Monday, July 18, 2016

Why I Hate Election Politics

We are entering the thick of the Presidential election season, and I hate it. The Republican National Convention opens today in my state (thankfully, up at the other end), and I will not be glued to my TV set watching. I intend to watch as little as possible, and to read only such news coverage as is necessary to follow the basic outlines of what's going on. Unless the convention doesn't nominate the Trump/Pence ticket, and unless there is significant unrest outside the convention hall, none of the rest of it matters.

The reason why I come to this conclusion, and the reason why I hate watching electoral politics in the United States, is that we have abandoned all pretense that elections are actually about anything other than tribes. This is not a comment about the two candidates this year - we've been speeding down this road for some time. I will write separately about why I think the two presumptive nominees are actually different, but that's a topic for another day.

For now, what bothers me so much about the whole mess is the extent to which elections have become an exercise in emotion-driven identity politics. This is true for nearly all people and across pretty much all issues. We want very much to think that elections, and politics in general, are about ideas, about figuring out what's best for the country. But very little that has been said over the past year, and nothing that will be said from here on forward, is really about any of that.

What we're really engaged in is a collective effort at ego protection, wishful thinking, and massive cognitive distortion brought about by emotion-driven biases. I feel Paul Ryan's pain. The poor guy actually has some ideas and wants to have a conversation about them, but nobody else wants to join in - including and especially his party's own nominee. Most Democrats have long since written Ryan off as a stooge for nefarious Koch Brothers schemes, or as simply hopelessly ignorant.

The same can be said, in spades, of Republican responses to Hillary Clinton, all of which boil down to "she's a horrible, untrustworthy human being who is the worst person to ever walk the earth". She, too, has ideas she wants to talk about - goals and plans and policies that she thinks are important. Like Ryan, she's a policy wonk. But the race from here on out is about the theological question of whether she's a demon disguised as a human.

We want so very much to think that we're an Enlightenment society, that reason and argument and logic and evidence are what matter most. But in reality, we have left that past behind (if it ever existed), traded for a modern version of the Hatfields & the McCoys. People have pointed out, with some justification, that Trump is neither conservative nor Republican, and that Hillary (until seriously challenged by Bernie Sanders) wasn't much of a liberal Democrat either. Things are so scrambled up that nobody remembers what we're really fighting about anymore. And what does it matter, as long as my side wins?

Limited government? Sure, except for ongoing wars and regulating sexual politics. Oh, and more police and prisons. Immigration reform? People are all over the place. We're tying ourselves in knots over race relations. And everyone wants more and better jobs. Forget trying to have a reasonable discussion about climate change or GMOs.

When confronted with this, most of us will blame the other side. We, of course, are the reasonable, rational, sane people. It's those other idiots who are insane, stupid, or bent on America's destruction. If only they would be reasonable, everything would be fine. But since they won't, well we really can't have a dialogue, can we?

All of this is confirmation bias and wishful thinking, not just sprinkled on top but thoroughly baked into the entire cake. Yes, we have reasons for voting the way we do. But what we really don't want to face is that most of those "reasons" are rationalizations tacked on the back end. They are the monkey riding the tiger and claiming that it's steering.

All of this is painful to watch and painful to participate in. Yes, I have preferences, and I believe there  are differences of kind (not merely of degree) between the two presumptive candidates (more on that later). I also believe that process is usually more important than outcome, that they way in which we go about seeking solutions has a great deal of impact on the kind of solutions we get, and that the process we are currently using - the scorched-earth, your-side-are-all-traitorous-thugs approach - is making things worse, not better.

So although I study political conflict for a living, I'll not be watching much this week or next. Nor do I think that the effect of the conventions will be positive on the American body politic. I'll try to spend my time instead reminding myself that there are no Democrats and there are no Republicans - there are only people. Gonna be a tough few months for our humanity.

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