The View From the Sidelines

The pros and cons of political self-marginalization

At reason’s weblog (reason.com/blog, which you really should read), some commenters frequently complain about our disdain for the two major American political parties and the broad worldviews they represent. When we ding professional Republicans for coming late to the anti–Transportation Security Administration party, or bash professional Democrats for opposing the marijuana liberalization their base supports, readers more closely aligned with either camp express frustration with our arm’s-length cynicism.

Before defending this permanent View From the Sidelines, let me admit those readers’ criticism contains important elements of truth. Refusing to dirty your hands with practical politics limits your ability to influence public policy. Carping on politicians’ behavior can permanently alienate people who would otherwise be allies on significant issues. Serially declaring independence from political tribalism can devolve into a kind of reflexive moral vanity in which public displays of purity become more important than acknowledging that some pragmatist done good.

But coalition membership has pitfalls as well. In a November column, New York Times pundit Ross Douthat cited a striking illustration of party-anchored thinking. Gallup periodically asks Americans whether they think the government poses an “immediate threat” to them. In 2006, when Republicans controlled the White House and both branches of Congress, 57 percent of Democrats answered yes, compared to just 21 percent of Republicans. In 2010, when Democrats ran things, those numbers were almost perfectly reversed: 66 percent of Republicans, compared to just 21 percent of Democrats. 

It’s no wonder that many principled libertarians consider major-party alliances to be transient at best. Those who wield or support power quickly lose interest in restraining it.

Douthat is less charitable about this phenomenon than I am. “Is there anything good to be said about the partisan mindset?” he writes. “On an individual level, no. It corrupts the intellect and poisons the wells of human sympathy.” My hunch is that there is something in human DNA guiding us toward large (if shrinking) political blocs, toward pooling our honestly acquired sympathies and antipathies in ways that can look like groupthink to cynical outsiders. What interests me more is the advantages that marginalization can offer.

More than a quarter century ago, the great baseball writer and theoretician Bill James wrote a seminal essay titled “Inside-Out Perspective” on roughly the same theme. Back then James was a voice in the baseball wilderness with a mostly cult following, pushing such then-heretical ideas as the notion that pitchers’ win-loss records were not the best method for determining their value. To the extent that mainstream baseball professionals and writers were aware of James, most ridiculed him as a clueless outsider searching in vain for statistical patterns with his newfangled computer.

“I’ve never said, never thought,” James wrote in the essay, “that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than anyone else’s. It’s different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is, since we are outsiders…let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that.”

One of the most important things you learn on the outside looking in is how pervasive the conventional wisdom is and how little self-awareness the insiders have of it, to the point where they vehemently deny having any guiding principles at all. Hence President Barack Obama can say in his inaugural address, weeks before unleashing more than $1 trillion* in largely indiscriminate stimulus/omnibus spending, that “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” Nearly two years later, after Obama’s record spending, deficits, and debt, New York Times columnist David Brooks can urge America to move past “the same-old big government-versus-small government debate toward more concrete challenges.” The New York Times editorial board can support the TSA’s new intrusions on privacy and common sense because complaints about the agency “are purely partisan and ideological.” Defending the status quo means never having to admit that you’re guided by ideology.

The shrewd press critic Jay Rosen calls the journalistic source of such sentiments the “view from nowhere”—a self-aggrandizing, above-it-all perch where, burdened with the responsibility of serious discourse, mainstream news purveyors look down their noses at those less “savvy” about the nation’s important business. During the height of the TSA controversy, Rosen collected a dozen examples of world-weary journalists basically telling the little people complaining about passenger screening to “grow up.” My former colleagues on the Los Angeles Times editorial board went so far as to write the shameful headline “Shut up and be scanned.” The condescension can be staggering.

But even away from the fields of power politics and power journalism, the View From the Sidelines can produce sights almost undetectable by members of the dominant groups. Last fall you could have filled a large concert hall with the rock enthusiasts and/or liberal journalists bemoaning news that Moe Tucker, drummer for the seminal ’60s rock band the Velvet Underground, had been identified attending a Tea Party rally. Prefix magazine called it “depressing” news that will “bring you down.” Slate honcho Jacob Weisberg tweeted, “Must admit I’m very shaken.” Many subjected the retired grandmother to a rigorous policy fact checking the likes of which they’d never administer to Tucker’s lefty former band mate Lou Reed. While the episode should be taken mostly for laughs, V.U. fans inhabiting a different political universe can’t help but notice what the Jacob Weisbergs can never quite see: The breadth and velocity with which even people far from the corridors of power are sometimes denounced as having the wrong flavor of politics can be pretty creepy.

This issue of reason, devoted to questions about what the November 2 elections mean for public policy in this country, is a quintessential product of the View From the Sidelines. On page 22, economics columnist Veronique de Rugy plumbs recent spending history to answer the question “Can We Trust the GOP?” On page 24, reason.tv Editor Nick Gillespie interviews the legal scholar Richard Epstein on the dangerous intellectual incuriosity of his former colleague Barack Obama. On page 50, Managing Editor Jesse Walker identifies the recent Republican flap over National Public Radio as “theater,” unlikely to be acted upon in any meaningful way. We look at the pols who hate pot (“Just a Matter of When?,” page 32), the action-movie actor who hates video game violence (“The Terminator vs. the Constitution,” page 60), and the canny, once-marginalized political operatives who foisted Prohibition onto a wet (yet temporarily willing) country (“When Booze Was Banned But Pot Was Not,” page 56). 

To paraphrase 1980s-era Bill James (who, interestingly, is now very much an insider, advising the very successful Boston Red Sox), since we are outsiders, this is how we view the world: with a learned skepticism about power but a cockeyed optimism about eventually breaking the shackles of bad policy. In these fluid political times, that day may come sooner than we can imagine. 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor-in-chief of reason.

* Correction: Originally said "$1 billion."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • johnl||

    Oh how we wish Matt. You must have dropped zeroes with """weeks before unleashing more than $1 billion in largely indiscriminate stimulus""".

  • Matt Welch||

    Corrected, thanks.

  • Suki||

    johnl,

    What are you doing here?

    Good morning reason.

  • Restoras||

    "...weeks before unleashing more than $1 billion in largely indiscriminate stimulus/omnibus spending..."

    Technically, I guess this is right, but I was under the impression it was nearly $1 trillion?

  • Mensan||

    Nearly $1 trillion is more than $1 billion.

  • SF||

    I'm happy that Reason is on the sidelines. It's harder to find a skeptical voice lately. Sort of reminds me of the role a free press is meant to fill.

  • ||

    Amen, brother

  • Lib||

    Skepticism is good. Cynicism is boring.

  • SF||

    True, I think. It takes more energy and intelligence to be an honest skeptic vs a lazy cynic.

  • Lib||

    Cynics are agnostics. Fence-sitters. It's easy.

  • ||

    No easier than reflexively defending one political party. It's less a question of cynicism vs. fealty, and more one of critical vs. lazy thinking.

  • Zeb||

    I wouldn't say that Cynics are agnostic. Real Cynics have a very strong sense of what is right. But since they cannot bring that about in the world, they would prefer not to participate beyond telling people how they are wrong.

  • ||

    who, interestingly, is now very much an insider, advising the very successful Boston Red Sox

    Damn, how did I not know that? I guess it makes sense -- Youkilis is a Bill James wet dream.

  • steve||

    Interesting thoughts Matt. Always been amused at how the two parties carve up the issues like picking teams in a game of schoolyard dodgeball; as if every Republican should believe this, that or the other exactly the way the doctrine states.

  • Rob Ross||

    Matt,

    What do you think about state Libertarian parties that run candidates year after year without even gaining 1% of the vote? Should they keep trying?

    I've always thought that a minority voice can be more powerful by picking a narrow set of issues during an election and then putting it's minority vote share behind the candidate that supports their goals. In close districts, this minority voice can become very powerful because they can decide who wins the election.

    Thoughts?

  • ||

    Good question. I joined the state Libertarian Party (N. Carolina) maybe a year ago, and haven't gotten much out of it besides slightly annoying emails.

    a minority voice can be more powerful by picking a narrow set of issues during an election and then putting it's minority vote share behind the candidate that supports their goals

    That's tricky though, especially for libertarians. I'd be willing to bet that if a group of libertarians sat down and wrote out a list of "voting issues", they'd be unable to find a major party candidate who consistently agreed with them on those issues, and there would likely be some issues that neither major candidate treated in the preferred manner (drug policy, for one).

  • defeatedcreek||

    I can second that about the NCLP.

  • ||

    Where you at? Chapel Hill area here.

  • Matt Welch||

    I'm really not the guy to ask, frankly. I have a natural sympathy for third parties (tied up with my hostility for the Duopoly), and having covered the Nader 2000 campaign I am acutely aware of the structural screwjacks thrown up in their way. I guess I'm glad people keep fighting the hopeless fight.

    Brian Doherty has described the Libertarian Party as primarily an education project, which makes some sense to me. I've never personally understood why you don't get more LP action in one-party congressional districts (like most of where I lived in L.A.), but I'm sure cannier minds than mine have looked closely at that issue.

  • Mango Punch||

    Reason is the chubby kid heckling at a professional sporting event... And that's why we love you.

  • Almanian||

    That made me lol

  • Rob Ross||

    @Rhayader

    Exactly the problems I saw. You'd have to pick some set of issues that a) Libertarians could agree on and b) you can find a number of politicians to agree on. Let me give it a try:

    -School Choice
    -Marijuana decriminalization
    -No new taxes

    I chose these because they address the three pillars of gang violence.

  • ||

    Right. And it's likely that you could get a consensus among libertarians for those issues -- but good luck finding any politicians, at any level, who support the same list of positions.

  • Robert||

    So find some that support any 2 of the 3. And remember that decriminaliz'n is not so radical, because it just means a reduction of penalties to civil ones, not legaliz'n, that school choice can be as simple as abolishing district lines, and that an increase in a tax rate isn't a new tax. Surely when you keep those things in mind, you can find pols who'll support 2 out of 3, and then you can start moving things in your direction. Don't have an exaggerated sense of your influence; start small; this is what you'd do in business or any career, so why not in politics/policy matters?

  • ||

    Yeah, the thing is if you go with a "pick 2 of 3" strategy, you'll almost always end up with a Republican. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it means that we libertarians who think drug criminalization is a more visceral limitation on our freedoms than a new tax will have no place to turn. Of course, it's not like Democrats are staunch defenders of social freedoms either. Basically we're screwed as far as that stuff goes.

  • Rob Ross||

    @Matt

    I'm not against Libertarian parties - heck, I work on their campaign in November. I'm just thinking aloud about alternative directions that may be more fruitful.

  • Tony||

    I think feeling good about yourself and your ideological purity is about the least useful thing in the world. You don't have to like the status quo, but it is something you have to contend with. "Wouldn't it be great if..." is childish mental masturbation, not political engagement.

    On the extreme end being an outsider means simply not engaging reality at all. The response to the financial crisis you guys offered was the same response you have to every possible permutation of economic reality. It's one size fits all. Lower taxes & deregulate, ..., profit!

  • Dylan S||

    Our answer is the always the same because the problem is always the same: the government forcing people (literally at the point of a gun) to do things they don't want to do.

  • Tony||

    Literally? Hmm.

    It's government's job to force people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do. Like pay taxes and not steal. That has nothing to do with appropriate macroeconomic policy, though. But being so divorced from reality that you think it's helpful to engage in adolescent anarchic fantasies, it's understandable that you wouldn't have a clue what to do about a financial crisis.

  • Dylan S||

    It's the governments job to protect individual rights.

  • Tony||

    Of course there's never been an individual right not to pay taxes.

  • ||

    There's also never been an individual right to health care, either.

  • ||

    Outsourced..... due to incompetence.

  • ||

    VADER There is no escape. Don't make me destroy you. You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

    LUKE I'll never join you!

    VADER If you only knew the power of the dark side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

    LUKE He told me enough! It was you who killed him.

    VADER No. I am your father.

    LUKE No. No. That's not true! That's impossible!

    VADER Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

    LUKE No! No! No!

    VADER Luke. You can destroy the Emperor.He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son. Come with me. It is the only way.

  • DK||

    Wow. Seeing that in print makes me realize just how terrible Lucas was at writing dialogue. Seriously, try to read the Vader lines in anything other than your best James Earl Jones impression and tell me you don't want to tear your eyes/ears out.

  • Sam Grove||

    When all other proposed "solutions" fail, what do you propose but the solution that hasn't been tried?

  • ||

    Bush looks like he's about to doze off on Obama's shoulder like in some cheezy romance movie.

  • ||

    I think feeling good about yourself and your ideological purity is about the least useful thing in the world.

    Listen up, people. This is the voice of experience talking, here.

  • Tony||

    I am no purist and I rarely feel good about myself. One of my central tenets is that you accomplish the most good in the world by voting for people you despise perhaps only slightly less than the other guy.

    But nevermind, you're probably busy writing sympathy cards to Tom Delay.

  • ||

    One of my central tenets is that you accomplish the most good in the world by voting

    Uhh, wrong, no matter how that sentence finishes. An individual vote does nobody any good. Go mow a lawn or something.

  • ||

    First you say this:

    "But being so divorced from reality that you think it's helpful to engage in adolescent anarchic fantasies, it's understandable that you wouldn't have a clue what to do about a financial crisis."

    And then you say this:

    "One of my central tenets is that you accomplish the most good in the world by voting for people you despise perhaps only slightly less than the other guy."

    And we're the adolescents who have no idea how to fix a financial crisis?

    BTW, hows that financial crisis going now with all the knowledgeable "adults" making the decisions? No, its not going well. Also, where were they right before it went down? Oh I remember, saying everything was ok. You don't have a clue, man.

  • wreaver||

    Regarding,
    "My hunch is that there is something in human DNA guiding us toward large (if shrinking) political blocs, toward pooling our honestly acquired sympathies and antipathies in ways that can look like groupthink to cynical outsiders."

    Some moral psychologists argue that humans have an "ingroup" moral instinct hard wired into us. (Although some express this more than others.)

    See the 3rd moral foundation here: http://www.moralfoundations.org/

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  • رش مبيدات||

    What do you think about state Libertarian parties that run candidates year after year without even gaining 1% of the vote? Should they keep trying?
    شركة تنظيف فلل بالرياض
    I've always thought that a minority voice can be more powerful by picking a narrow set of issues during an election and then putting it's minority vote share behind the candidate that supports their goals. In close districts, this minority voice can become very powerful because they can decide who wins the election.

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