Why Everything Is Politicized Even Though Most Americans Hate It

Perverse incentives reward people who treat politics as war and discourage everyone else from opposing them.
More

chess vs army men full.png

Edwin Torres Photography/Flickr

There isn't anything wrong with living a political life, Sonny Bunch argues in The Washington Free Beacon. "Politics is important; political decisions have consequences; and passionately arguing for your preferred political outcomes is nothing to be ashamed of," he writes. "A politicized life is a different beast, however. It treats politics as a zero-sum game or a form of total warfare in which the other side must be obliterated. It alters every aspect of your being: where you shop; what you watch on TV; what sort of music you listen to; who you associate with. If you're not with the politicized being, you're against him -- and if you're against him, he is well within his rights to ruin you personally and economically. You, the political other, are a leper to be shunned."

His lament really resonates with me.

"I don't worry too much about growing partisan gridlock," Bunch goes on, "but I do worry somewhat about an America in which each half of the country hates the other so viscerally that they won't even interact." I agree that there is cause for concern. But I also think it's a mistake to conceive of the problem as halves of the country pitted against one another, because I think and hope that many more Americans are uncomfortable with the attitude Bunch describes than embrace it. 

The biggest advantage the politicized being has is that no one wants to vocally disagree with someone who seems to have no compunction about trying to destroy everyone who disagrees with them. How many academics stand up to the one politicized member of the tenure committee? Who needs to make an enemy of the least ethical person on a small faculty where you'll spend the next decade? How many bureaucrats call out the politicized appointee running their agency?

The incentives just don't add up.

If you're a political journalist, and you hear Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly or Lawrence O'Donnell or Mark Levin offend against basic human decency in an attempt to destroy an ideological adversaries, calling them out, especially if you're seen as "on their side." is going to make you the target of angry, profane attacks from their fans. Lackey bloggers are likely to publish blog posts that stop just short of actionable libel. You'll never be invited on the pundits' shows or possibly even their network when you've got a book to sell. And for your trouble, all you've accomplished is speaking up about behavior that people you care to reach already know to be wrongheaded. I have idiosyncratic ideas about the importance of a certain kind of public discourse, no ambition to work for an ideological movement, a social circle composed of friends who don't give a damn who I criticize, and an employer with the motto "of no party or clique."

And even I often find it an unpleasant hassle to make these criticisms.

I persist because I believe it's within the power of a silent majority to change the incentive system. Bullying often turns out to be easier to stop than expected once the bully is sufficiently confronted. There are, however, ten thousand deserving projects out there.

Do I blame liberals who spent their time during the Bush Administration calling out policies they found deeply wrongheaded and ignoring Olbermann's excesses? No, I totally understand their priorities.

Almost no one at National Review today approaches politics in the way that Michael Walsh recommends:

Don't make nice with them, don't play fair with them, don't reach across the aisle and above all, treat them and their ideas with exactly the same amount of respect with which they treat yours: none. Contempt is the only language they understand. Remember that, thanks to Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Alinsky Left, the personal is now political, so get personal; all's fair in love and war, and politics isn't love. As Pat Caddell just reminded the GOP, his team plays to win, and doesn't really much care how it does it -- 'by any means necessary' is their motto. If you're not using their own rules against them, you're not playing the game." [emphasis in original]

But you don't start working for a magazine like National Review so you can spend your time arguing with the dumbest things fellow conservatives say -- you're more interested in warning about an immigration amnesty or editorializing against pending tax legislation or even calling for the drinking age to return to 18. Politicization attracts a hardcore constituency to individuals and publications. Criticizing that faction has an unusually high cost, and so politicization persists, despite the fact that most people observe it, shake their heads in disgust, and turn on American Idol*.

That is to say, politicization doesn't just incentivize people in politics who dislike it to keep quiet -- it also incentivizes those who dislike it to leave politics entirely out of disgust. What happens as a result? Politicized people are much more common in politics than they are in the general population.

Another factor that makes everything politicized is the perception that it works. Sometimes it does, but politicized people are constantly claiming that their side would win more if only they operated as ruthlessly as the other side, despite the dearth of evidence that ruthlessness wins elections. The conservative movement certainly won more victories prior to the politicization of its media: The Reagan Revolution was over before the Limbaugh revolution began.

In my experience, politicized people on the right and left don't behave in precisely equivalent ways. On the right, they're more often like Andrew Breitbart: His professional identity was as politicized as imaginable, he had no problem when innocents were hurt as collateral damage in his ideological crusading, yet he was unfailingly kind in his personal life to his many liberal friends. Whereas on the left, Olbermann types are comparatively rare, but it's more common for individuals to behave as if the political is personal. Did you know April is Don't Have Sex With Republicans Month? Or take this post, in which a writer abandons a childhood hero upon discovering that, in addition to being a renowned neurosurgeon, he is an outspoken conservative.

Of course, that's only my experience from a life spent living in California, New York, and Washington, D.C. If I was from Amarillo, Texas, I might associate politicized conservatives with the Christians who mounted a sustained campaign of extra-legal harassment to terrorize local swingers. Don't take my experience as representative, save in this one way: Like Bunch, who muses on all the liberal artists and entertainers who've enriched his life, my life has been enriched by so many friends whose politics I find wrongheaded, and so many others whose avowed political identity doesn't even reliably predict how much I agree with their politics, let alone their values. If you're a politicized person, whatever your politics, you're missing out.

__

*Or else disgustedly shake their heads and perversely decide that since their side is getting attacked unfairly, the proper course is to persecute others as they perceive themselves to be persecuted.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In