modern politics

If you’re not liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative when you’re old, you have no brains.

This cleverly constructed insult is very hard to refute from personal knowledge: if you’re young, you only have half the knowledge required to speak from experience; if you’re old, disagreement is evidence of stupidity. There does actually seem to be some correlation between age and political philosophy, but fitting statistics over politics is an exercise in explaining music with numbers – it explains everything except what it actually feels like to hear a song, which is only everything that matters about music.

On the few occasions that I pay attention to politics, I feel like the crabby old man railing about what the kids are listening to these days – it sounds like so much noise, and each election seems to bring only a dismaying choice between two unpalatable options. I wish that elections weren’t about making the “least worst” choice. But I don’t pine for the days of big band music, bebop or classic rock – to the contrary, what bothers me is that no choice ever seems to offer anything that aligns with my sense of a modern world.

The essay “Why I left the GOP” is a journey from one pre-modern society to another. The author explains his privileged background, mainstream education and birthright belief in competition and free markets – but then war, Katrina, and actual contact with honest-to-goodness poor people opened his eyes. He had no choice but to flee the GOP for the liberal heart of the Democratic party. I’ve seen this article triumphantly distributed by my left-leaning friends, but it’s sad how his story is all about what he’s fleeing from – there’s nothing at all about what he’s fleeing to. I like everything about the article but its ending – it’s the story of a man who ran out of a burning building only to sprint blindly towards a cliff.

Most of my “intelligent” friends lean Democratic, in no small part because of the anti-intellectualism of today’s Republican party. The irony here is that the intelligent citizen recognizes that the conservative values of community, decency, humanity and individual strength require that we extend these benefits to everyone in our society. But there is stunning intellectual inconsistency in the failure to acknowledge the evidence of governmental incompetence in providing the most basic services. Is there anyone who would sing the praises of their most recent interaction with the DMV, IRS, Post Office, or community planning board? Is there any large governmental agency that provides the daily benefit of America’s largest corporations? Oh sure, you can rail against Exxon or Bank of America, but can you remember the last time you couldn’t put gas in your tank or find a working ATM? Who brought you more joy yesterday, the federal or state government, or Apple or Google or Amazon?

Rich people who don’t want want to pay taxes because they don’t want to help poor people are just being assholes. But rich people who don’t want to pay taxes because they have no faith that government can help poor people are just being rational, they are just responding to the daily evidence before their eyes. Why isn’t there a third party that can satisfy both the liberal heart and conservative brain? The largest third party in the U.S. is the Libertarian party, which has succeeded only in being more heartless than conservatives and more senseless than liberals. Can’t we do better than that?

I am waiting and hoping for the day when technology will transform politics. So far, the incredible rise of the Internet, social media, mobile devices, and electronic payment have only been used in politics for the same old purposes: raising money for existing political parties. Someday these modern advances will come together to form a new political party that is committed to direct change in our society without relying on the fundamentally outdated infrastructure of the old political system. We will see a political party formed on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, organized on Facebook and Twitter and Google+, funded through Paypal and Amazon and Square – and it will improve people’s lives through Donors Choose and other direct means of helping society without the inefficiency of governmental oversight. We need political leaders who recognize that this is not just the future, this is the unevenly distributed present, and government needs to be reconstructed to enable this transformation.

sports talk

James Fallows notes that Bill Clinton’s speeches succeed because he treats his listeners as if they are smart, while most political speeches appeal to emotion more than fact. Fallows makes an interesting comparison:

The main other place you hear discussion based on the same assumption that people of any background, education level, or funny-sounding accent can understand sophisticated back-and-forth of argument and counter-claim is sports-talk radio. (“I understand the concern about Strasburg’s arm. But … “) You hear insults and disagreements and put-downs on sports-talk discussions. You rarely hear the kind of deliberate condescension, the unconcealable effort as if talking to slow learners, of many political “authorities” addressing the unwashed.

I’ve noticed this for years. I can hardly stand to listen to political news entertainment shows, whether Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann. Every one of them treats listeners as frothing idiots, and the callers they support on their airwaves only reinforce the image with loony claims and outrageous statements. One of Fallows’ readers echoes my sentiments exactly:

I’ve begun listening to sports talk radio on my way to work because I cannot bear to listen to the news–even NPR cannot escape the false equivalence trap and I find it depressing.  I am not at all interested in sports–as I was so obsessively when I was a boy.  But I enjoy the calls, the laughs, the passion of everybody on 98.5, The Sports Hub. […]  Nobody talks down–in fact, the hosts and callers pile on detail after detail, especially here in Massachusetts about the loved/hated/damned poor Red Sox and all their troubles.

The most successful sports talk radio hosts are highly intelligent and utterly ruthless in insisting that callers contribute information that is useful and fact-based. The culture and language of these shows can be crude, but their passion and devotion to truth is refreshing in a way that barely exists in other public discourse. Why is sports talk so intelligent while political talk is so dumb? Noam Chomsky believes that people invest their intelligence in sports because they are disenfranchised from more valuable pursuits:

Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can’t get involved in them in a very serious way — so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports.

You’re trained to be obedient; you don’t have an interesting job; there’s no work around for you that’s creative; in the cultural environment you’re a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they’re in the hands of the rich folks. So what’s left? Well, one thing that’s left is sports — so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that.

This fits into Chomsky’s theories of society, but on reflection it makes no sense. People can’t really contribute meaningfully to sport, and they know it – you can have pride in your team and buy a ticket, buy a jersey or hat, but you’ll never be on the sporting field. The separation between the sports fan and the elite athlete is even greater than that between the citizen and the politician.

What separates sport from politics, in terms of the intelligence people will bring to the discourse, is that sports has rules and measurable outcomes, and passive participation can be rewarded by being right about the outcome (rewarded by pride, or in the case of sports gambling, by money). Politics lacks easily definable rules and outcomes that are clearly connected to actions on the field.

Is there something that the Internet can do about this, is there some kind of startup that could make politics more like sports, and therefore more attractive for intelligent public discourse? A company called HubDub tried something like this, making a prediction market for politics, sports, entertainment and other topics. Unfortunately, trying to pin down public predictions turned out to be challenging. They ended up shutting down their general prediction market to focus on the most popular topic with a steady revenue model: sports, of course. FanDuel seems like great fun, but it’s also another demonstration that most people will apply their intelligence, time and money to sports in a way that they just won’t to politics.

mistakes were made

Compare and contrast –

In the startup world, failure is a badge of honor.  An honest postmortem of mistakes made along the way is greatly appreciated by the community.  For example:

The comments on each of those posts are overwhelmingly sympathetic, admiring and supportive.  Celebrating failure in context is a distinguishing aspect of our business culture versus many other countries.

In contrast, when the President of the US admits mistakes, the national and international coverage seems to imply that the admission itself its newsworthy and perhaps unwise.  Comments are largely vitriolic and incoherent.

Now, I think that failure can be overrated as an indicator of future success.  But I firmly believe that the openness to failure in business is one of the things that makes this country truly great.  It’s ironic and sad that this cultural gem does not extend into our political arena.

UPDATE 4 Oct 2010: Here’s a great list of the 25 best startup postmortems.