Partisanship is a Helluva Drug
More or less every morning, I receive the Askblog email from Arnold Kling, a person I began following early this year. Some of the emails soar over my head tracing majestic arcs across the sky to remind me that I am not now and might never be smart enough to understand them. I am okay with that and have decided that occasional intellectual humiliation is a small price to pay for the emails I do understand because those often make me think about something challenging. Arnold Kling does not cater to a general audience.
In January he was twice a guest on the Bill Walton Showand his first topic was The Three Languages of Politics. In his second appearance he shared the program with noted author and thinker, Yuval Levin, as they discussed The Politics of Nostalgia. Both are well worth listening to especially if you are increasingly fed up with the subject, as I am.
Before returning to Kling, Bill Walton, the producer and host, is a successful businessman who has deep concerns about the direction of the country. Unlike others who are concerned, Walton does something about it and he produces a high quality audio and video show. At a time when the value of creative endeavor (I hate the word content) is deeply discounted (think zero), he brings considerable intellectual horsepower and substantial resources to educating the curious.
And now back to the show. According to Kling, “politically aware Americans seem to split into three tribes, and those tribes use the skills of cooperation not to work with each other, but instead to mobilize against each other.”
They’ve sorted themselves into three tribal coalitions—progressive, conservative, and libertarian, each of which asserts moral superiority over the other two and each of which speaks a different language that is incomprehensible to the others.
Conservative language values civilization. What preserves law and order? What preserves the virtues of western civilization?
Progressive language focuses on the relationship between oppressor and oppressed. It takes the side of the oppressed, and looks for ways to limit the power of the oppressor, while increasing the power of the oppressed.
Libertarian language frames political realities around the individual. What increases the ability of the individual to live the life they want to live? They measure everything on a scale of coercion. If I’m not coercing you, you shouldn’t coerce me, not even with laws.
What if you see merit in each of the languages? It does not seem difficult to favor virtue, show concern for the poor and find government at times overreaching. Problems arise when any of the three approaches becomes an absolute – all of one and none of the others. Can any policy issue ever be resolved with that mindset?
Yet rigid distinctions best suit political communication and cable news. Depending on the candidate or news outlet, each of the three approaches is portrayed as a light switch – on or off “are you on the team or not?” – when they would be better considered as rheostats – a preference for a bit more of this and a bit less of that.
In today’s politics, nobody wants to solve anything. News outlets want readers and viewers (to say nothing of the advertising that follows them and, best of all, the bounty of political ads every other year) while candidates want money (mostly to pay for the ads) and votes. Readers, viewers, donors and voters are the commodities in short supply so they are served precisely what they want lest they take their business elsewhere.
Political debate has, to the great advantage of those who profit from it, become they way people define who they are. Yet that debate has only to do with winning or losing and nothing to do with solving.
According to Jonah Goldberg, “One of the reasons our politics is so contentious and angry is that we can’t agree on what the rules are. Some of us want to argue that certain policies are good and certain policies are bad. But a vocal chunk of Americans don’t really care about what the policies are; they would much rather argue that their side is right. They don’t care if these are the same policies or comparable to those they denounced earlier. The system is clogged with bad-faith arguments, hypocrisy, and flip-flopping.”
“In short,… partisanship is a helluva drug.
People like Arnold Kling and Bill Walton are trying to be the antidote.