“Politics at its most basic isn’t a Princeton debating society,” wrote Matt Taibbi, “[i]t’s a desperate battle over who gets what.” If that’s true, then it’s probably best if that fight remains a boring one.
In college, Professor Ackroyd (no relation to the Blues Brother) told us that politics can be three things:
A question of policy. How many exits should the new highway have, and where should they be? What should the new tax rate be to pay for the highway? It’s fairly easy to compromise on policy.
A question of ideology. What is your lens for viewing the world? Oppressor vs. Oppressed? Civilization vs. Barbarism? Liberty vs. Coercion? It’s harder to compromise on ideology.
A question of morality. Bob’s political positions makes him a bad person, a dangerous person. You can’t compromise on your morals.
American politics is at the third stage. There was a time when people said, “he may be a Democrat, but he’s also good Christian.” As religion has faded in importance in American society, politics has taken its place as a signifier of one’s morality. Now every policy debate is an opportunity to display your moral righteousness.
As our personal identities are increasingly wrapped up in ideological identity, there’s more to to lose when our political team loses. In such an environment, compromise is portrayed as a loss. In fact, the desire for a team victory surpasses policy success. As we’ve seen with the congressional Republicans currently hyping up protectionism—who in the evening before the election were extolling the virtues of the free market—we will even change policy positions to increase our team’s chances of victory.
And because our identities are tied to our team’s victory in a zero-sum war, we start to view the culture as source of endless potential fronts on which to fight that war, and thus everything becomes politicized. A friend pointed out to me the obvious but nonetheless depressing fact that for children growing up today, this will seem normal.
Politics isn’t boring anymore because our politics has become a fight between good and evil on a fractal battlefield.