Thursday, October 7, 2010

Voter Disgust, Political Alienation, and My Crazy Approach To My Part In Doing Something About It

Matt Bai has an interesting article in the NY Times today about the disgust voters feel towards politicians.  The emphasis is that it's not about policy, it's about a feeling of a deeper societal ailment.  As for politicians:

These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the news media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment. And this underlying perception, that politicians in Washington conduct themselves just as childishly and with the same lack of accountability as the students throwing chicken casserole in the lunchroom, may well be the principal emotion behind the electorate’s propensity to vote out whoever holds power.

This seems to be an accurate description of how voters feel and not a bad explanation of why the electorate seems to be voting little on issues but high on the idea of throwing the bums out.  As disgust with both parties rises there are more independents and people feel increasingly alienated from the two political parties.

The problem is, this attitude doesn't lead to a solution.  There's little reason to think politicians are either better or worse than they've been before.  This is a constant, not something that has changed.  There's also little reason to believe that people have changed in a way that would make society ungovernable or lead to the breakdown of civil society.  So electing politicians who promise to change the government or clean out the corruption won't get us anywhere, these aspects aren't really different from the past, it's something else.

I think that something else is the lack of a real political vision, and perhaps even more deeply a need for an updated view of ethics and morality, for the modern world.  Neither of our political parties seems to have any real vision for the future.  The Democrats just seem confused, they have a lot of technical answers to current problems and mutter some vague base pleasing phrases about the rich and the power of corporations but I can't really tell where they see the country in thirty years.  The Republicans seem stuck in the 1980s and have a political strategy that resembles Weekend at Bernies, rather than facing the what they need to do today they're trying to justify their policies by shouting SOCIALISM! loud enough to distract people from the fact that the Soviet Union is in fact dead and rotted.

So what to do about this?  Both parties ultimately seem stuck in the last century, the Democrats just because they don't really know where to go now and seem content tinkering with the system and the Republicans because they enjoyed the party so much that they're not willing to admit the reason for it is gone.  Part of the problem is that the political philosophy that touches the broad part of the electorate seems woefully out of date and says little about modern problems.  The struggles of democracy vs fascism or capitalism vs communism just don't really seem to reflect our problems.  Plenty of people try to use these old frames but it seems forced.

There is of course some wonderful work being done in academia on political philosophies and approaches.  But I don't see a mass political movement arising out of social constructivism or neo-liberal institutionalism, these just aren't those kinds of philosophies.  Social democracy seems to work pretty well but even that is fairly technical in tone and doesn't resonate well with an American audience anyway.

The only way forward is to develop a real candidate for a mass political movement.  It's been done before, the Conservative movement got started this way relatively recently.  You have to go back a bit further for liberalism but that has similar characteristics.

I'm going to take a shot at getting this ball rolling, just for fun.  My goal will be to take a bird's eye view of the problems facing the world today and ground this into some kind of coherent narrative.  My approach will be eccentric, I'm doing this because I enjoy this kind of thing, not because I expect it to go anywhere, as well as because I believe it's just not right to complain about something when you're not willing to take a stab at fixing it.

I'm sure there's plenty of other examples of people who've tried to do this.  Popular political books are a weak point of mine, aside from the news I avoid buying anything I think will be dated in 10 years.  I also have to admit theory isn't my strong suit, I prefer to ground myself in more practical questions and history.  These two things may turn out to be advantages to thinking of something original, I'm not discouraged by all the great work I'm ignoring and I'm not too tightly bound in existing theoretical perspectives, only aware of the basic outlines and a by no means complete smattering of the great books on the subject.

My first step in tackling this myself will be the most eccentric, but something I've done before.  Something that has always struck me is that looking back through history it's all about broad social forces, the rise of the middle class, desires for westward expansion; things like that.  It's not at all like the day to day politics focused on personality and narrow policies.  To try to get at some of that broader, more systemic thought I'll be attempting to write a fictionalized account of a future history of the early 21st century.  The goal is to withdraw myself from the accepted wisdom of today by writing from an artificial perspective.  The point is so that I can try to look at what is happening that is part of the broad sweep of history and what are the isolated footnotes that only a specialist would know about in 50 years.

Once this eccentric part is completed I'll start trying to tackle broad issue areas.  The goal will be to identify what are the big problems facing us and what are pathways out.  I won't be trying to give detailed policies or a data rich analysis, this is about a general take and trying to figure out what the longer term options are rather than detailing specific steps.

From these individual problems I'll be taking a look at I'll be trying to formulate a view that can tie them all together.  What should a modern society look like?  How should we be reacting to global re-balancing? What is causing modern social breakdown, and what can be done?

At the end of this, you'll have my answers on how to approach these questions.  I can't say that I'm even attempting to tackle these things in a systematic way to claim that I'll be right about them.  But at the end I should have a loosely articulated and semi-coherent view on how to approach these things.

I know I'm biting off more than I can chew, and possibly chasing some readers away.  This won't take over the blog, it will just be a piece here and there as I complete it.  Anyway, wish me luck.


  1. I ain't afeared. It sounds fun. By the way, I've read that in the early twentieth century a popular thing for statefolk to write were what-if fictions that reverse a historical event and tell their stories from the new result. I once read one by Winston Churchill who, being Winston Churchill decided to pervert the genre by writing the What-if that he might have written had the confederacy won the civil war about the subsequent history after the United States won it.

  2. It's good to know there is a respectable precedent for this. I'm taking it from a bit of a different angle but I see how that take could be just as useful and perhaps less open to bias. Thanks for the info.