Politics is for something, right? Otherwise, all those pitched rhetorical battles, tense Thanksgiving dinners, and occasional riots would be not just irrational but dangerously so. The time we spend doing politics should have some purpose, and perhaps it still does. But the problems with America's political climate, as well as the sorry state of our institutions and their policies, result from a lack of mindfulness and skill in our political practice.
Perhaps the least controversial thing you can say about American politics is that it's awful and getting worse. Americans were divided before Trump, but his four years in office supercharged partisan animosity. Everyone has a theory about what's to blame for it. Both the left and the right like to point to social media, albeit for different reasons. Both blame traditional media as well, whether it's "fake news" or Fox News. Both agree that politics is broken because the other guys broke it.
Social media do highlight and promote political conflict and grandstanding. Newspapers do reflect the biases of their staffs. Cable news has largely replaced sober journalism with posturing-as-entertainment shows similar to professional wrestling. But these are symptoms, not causes. The deeper problem with American politics is how we think about it and how we put it to use.
Our unskillful political practice has terrible effects not only on the quality of politicians and the harmful laws they enact but also on our own moral character. Unskillful politics creates a vicious cultural environment, and that viciousness in turn seeps into us.
Let's start with some quick definitions. Politics is a broad term, but in this context it means the ways citizens seek to influence the government. You participate in politics when you campaign, debate issues, or head to the polls. All these activities aim at directing state action. This action then circumscribes the options available to us, and it does so as a result of the political decisions of others. Politics is how we direct the state.
What, then, is the state? It's a tool we created, if you believe the social contract theory, or that was imposed upon us, if you prefer Franz Oppenheimer's view that governments originated as stationary bandits who came to monopolize control over a given jurisdiction. Either way, this tool is used to establish rules for social and economic interaction, and to solve social and economic problems as they arise. What makes the state different from other tools we might use to accomplish such ends is its basic nature of applying coercive force or the threat of force to change behavior. That's how politics ultimately works: We want something changed, we use politics to get the state to act on our behalf, and then the state forces those who disagree with us to comply.
This makes the state both a powerful tool and a dangerous one. When using any powerful and dangerous tool, we should be certain we're doing so skillfully. This means understanding clearly the nature of the problem we're trying to solve, what is actually causing it, whether it in fact can be made better with the political tools available to us, and only then moving on to a carefully considered path forward, and one we'll submit to rigorous critique and revision once we see it in practice. For example, if we want to do something about the high cost of housing, a skillful approach would mean having a robust understanding of the state of the housing market. Next, we'd want comprehensive evidence of precisely which factors are driving the rising costs, and a realistic assessment of whether state intervention, such as regulations or subsidies, will adequately address it, or if some other tool, such as freer markets, is the better solution. And, finally, when we have enacted our preferred policy change, we'd want to check back in regularly on its success and be willing to admit mistakes and revise as necessary.
But we don't do this. Instead, Americans jump to politics as a universal solution, frequently use it not to solve our problems but to punish our enemies, and rarely give it the mindful attention it needs to produce beneficial results. We both misuse politics and overuse it. Taken together, these create a vicious political environment, and that viciousness then manifests as all the problems people point to when they gripe about the sorry state of politics.
Good politics demands virtuous citizens, because only virtuous citizens can be skillful citizens. Our political culture instead incentivizes vice, creating problems that go deeper than bad policies. Politics makes us worse.
Imagine a virtuous person. How will she behave? What trains of character will she embody? Philosophers and theologians have debated those questions for eons, but it's possible to establish a broadly acceptable basic sketch: A virtuous person will be ethical, mindful, and wise. Yet our political sphere tells us to be precisely the opposite, provides us with strong incentives to do so, and then celebrates and rewards those among us who stray the furthest from that virtuous ideal.
Let's start with ethics. In our interactions with others, the two most basic rules, taught in kindergartens around the world, are "don't hit people" and "don't take their stuff." While we should also seek to help each other, at the minimum we should avoid causing harm or taking from others what they haven't given freely. Yet the political sphere fundamentally depends on rejecting both mandates. The state's power comes from its ability to bring violence to bear, and everything the state does is paid for with resources its citizens were forced to turn over.
When you and I enter the political sphere, we engage with each other in ways impermissible in the rest of civil society. We do hit each other, or at least ask someone else to do the hitting on our behalf. We do take from each other, or at least ask someone else to take for us. What's worse, we don't approach such acts with a recognition of their troubling nature or any sense of caution about their misuse. Instead, we view political action as admirable and sneer at anyone who refuses to participate. Yes, there might be times when applying violence really is the only way. But our culture sees politics as the first solution, not the last resort.
A virtuous person will also be benevolent, having goodwill for others. Yet according to surveys Pew conducted in 2019, more than half of all Republicans think Democrats are immoral, a little less than half think they're lazy, and a third think they're stupid. Democrats show equal disregard for their opposites: Half think Republicans are immoral, over a third think they're stupid, and a fifth think they're lazy. When asked how they generally feel about the other side, about 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats have "cold" or "very cold" feelings. And this is getting worse: Since 2016, that number has climbed by nearly 20 points among Democrats and 15 among Republicans.
The political sphere doesn't just face a shortage of goodwill; it's an environment of ill will. Both sides are motivated more by dislike of the other than they are by affinity for their own. On the right, for example, Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio called for the seizure of a private organization's assets simply because it promoted political opinions he disagrees with. On the left, we can look to examples like Masterpiece Cakeshop, where progressives, not satisfied with legalizing gay marriage, decided to grind their boots into the necks of those who disagreed.
A good person will have compassion for others. Yet our political culture breeds callousness. How else to explain such vile places as the "HermanCainAward" subreddit, an online chat board where leftists gather to laugh at conservatives who have died of COVID? How else to explain conservatives ridiculing Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for taking paternity leave to care for his newborn children? How else to explain the unending cycles of online mobs trying to destroy strangers' lives because they told an off-color joke? If you're on the wrong side of the partisan line, you won't find much charity from those on the other side.
A virtuous person will have feelings of sympathetic joy for others' success. But our political culture weaponizes status. The very nature of political decision making replaces pluralism with zero-sum games. If our preferences are put to a vote, with the outcome enforced by the government, then my victory is your loss; we can't each separately follow our own paths. Combine this with tribalism, ill will, and callousness, and it's no surprise that much of American politics is about groups competing to leverage state power to increase, or at least maintain, their own status relative to others.
Far from finding joy in others' success, we view their success as harmful to us. And no one wants to be in last place, so groups will fight tooth and nail to stay off the bottom rung of the status hierarchy.
Finally, a virtuous person will be mindful and wise in her beliefs and actions. This means judging others with humility and clarity, keeping our emotions from clouding our thinking, grounding our beliefs in reasonable foundations, and not jumping to conclusions.
Needless to say, that's not how people typically behave in the political sphere. Studies show that political deliberation doesn't broaden our views or promote understanding. Instead, it tends to harden tribal orthodoxies and to make them more extreme.
We care less about getting to the truth than we do about fitting in. When our identities are bound up in political affiliations, we'll express whatever political opinions are favored by our social circles, regardless of whether they lead to good results. Furthermore, once this ideological conformity takes hold, we have fewer people to call out our bad ideas, making it easier to drift in even worse directions.
This political short-circuiting of our ability to reason and judge even goes so far as to impact our beliefs about basic, nonpolitical facts. To give just one example: For years, YouGov's pollsters have asked Americans whether they believe children should be required to get vaccines against various infectious diseases. The responses were generally pretty stable, with about two-thirds of Republicans and about 80 percent of Democrats saying yes. But in 2020, Democrats jumped to 85 percent, while GOP support plunged to 46 percent. While it might be tempting to read this as the GOP deciding it suddenly doesn't like the government telling citizens what to do, Gallup found that while unvaccinated Democrats correctly estimate vaccine efficacy to be 88%, unvaccinated Republicans estimated it to be effectively zero.
So the political environment discourages ethics, benevolence, compassion, sympathy, wisdom, mindfulness, and equanimity. If the environment were small and we didn't have to spend much time in it, we perhaps could overlook these problems, much as one might think that middle school is a terrible place but it's only a few years and then you move on. But the political arena isn't small at all.
The same viciousness and misuse that make politics so bad also makes politics grow. Unskillful use pulls more and more of our lives and choices into a centralized political sphere, and as that sphere grows more powerful, that gives us yet more reasons to spend our time in it. I don't much like ice hockey, but I can ignore it because it has no impact on me. I don't much like politics, but I can't ignore it, because its reach is increasingly inescapable.
This is compounded by the belief that if there's a problem, politics is the way to solve it. Tell people you don't want to participate, and there's a fair chance you'll be met with scorn for abandoning your civic responsibilities, for not caring about the pressing problems others face, or for being nonchalant about the future. If you did care, you'd supposedly show that by voting for new laws. For libertarians, who favor private solutions over government fixes, this is doubly troubling: Anyone who genuinely does want to help others but seeks to help through nonstate means is at a cultural disadvantage. The inventor who seeks to solve climate change via new technologies rather than wealth-diminishing regulations is a monster who doesn't care about the fate of the planet or the children who will inherit it. The innovator who develops better alternatives to poorly performing state services is abandoning our collective project. The businessman who creates thousands of new jobs isn't a good samaritan; he's just selfish.
One of the more frustrating recent examples of this is the call for a wealth tax. Billionaires, we're told, shouldn't give their money to charity; they should be forced to hand it over to the state. The state will probably put it to inefficient (or often harmful) use, but the alternative is allegedly anti-democratic. If you point out that, yes, taxes do pay for some services that help people, but they also pay for bombs and cages and abusive cops, you'll likely to be dismissed as unserious—though under other circumstances, people would not argue that it's good to give money to an organization that shelters the homeless but also employs some people who go around beating them up. "Oh, well, it's only 10 percent of their budget, and the rest of their work is good" would be a silly rejoinder, as would "You have an obligation to donate money because of the good they do, but you should also try to get them to stop beating up homeless people." No, you have an obligation to give to an organization that doesn't beat up the homeless.
And so we have a feedback loop. The overuse of politics makes us worse. As we get worse, we become more likely to overuse politics. And the more our lives and attention get pulled into the political sphere, the more reason we have to engage with it, and the more incentives we'll have for vicious behaviors and beliefs. Deploy political tools unskillfully, and this is the result.
Aristotle believed that moral education begins in habit formation. The way to teach the young to be good isn't to give them abstract theories of the good; it's to get them to engage in good behaviors. Once they have practice, it'll become natural, and they'll be ready to understand why those behaviors were good in the first place.
The importance of habit is why we can't brush aside the above concerns by saying, "Well, that's just politics. Outside of politics, I behave virtuously." That's not how virtue, or habits, work. We are what we do, no matter where we do it. Vice doesn't become virtue just because we're acting in the political sphere, and the more time we spend practicing vice, the harder virtue will become.
We can break the loop at the individual level by disengaging, but that means abandoning the field to those who are less interested in or capable of a skillful approach. And given how much influence politics has, anyone who cares about anyone's well-being should care about what politics is up to. The better solution to our misuse of politics is to train ourselves to use it skillfully, and only to use it when appropriate. Politics isn't going away, but if we can approach it mindfully and ethically, and with wisdom and equanimity, then we can at least make it not as bad.