About a month ago I posted 5 Reasons to Get Political. I’ve been really pleased with the response to that post. It turns out a suspicion of mine was correct — that many people want to get political, but feel like it isn’t their thing — that they wouldn’t be good at it, or might embarrass themselves. Worries usually are over saying something factually inaccurate (sounding stupid) or getting overly emotional. There’s tons more to be said about this, but my next step here is to criticize a particularly negative way of being political, and pointing towards a better way.
Back in 2010, NY Times columnist and social conservative David Brooks noted a fundamental similarity between some people in the New Left and some Tea Partiers on the right. Both groups seem to actually share a crucial underlying assumption about human beings. Brooks states that,
“Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence. Both . . . are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures. ‘Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains,’ is how Rousseau put it.”
This is in contrast to the view of human beings as basically flawed, fallen creatures, effectively saved by faith and the institutions of civilization. Moderates on both sides of the aisle subscribed more to the “fallen” view than to the “innocent” view.
Brooks goes on to say that:
“Because of this assumption, members of both movements have a problem with authority. Both have a mostly negative agenda: destroy the corrupt structures; defeat the establishment. Like the New Left, the Tea Party movement has no clear set of plans for what to do beyond the golden moment of personal liberation, when the federal leviathan is brought low”
This isn’t to say that either side lacks grand visions for what society should and will become. The thing is that neither typically has plans for erecting new sophisticated institutions. Rather, liberated human nature is assumed to basically guide itself — a moral compass on a grand scale. Furthermore, we don’t need to ease into this purified society — if we can quickly tear down the corrupt powers lording over us, we the people will then simply continue our steady march to the promised land.
The problem with this kind of politics is it is wholly concerned with the powers of destruction, and indeed people with this view seek out tactics for how to be as destructive as possible. That’s why both the New Left and Tea Partiers have been discovered to follow the “Rules for Radicals” infamously outlined by Saul Alinsky. Here are some of those rules:
“ ‘Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.’ Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty.”
“ ‘Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.’ There is no defense. It’s irrational. It’s infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions.”
“ ‘Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.’ Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.”
Let’s think about these and the alternatives for a second. They are obviously designed at just straight up beating people in the political arena — these are serious weapons that can be woven into effective strategy. It isn’t surprising at all that such weapons have been embraced by people on the right. The fact that someone on the left came up with them is entirely irrelevant to their effectiveness.
These rules have absolutely nothing to do with mature political discussion (okay, bear with me here). People who behave this way have already decided that they have the right answer. This might seem like a simple case of arrogance, but I think it isn’t if you factor in the underlying assumption. The assumption is that there is no fancy answer in politics. Rather, politics is simple, and one only needs eyes to see and ears to hear. What stands in the way is basically self-interested prejudice, bad-faith, and ignorance among supporters of the status quo and the ruling authorities. The simple answer is liberation, and liberation is achievable by hard-knuckled political victory over the enemies of freedom (and/or equality, depending on which side you are on).
If we return to a pragmatic skepticism about whether or not human nature is innocent or fallen, the need for knowledge returns. That is what is crucially missing here — self-doubt and a modicum of respect for the profound difficultly inherent to the pursuit of political wisdom. Once we can return to a Socratic position of fundamental ignorance with regard to the good, the true, and the beautiful, it is no longer safe to beat down your political enemies. After all, you really don’t know who your true enemies are. Those who may happen to appear to be political enemies might indeed be more right on the issues than you are. The only way to know is to engage in the hard, unnatural, and noble work of talking with them, to listen, to scrutinize their reasoning and your own, and to scrutinize the truthfulness of their facts and evidence and your own. Wash-Rinse-Repeat. Build up your positions and tear them down as rapidly as new evidence and considerations come to light. This isn’t the easy way, it’s the right way.
This is also what makes children great for politics and political novices great as well. Without a over-grown commitment to ideological positions, these friends and neighbors of ours are free to look at our stale conclusions with fresh eyes. They are free from many of the cognitive biases that plague the political junkie and polemicist. Let us not remake them in our own image, but rather show them the ideal.
Embracing a rational politics is not surrender to our political enemies. It is apprenticing in the noble art of citizenship, where the only enemy is political ignorance in search of power.