Friday, March 1, 2013

Catchy Political Blog Title

Here's a recent article from The American Conservative that inadvertently displays much of why I've been an asshole about politics lately:

The subject is ostensibly the failure of the Bush administration and its political repercussions for conservatism, and while Dubya's disgusting failure on many levels cannot be denied, take a long look at the first paragraph and take away the most important lesson: high-quality politically conservative thought is not successful in the democratic marketplace. Not in a world that follows the whims of the attention economy. 

The hook for the article is the final issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, described as "always serious, often well-written, and rarely interesting." The paragraph goes on by saying that the journal's failure was not due to the quality of the content, but "rather, it was the blandness of the content, much of which repackaged the conventional wisdom of the conservative establishment at greater length and with more erudite footnotes." Thus, it is failing. 

It mentions the observation that the counter-culture of the 60's is now the mainstream culture, and highlights the failure to point out the disaster of the Bush 43 administration, but as is absolutely universal in the vast majority of political thought, it questions little on a deeper level.

The deeper level matters, though. Explain this to me: why is it that serious political thought must be consistently attention-getting and entertaining? Why do we absolutely, positively have to shake up shit in order for the concepts being refined to make a difference? Why did the title of that AC article have to rip off Al Gore, of all people? Trying to be clevah?

The answer is obvious; because it's politics, man, and politics is a freak show. It is not serious ideas and rational discourse and careful weighing of risk and reward; it is not mature individuals of proven capability making decisions along the lines of well established principles that we can all agree on due to a consistently strong cultural upbringing; and it is certainly not stable or sustainable. Those notions are antithetical to politics in a democracy. In times of crisis, everyone's attention gets drawn to the serious problems by the overwhelming need to evaluate data in ways that promote our survival. But in a strong and prosperous nation where people have little to REALLY worry about, the attention must be drawn by the grunt labor of simulating crises and manipulating the lowest common denominator into thinking that minor points of policy matter to them. Particularly in a decentralized, individualist country, that is rarely true, and in the event that it is, the average voter is in no position to be figuring out the best course of action in between commercial breaks of American Idol. It is the great ego of a democracy to think that the average voter should do any such thing.

But that's what the system is now. Image management and emotional manipulation rule the day; competence, now a purely subjective matter, is a question of demographic appeal. The people who run the system are still under pressure, still trying to maintain their positions. But this election crap does not lead to more virtuous leadership. It leads to powerful people doing what they've always done, staying up late to ponder the most politically advantageous moves that allow them to stay in control. They just do it by more skillfully messing with people's heads, using media and cheap psychology. Of course they manufacture crises and tease out your empathy and bullshit you constantly. They do it because it works.

Low-information voters are not the concern to me; they may profitably stay at home and mind their business. What concerns me more are the millions of voters holding on to a perspective formed by selective attention to information that supports their emotional intuitions. The American populace does not want competence; they want passion and charisma. They want to vote for someone who can convince them of their righteousness and goodness and value as unique and decent people, regardless of the underlying reality. And they want to be empowered in an environment of constant struggle. No consensus or equilibrium will be forthcoming in such an society.

The failure of Policy Review, a competent but boring journal, evokes a reminder of just how poorly this system works. It fails to surprise when kids get their news from Jon Stewart and supposed grown-ups get it from Rush Limbaugh, where every news network is either flagrantly partisan or so watered-down and accessible as to become meaningless.  Of course we take stupid risks in the stock market and can't keep a marriage together. It's not just our movies that must be entertaining here; our movie critics must be entertaining, too. And our teachers, and our bosses, and our parents, and our academic intelligentsia, and our political commentators, and our spouses. This is the land of Honey Boo Boo and Jerry Springer. It makes perfect sense for the respectable, and respectability itself, to fall here. You cannot say this side of our culture doesn't exist. And if you pay attention to the big picture and have any sense of historical perspective, you know that it's dominant.

Such is the nature of a populist democracy. We don't want a stable, reliable system run by competent people. We want action, and nothing is ever good enough. I don't blame politicians and corporate types for being short-sighted and selfish and dishonest when dealing with this society. That's rational behavior for them, and they might as well, since no one really respects them anyway and garnering praise from one will royally piss off another with every decision. Being in a position of explicit authority here means being a professional scapegoat, so of course they take the money and run. If you think you wouldn't do the same, you're badly deluded. Democracy is a cynical, chaotic system with a single advantage; it's more difficult to use power, and therefore, to abuse power. That's not worth it anymore.

So forget the egalitarian ideals and the sad democratic instincts that have been drilled into us. Forget trying to make a system based on bullshit salesmanship become something more than that. You can't do it. Instead, try thinking about building a system that, even using stupid humans, actually works. What would THAT look like? 

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