Polarization, Part 2: Feeding the Monster

Posted on 2016 October 2

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When I look at voters, I see human beings at their hysterical, innumerate worst. When I look at politicians, I see mendacious, callous bullies. — Bryan Caplan

The United States was founded, among other things, on a principle of basic respect toward our fellow citizens. Yet the political system has devolved to the point where it’s now considered a virtue — even a civic duty — to despise our neighbors and try to crush them at the polls.

Government has grown huge while politicians campaign year-round and news outlets shout constantly about the latest dramas at the political divide. And we clamor for more, as there is no end to the conflict nor to our desire to suppress those Americans whom we know are bad and wrong. Today every law passed, every demagogue elected, every blaring news headline serves to feed a growing political monster. “The Land of the Free” has become “The Land of the Outraged”. 

What happened?

Let’s answer with another question: “Who benefits?”

Three major American institutions gain when you and I participate actively and angrily in the political system. The beneficiaries are (drum roll, please): the government, the two main political parties, and the news media.

Government gets bigger every year. In 2015 Congress passed, and the president signed, 219 bills, while the Federal Register published well over 70,000 pages of new administrative regulations to flesh out those laws. Our elected officials preside over larger and larger fiefdoms. The more politically involved we get, the more power and prestige they get. Thus they have a huge incentive to keep us riled up and demanding more governmental action.

Selfishness and demagoguery take advantage of liberty. The selfish hand constantly seeks to control government, and every increase of governmental power, even to meet just needs, furnishes opportunity for abuse and stimulates the effort to bend it to improper uses. — Charles Evans Hughes

The Republican and Democratic parties are formal enemies, but they work together to keep you and me involved in their endless battles. Their power and influence increase when we get riled up, angry, resentful, vengeful — and actively embroiled. The standard approach is for each side to paint the other in lurid tones of arrogant selfishness, which agitates everyone and goads them into joining the fight.

What’s more, the two main parties coordinate to suppress third parties, since it’s better for them to split power than share it with several other groups. Thus they have a strategic reason to keep us angry with each other and a bipartisan motive to keep the fight between them.

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. — H.L. Mencken

News media generate more money and influence if more people tune in, and the simplest way to do this is to get viewers riled up. Hence all those shocking headlines about immorality, greed, and corruption. We become jealous and angry with people who have more power and money and status than we do. And we hate it when they cheat to acquire those advantages. The angrier we get, the more closely we follow developments in the media, where ads beckon our eyes and money gets made. Thus news outlets have financial reasons to whip us into a lather of outrage.

. . . Media is insulting your own personal status rankings all the time. . . . Indeed that is why other people enjoy those media sources, because they take pleasure in your status, and the status of your allies, being lowered. It’s like they get to throw a media pie in your face. — Tyler Cowen

These three institutions prosper when you and I get angry at our neighbors and demand action against them. It’s good for business if we loathe each other and then flock to support the doings of government, the major parties and the media.

Couldn’t they just engage us with thoughtful insights on the issues? No: discussions are boring. But angry arguments and fist-shaking — that’s more like it! Anger makes us feel righteous while it puts to sleep our rational forebrains, so we jump into the battle heedlessly and end up serving those who seek power and influence. When we’re angry, we’re useful to them, but we’re not smart. We’re the fish, and every day people in big government, the big parties, and big media eat us for lunch.

Granted, there are real problems that need solving in the U.S. But major issues get transmuted into fuel that feeds the feud, and our anger acts as the bellows that blows air into the furnaces of power.

This isn’t to say that these three institutions are involved in an organized conspiracy against ordinary citizens. They incite us to anger because, well, it works so beautifully that it becomes irresistible. There doesn’t have to be a cabal of wicked men pulling the strings and laughing at us from their smoke-filled rooms. The incentive to obtain power sculpted the American political system into the deformed creature that exploits us today, not because of some shady plot carried out across the centuries but because provoking us simply benefits everyone involved. And the beneficiaries add up to millions of people, who probably haven’t yet managed to hold a special convention where they all can plot against the rest of us. So: big conspiracy, no; ongoing degradation, yes.

Even the best-laid Constitutions struggle to hold back the surges of political opportunism, avarice and envy. Over time, noble intentions can morph into venal opportunism. Eventually the finest institutions become twisted.

We could say, “Dammit, this has gone to far! Let’s change the system and force it to be better!” But that very outrage would push us right back into the angry way of doing things — the way that feeds the monster.

Anger doesn’t solve problems; it exacerbates them. Anger feels powerful and righteous while it goads us into endless, costly, frustrating struggles.

What does solve problems is calm thinking. It’s not glamorous and stimulating like anger, but it possesses a quiet power that can smooth discord and open pathways to solutions. 

We mustn’t, however, expect our fellow citizens to share this insight and suddenly become rational and dispassionate. They’ll continue to act irate at the slightest provocation from the public arena.

We evolved to respond with angry suspicion to outsiders who could disrupt or pillage our hamlets and who had zero interest in rationally discussing their attacks against us. Today we’re crammed together in big cities filled with strangers whose interests often closely parallel ours but whose otherness evokes distrust. Acceptance of insiders gets folded up with dislike of outsiders until our makeshift urban friendships and partnerships fray and break at the slightest provocation. The ancient human impulses toward loyalty and suspicion didn’t evolve to deal with modernity’s complex, inclusive demands. Our DNA simply hasn’t caught up with the times.

Anger, then, is easy to trigger, and government and political parties and the media have mastered the techniques of getting us mad at each other for their own benefit. We end up as soldiers in their campaigns. We don’t win, but they do.

If we grow tired of it, we can always disengage from it, to shift our energies away from the tempting pleasures of righteous anger — where we try to force others to behave the way we think they should — and toward building commonalities. At the very least, we can learn to let others pursue their own lifestyles, even if we find them offensive.

Live and let live. — traditional

That would work well for both sides. It would starve the monster of political warfare. Then government, the parties and the media would have to evolve new strategies to engage our interest.

It’s our democracy. It belongs to us. It reflects us. If we want it to change, we must change. And then maybe we’ll find we’ve grown into an America that truly lives up to its potential — for everyone, not just for the agitators.

Otherwise, the political monster we’ve created may one day consume us all.

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