Politics Makes Us Worse

by Aaron Ross Powell and Trevor Burrus

Even if we try to ignore it, politics influences much of our world. For those who do pay attention, politics invariably leads in newspapers and on TV news and gets discussed, or shouted about, everywhere people gather. Politics can weigh heavily in forging friendships, choosing enemies, and coloring who we respect.

It’s not difficult to understand why politics plays such a central role in our lives: political decision-making increasingly determines so much of what we do and how we’re permitted to do it. We vote on what our children will learn in school and how they will be taught. We vote on what people are allowed to drink, smoke, and eat. We vote on which people are allowed to marry those they love. In such crucial life decisions, as well as countless others, we have given politics a substantial impact on the direction of our lives. No wonder it’s so important to so many people.

But do we really want to live in a world where politics is so important to our lives that we cannot help but be politically involved? Many, both on the left and the right, answer yes. A politically engaged citizenry will not only make more decisions democratically but also be better people for it. From communitarians to neoconservatives, there’s a sense that civic virtue is virtue — or at least that individually we cannot be fully virtuous without exercising a robust political participation. Politics, when sufficiently unconstrained by crude individualism and sufficiently embraced by an actively democratic polity, makes us better people.

Yet the increasing scope of politics and political decision-making in America and other Western nations has precisely the opposite effect. It’s bad for our policies and, just as important, it’s bad for our souls. The solution is simple: when questions arise about whether the scope of politics should be broadened, we must realistically look at the effects that politics itself has on the quality of those decisions and on our own virtue.

Politics takes a continuum of possibilities and turns it into a small group of discrete outcomes, often just two. Either this guy gets elected, or that guy does. Either a given policy becomes law or it doesn’t. As a result, political choices matter greatly to those most affected. An electoral loss is the loss of a possibility. These black and white choices mean politics will often manufacture problems that previously didn’t exist, such as the “problem” of whether we — as a community, as a nation — will teach children creation or evolution.

Oddly, many believe that political decision making is an egalitarian way of allowing all voices to be heard. Nearly everyone can vote, after all, and because no one has more than one vote, the outcome seems fair.

But outcomes in politics are hardly ever fair. Once decisions are given over to the political process, the only citizens who can affect the outcome are those with sufficient political power. The most disenfranchised minorities become those whose opinions are too rare to register on the political radar. In an election with thousands of voters, a politician is wise to ignore the grievances of 100 people whose rights are trampled given how unlikely those 100 are to determine the outcome.

The black-and-white aspect of politics also encourages people to think in black-and-white terms. Not only do political parties emerge, but their supporters become akin to sports fans, feuding families, or students at rival high schools. Nuances of differences in opinions are traded for stark dichotomies that are largely fabrications. Thus, we get the “no regulation, hate the environment, hate poor people” party and the “socialist, nanny-state, hate the rich” party — and the discussions rarely go deeper than this.

Politics like this is no better than arguments between rival sports fans, and often worse because politics is more morally charged. Most Americans find themselves committed to either the red team (Republicans) or the blue (Democrats) and those on the other team are not merely rivals, but represent much that is evil in the world. Politics often forces its participants into pointless internecine conflict, as they struggle with the other guy not over legitimate differences in policy opinion but in an apocalyptic battle between virtue and vice.

How can this be? Republicans and Democrats hold opinions fully within the realm of acceptable political discourse, with each side’s positions having the support of roughly half our fellow citizens. If we can see around partisanship’s Manichean blinders, both sides have views about government and human nature that are at least understandable to normal people of normal disposition — understandable, that is, in the sense of “I can appreciate how someone would think that.” But, when you add politics to the mix, simple and modest differences of opinion become instead the difference between those who want to save America and those who seek to destroy it.

This behavior, while appalling, shouldn’t surprise us. Psychologists have shown for decades how people will gravitate to group mentalities that can make them downright hostile. They’ve shown how strong group identification creates systematic errors in thinking. Your “teammates” are held to less exacting standards of competence, while those on the other team are often presumed to be mendacious and acting from ignoble motives. This is yet another way in which politics makes us worse: it cripples our thinking critically about the choices before us.

What’s troubling about politics from a moral perspective is not that it encourages group mentalities, for a great many other activities encourage similar group thinking without raising significant moral concerns. Rather, it’s the way politics interacts with group mentalities, creating negative feedback leading directly to viciousness. Politics, all too often, makes us hate each other. Politics encourages us to behave toward each other in ways that, were they to occur in a different context, would repel us. No truly virtuous person ought to behave as politics so often makes us act.

While we may be able to slightly alter how political decisions are made, we cannot change the essential nature of politics. We cannot conform it to the utopian vision of good policies and virtuous citizens. The problem is not bugs in the system but the nature of political decision-making itself. The only way to better both our world and ourselves — to promote good policies and virtue — is to abandon, to the greatest extent possible, politics itself.

This essay was originally published on September 14, 2012 at Libertarianism.org.