The Problem with Anti-Politics

Liberal Entitlement, part 3

Another point that has stuck with me was made in a David Brooks column from last February.
"We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship....Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want 'outsiders.'” (NYTimes, 2016 Feb 26)
Politics recognizes that competing perspectives and interests are legitimate, and the messy, interminable process of hashing out compromise and making deals is necessary and, on-balance, is good. No one gets everything they want, but in the long run more people get more of what they most want, and the outcomes result from ongoing dialog among diverse viewpoints – dialog which is a good unto itself, helping us feel that we’re in this together across our differences.

From the anti-politics point of view, there is one right answer, and compromise and deal-making are forms of corruption – departures from ideological purity. Anti-politics says, “Dialog? We don’t need no stinkin’ dialog. The right way to do things is the right way to do things, and any form of compromise is corruption of righteousness. You don’t make deals with the devil – you stand strong for your principles."

The problem with that is that it doesn’t recognize other people. Calling other people the devil is called demonizing them.

We’ve been seeing anti-politics on the rise for 30 years. It’s true that politics is a little distasteful. Compromising and deal making – as in, "I’ll vote for your bill if you’ll vote for mine" – can easily seem like corruption. But those were the ways that for most of this country’s history legislators of different parties were in conversation and got things done. They recognized the legitimacy of competing perspectives and interests. It required the humility to understand that your side might not be in sole possession of all virtue and truth.

Now our legislators don’t talk across the aisle at all, and little gets done. If you are seen working with the other side, then you are weak, you are caving, and next election you are likely to lose in the primary to someone who promises even greater ideological purity. Our legislatures are now filled with legislators who live in fear of legislating.

The rise of Trump is a continuation of the anti-politics delusion in which standing up for your principles means not taking into consideration any opinion but the one you already have, not considering other viewpoints, not compromising and not making deals. No one else’s interests count.

Anti-politics is political narcissism, and US voters have been demanding more and more narcissism for some time now. Our liberal entitlement has allowed us not to attend as energetically as we could have to the startling trends.

Further, anti-politics brings a declining importance of policy. Standing on principle has devolved from standing on policy principle to just standing for the principle of “us” against “them.” What was once an ideological purity test is now turning into, “We don’t care about your ideology – we just want to know that you are with us against them.” Policy is almost but not quite entirely beside the point. Very little of it gets passed anyway. We are fighting cultural battles and identity wars through political means.

So standing in opposition to Obama was more important for many legislators than noticing that some of what he was proposing was Republican enough so that it could have been proposed by a Republican president – and then they would support it, but what matters is supporting “us,” not the content of the legislation.

The election of 2016 breaks along identity lines rather than ideology lines. As a column on Friday by Mark Schmitt said:
“Consider immigration, the concept that drove both the Tea Party and the Trump campaign. For most of the long campaign, the media thought that it was about immigration policy: comprehensive immigration reform versus border security and deportations. The Republican 'autopsy' from 2012 concluded that Republicans should support immigration reform. But it turns out it was always just about immigrants, as in, people who aren’t like us, not policy.” (NYTimes, 2016 Nov 11)
That’s why so many voters didn’t care that what Trump said was so often clearly and blatantly false. Whether he was lying or not wasn’t the point. What he was saying demonstrated that he was on our side against them.

The dominant middle-class white culture has felt under assault for some time as economic and cultural shifts have brought changes. People who feel under assault start finding authoritarianism more attractive. With authoritarianism comes anti-politics: the feeling that dialog, compromise, and deal-making is what got us into this mess, rather than understanding that political process mitigates the mess. With anti-politics comes the replacement of any policy concern with merely identity concern.

When Trump said, “I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met,” my guess is that he was imagining that racism was about skin color. But skin color is only a marker of a likely different culture. It’s the different culture that isn’t “us,” that Trump supporters don’t like. If black people would only act just like white people, there’d be no problem. For many Clinton-voters, that attitude is the epitome of racism. For many Trump-voters, that attitude is the epitome of not being racist: “If black people would only act just like white people, there’d be no problem. See? That proves we don’t mind that a person is black. We only mind that they don’t act white.”

Of course, African American culture is in part a response to the ongoing legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination and segregation that we are perpetuating to this day, the abandonment of school desegregation that is the current reality. And white culture is a response to the privilege that Africans Americans don't have.

Many Trump supporters don’t see that. They just see, “They’re different.” And from the authoritarian, anti-politics standpoint, different means wrong.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of 'Liberal Entitlement"
See also
Part 1: Election Prayer
Part 2: Called Into Darkness
Part 4: Join the Rebel Alliance

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