to refer to the uncompromising elements of our society.

These people aren't "anti-political"; they're simply "anti-democratic".

G. Verloren said...

"I think a wall along the whole Mexican border is a little silly, but it would hardly be a grave threat to our democracy."

A little silly? Are you serious? How can you possibly think that?

No, it's completely insane. It would be a monstrous undertaking, and a completely senseless and destructive one. It would cost untold amounts of money just to construct, and countless more wealth to continue to maintain. It would impoverish the nation, and it wouldn't achieve anything of remote value. Worse, it would actually directly harm our interests in countless ways, not least of which would be international relations, something we already struggle with.

And how could it possibly not be a threat to our democracy? Besides trampling over all of our nation's highest principles and ideals, the societal costs and strains would be enormous! It would directly threaten our economy, it would spark massive amounts of racial strife, it would risk international condemnation and reprisal... and for what? Why undermine our entire nation in so many ways for absolutely no practical reason? You might as well just nuke Antarctica in a pre-emptive strike against "the penguin hordes" instead! Heck, it'd probably actually turn out better for us!

Thankfully, the biggest thing standing in the way of this utter insanity is democracy itself. Even if Trump were elected, a crazed project like this would be massively opposed by both the legislature and average citizens - even if for no other reason than people's universal hatred of taxes. You'd have to be a special kind of crazy or stupid to actually believe Trump's bullshit about somehow magically forcing Mexico itself to foot the bill for his socipathic and megalomaniacal schemes.

Shadow said...

Remember some recent, highly publicized cases of bullying and their consequences? Roundly condemned. We need to do something about bullying everyone said. Stand up to a bully. We need harsh penalties for bullying. And there is this winner: Bullies are cowards -- a stupid statement if ever there was one. Bullies are almost never cowards.

Well along comes Donald Trump, bully extraordinaire, and what happens? It works, and everyone sees it working, including kids. No punishment. Little condemnation of the bullying itself. Instead his ridicule is covered nonstop and too often is celebrated. I can see the shoulders of every kid who has ever been bullied or is worried about being bullied slumping as this continues. And I can see every bully and every wannabe bully rising taller and taller, becoming more and more confident as they watch how effective Trump is.

That's one reason why Trump's rise is not encouraging.

I wonder if teachers are seeing a rise in bullying in schools?

John said...

Shadow Flutter, that's a really interesting point. And since as I have said I think the anti-bullying movement explains contemporary liberalism as well as anything else, you have put your finger on why Trump offends liberals so much. And to the contrary why he appeals to some conservatives who think the rough and tumble of an old-fashioned schoolyard is the right preparation for life in a harsh world. Remember that British public schools used to encourage bullying for just that reason -- the successful bullies would become the leaders that the empire needed, and the bullied would learn their place.

Shadow said...

Yes, John, I agree. And so it goes. Where's Orwell?