Hating Politics

Writing over at The Atlantic about how American politics became so incoherent and dysfunctional, Jonathan Rauch notices something interesting:

A second virus was initially identified in 2002, by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, in their book Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work. It’s a shocking book, one whose implications other scholars were understandably reluctant to engage with. The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, however, makes confronting its thesis unavoidable.

Using polls and focus groups, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

If politicians won’t do the job, then who will? Politiphobes, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, believe policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by ENSIDS: empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers. These are leaders who will step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions. ENSIDS can be politicians, technocrats, or autocrats—whatever works. Whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.

I noticed in 1992 that H. Ross Perot’s supporters tended to be just these kinds of people — deeply suspicious and dismissive of the give and take of political processes. My suspicion was they were the highly educated proletariat that emerged out of the Second World War (and the people I grew in the midst of in the Army and Southern California) — white, conservative, communal in orientation, identifying strongly with the means and end of the nation. They were also, many of them, engineers, and I believe that says something important about them.

Engineering is about single, optimal solutions. There is no give and take in engineering (except when it comes to working within budgetary constraints). In Perot’s campaign, I heard a lot of rhetoric that sounded designed to appeal to engineers because it came from an engineer. “Obvious, common sense solutions,” as Rauch notes.

And as Rauch also notes, these are folks who do not — or have not, up until Trump — seen themselves as an interest group. Their identity and focus is on the nation, and that is the only group and interest that matters to them. They have little understanding of and no patience for interest group politics, for non-optimal negotiated solutions designed to please or include constituencies. Because there is, or has been, only one constituency that mattered — The United States of America.

That was Perot voters, however, a group of people who had prospered from the largesse of the state during the Cold War. Twenty-five years have passed since then, and many Trump voters seem to me to be denatured versions of Perot voters. They live with only an echo of World War II/Cold War prosperity and national unity, a fond dream many cannot even imagine aspiring to, and instead they have hardened into a racial interest group that no longer pretends to be anything but.

There are progressives and liberals too who dream of a non-political politics, a politics which looks largely to science guided by progressive ethics and morality to impose solutions rather than craft them politically. (Progressivism too lives and dreams in the long shadow of an America unified under the New Deal and the post-WWII welfare state.) The desire, for example, to make gun violence a public health matter is a desire to remove guns and any talk about guns from the political arena in a belief that science — rightly guided science — will work in their favor. (Similarly, the right’s talk of rights is also designed to remove any talk about guns from the political arena, since rights are not supposed to subject to political give and take.)

(As an aside, I find it interesting that virtually everyone in our culture dreams of the kind of unified and trusted state and society the country had in the middle of the last century, but everyone seems to forget exactly what conditions made that society possible. The Right forgets a high-tax, high-regulation welfare state that made such unity possible, and the Left forgets a very homogeneous [and discriminatory], culturally conservative state and society that made such unity possible as well.)

I’m less optimistic than Rauch is about the future, in part because while the Perot generation has or is passing (with their expectations that all can be solved by a competent mechanic who can pop the hood and work his magic), the desire to win and impose a solution is stronger than ever. I’ve long believed the country is headed toward dictatorship, as we have invested too much materially and spiritually in centralized state power. Because there is dream, a vision of that power, wielded effectively by one whose interest is not his or her own, but ours. And ours alone. Because there will be a hope such power will be non-partisan, even apolitical.

At because, at some point, someone will have so much of their vision for the country and the world at stake that they simply will refuse to lose.

That day is coming. I don’t know when. As Americans, we have been aching for that day for almost 30 years. We want it. So, eventually, it will come.

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