Why Politics Are Bad For Us

For starters, they make us dumber.


I have a confession to make: Even though it's my job to write about politics, I didn't watch a single second of the Republican or Democratic conventions—not even a YouTube clip of Clint Eastwood talking to the chair.

I've long found electoral politics seedy and dispiriting, but that sensibility has lately become a debilitating affliction: like being a sportswriter struck by the unhelpful epiphany that it's silly for a grown man to write about other grown men playing a game for kids.

These days, when I tune in to ABC's "This Week" looking for a column topic, I can't even make it past the first commercial break. Like Peter says to the management consultant in "Office Space," "The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy; it's that I just don't care."

Maybe there are sound intellectual reasons for recoiling from the political horse race. In a recent essay at the Cato Institute's Libertarianism.org site, my colleagues Aaron Powell and Trevor Burrus argue that "Politics Makes Us Worse."

Politics makes us dumb, they argue, crippling our ability to "[think] critically about the choices before us." And politics makes us mean: "[A]ll too often, [it] makes us hate each other." Partisan passions turn "modest differences of opinion" on policy into "an apocalyptic battle between virtue and vice."

True enough: Many conservatives are convinced that Barack Obama, who holds the policy positions of your median Prius driver, is bent on destroying the American way of life. Many liberals have convinced themselves that Mitt Romney, the very model of all-American Mormon niceness, is a vicious plutocratic thug who loved to beat up gay kids in high school.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion," wrote a blog post recently called "Discovering That the Other Side Is Not Really So Loathsome," riffing off an essay by Michael Rubens, a former "Daily Show" producer. It was Rubens' job to interview Rush Limbaugh fans and gun-toting Tea Partiers so Jon Stewart's audience could point and laugh. "[I]magine how irksome it was," Rubens writes, to discover that these folks "generally weren't loathsome persons after all. In fact, to my great consternation and disappointment, I often liked them."

I had to laugh when I saw the very first comment on Haidt's post. "I do not buy this," wrote "Bert Gold, Ph.D.": "[N]o credit for civility to Republicans. … [T]hey humiliated a sitting President and plotted to do so from the night of his inauguration. Despicable is not a strong enough word."

Politics makes us worse because "politics is the mindkiller," as intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky puts it. "Evolutionary psychology produces strange echoes in time," he writes, "as adaptations continue to execute long after they cease to maximize fitness." We gorge ourselves sick on sugar and fat, and we indulge our tribal hard-wiring by picking a political "team" and denouncing the "enemy."

But our atavistic Red/Blue tribalism plays to the interests of "individual politicians in getting you to identify with them instead of judging them," Yudkowsky writes.

Once they do that, they can get away with murder, as Gawker.com illustrated with a neat trick at the Democratic National Convention. The reporter took a camera around the hall, asking attendees, "Can Americans trust Mitt Romney to make the call about which U.S. citizens to assassinate with drones?" A good question, but it left Democratic bigwigs like Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., flummoxed and confused.

We'll get more of the same, Yudkowsky argues, until "Republifans and Demofans … stop enthusiastically cheering for rich lawyers because they wear certain colors, and begin judging them as employees severely derelict in their duties."

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.