Human Potential in our Dumb Political Moment

Our political world just keeps getting dumber. I say this with considerable frustration, because it’s happening during a time when so much of the world is getting smarter. We’re innovating at a fantastic clip, and are on the cusp of technologies that will radically transform our lives for the better. And we’re doing it all in cultures that are less violent and more accepting than ever—even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes.

But our politics are still the playground of the immoral, the uncontrolled, the uninformed. Our “leaders” strut and fret and embarrass themselves in the eyes of everyone but their most tribally blinkered followers. Long discredited ideas—protectionism, racism, socialism—flare up with distressing regularity and intensity.

One might think this contradicts what I said above and instead offers evidence that cultural forces aren’t pushing in a positive direction. But I don’t believe that’s quite right. Yes, there are retrograde strains in our culture, but they’re in the minority, it’s a shrinking minority, and, anyway, they’ve always been there. What’s different—or what feels different, which might not be the same thing—is that our politics at the top is now fanning that and capitalizing on that. This is similar to the question of whether Trump created Trumpism or if he instead discovered it. Our leaders have recognized the power that comes from encouraging bad behavior and beliefs among the electorate in a way they can then capitalize on for votes. This is, I believe, largely unconscious for people like Trump (who simply isn’t bright enough to work through the sociology of what he’s up to) or Sanders (who fails to recognize the badness of his own beliefs and the destructiveness of the very Trumpist sentiments--on immigration, on trade--he stirs up on the left).

The silver lining to all this—to the possibility/likelihood that much of the unsavoriness in contemporary American politics comes from voters falling under the influence of demagogues—is that, when the demagogues exit the stage, their “movements” will with them. Trump’s appeal is 90% personality and celebrity and 10% policy and beliefs. When he goes, others will try to claim his mantle, but they’ll lack his celebrity and “charisma.” In other words, with only that 10%, they’ll fail.

On the left, socialism is having a bit of a renaissance, but it’s not widespread, Americans generally remain blessedly turned off by the idea of socialism (especially when it’s called socialism), and there’s nothing new in the socialism this time around that will bring it success where in the past it has failed over and over again. Without Trumpism to rile up the left, the most riled up parts of the left will slip back into obscurity, just as Occupy Wall Street eventually did.

And that’s why I remain optimistic, even as our politics looks increasingly stupid. Because the underlying, long term trends, towards acceptance and peace and nonviolence, continue, and will continue after our current dumb political moment fades.

My Latest Writings

Abortion and Law's Control of Bodies

Few debates within American politics show as much frequent conceptual confusion as the question of the permissibility and legality of abortion. In her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Senator Kamala Harris exemplified this. I wrote about how Harris misunderstands not only the core issues in the abortion debate, but also the nature of law itself.

On the Podcasts

The latest Free Thoughts brings back fan favorite Peter Van Doren to talk about public transportation, which turns out to almost never be worth the money we pump into it. Transit ends up being a fun story of graft, bad political incentives, and path dependency. As always with Peter, it's a great episode.

This week's Building Tomorrow has Paul and me sitting down with Caleb Watney to talk about artificial intelligence. Caleb is one the smartest young scholars in the DC tech policy scene and we got into all sorts of cool topics, from what's on the horizon to whether we should be worried an evil AI will enslave us all. Give it a listen here or look for Building Tomorrow in your favorite podcast app.

Recommended Reading

This summer, lucked into one of the best interns we've ever had. While Paul's internship is, sadly, over, and he's back in Dublin studying ancient and medieval history and political theory, the good news is he's also become a regular contributor to the site. His first two essays are up and well worth your time.