Politics is a professional sport.
It has regularly scheduled contests in which score is kept and a winner is declared. It has annual seasons full of masterful plays and career-ending catastrophes. It has a daily highlight reel. It has major and minor leagues and recruitment between the two. It has teams, complete with owners, managers, and agents. It has rookies and veterans. Former players become television hosts and commentators. Fans are irrationally loyal to teams chosen for arbitrary reasons (like where and when they were born), and of course everyone is making way more money than they should.
It’s not a sport I follow. I don’t watch it and hardly mention it because almost none of what you hear or say, both on TV and in person, has anything to do with governance.
Those who do follow it will rarely admit they enjoy its sport-like qualities. To do so would be to break the fourth wall. Hence, they’ll tell you, quite passionately (even angrily), that all the strutting and fretting really does amount to something, that what we call politics matters.
Bullshit. Most of what’s broadcast, printed, or shared online is a horse race, pure and simple. Issues are secondary to personality, and policies, when they arise, are framed as maneuvers and parsed for their effect on the next contest.
This kind of presentation of reality is not unique to our era, nor is fake news. From the invention of the printing press to the First World War, there was a real problem with yellow journalism, for example.
After news moved to the new medium of broadcasting, all the way to the 1970s, cost of entry was high and so competition was slim. Major media outlets treated news as a public service, or at least a freebie to entice viewers to watch other kinds of content on their station. Walter Kronkite and Edward R. Murrow could uphold a certain journalistic integrity not least because they were not expected to make money.
Part of it was simply that no one thought news could make money. That changed in the late 1960s and accelerated in the era of stagflation, when affiliates were increasingly asked to break even. By the advent of the cable news channel, which broadcast current-event-based content 24/7, news was expected to make money — entirely from advertising.
Making money from ad revenue requires you to do two things: you must recruit an audience (from a competitor, for example) and keep it engaged. Our biology is such that intellect-based engagement — cool, rational, unemotional — is incapable of grabbing and stimulating the human brain like drama.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. If a noise spooks a herd, the cost of being wrong — which is the energy required to run away — is marginal compared to the risk of being eaten. It’s better for an animal to react first and ask questions later.
Conflict, tension, anger, and disgust are “survival first” mechanisms specifically wired to trump the rational parts of our brains, and any media that appeals to the latter (like this essay) will lose attention to any other that creates and sustains suspense.
To persist, a media company must invent a never-ending drama. To flourish, the tension of that drama cannot abate even for a moment, lest the herd get spooked by someone else.
(Even us regular folks do this. We ask “what can I do to get more views on my website or more ‘likes’ on social media?” and adjust our behavior accordingly.)
This is the logic of the serial drama, of professional sports and of the soap opera, which use the same techniques.
So concluded British classicist and moral philosopher Bernard Williams (one of my superstars) in a paper titled “The Politics of Self-Deception:”
“But how far does truth matter to politics?
It is hard to deny at least that some reliable types of inquiry and transmission of truth are necessary for administration. It is hard to resist, too, the force of the anti-tyranny argument, that the fear of abuse is always urgent enough to discourage institutions of deceit, mystification, and concealment.
But beyond those lines–and it is, of course, a good question how far and in what directions those lines themselves extend–what follows? If we were deeply participant citizens, then each of us would have an immediate interest in truth in politics. But we cannot all be, and few of us want to be, and in this situation the fact that our institutions of education and communication, in particular the nature of the media, are not well designed for the discovery and transmission of politically relevant truths may seem less to the point.
What they are better designed for, besides selling things, is certain kinds of entertainment. This might be seen, if charitably, as resting simply on a tacit agreement between the consumers, the providers, and those who shape the space in which the market operates that what is provided is most of the time concerned neither with truth or with politics. But apart from the point that this is clearly an exaggeration, it is also too simple, since an important contribution to entertainment in many modern societies is made by what is supposed to be politics.
Political leaders and aspirants certainly appear before the public and make claims about the world and each other. However, the way in which these people are presented, particularly if they are prominent, creates to a remarkable degree an impression that they are in fact characters in a soap opera being played by people of the same name. They are called by their first names or have the same kind of jokey nicknames as soap opera characters, the same broadly sketched personalities, the same dispositions to triumphs and humiliations which are schematically related to the doings of the other characters.
When they reappear, they give the same impression of remembering only just in time to carry on from where they left off, and they equally disappear into the script of the past after something else more interesting has come up. It would not be right to say that when one takes the view of these people that is offered in the media one does not believe in them. One believes in them as one believes in characters in a soap: one accepts the invitation to half believe in them.
The world in which such characters exist is often thought to be a creation of television, and there is certainly a lot here that comes from television, with its disposition to make everything mediatedly immediate. But in itself the basic status of figures of this kind is as old as storytelling. It is the status of myth.
With regard to myths, when they are actually alive, questions of true and false are elided: indeed, one might rather say that in the most naive presentations of myth those questions are not even elided, since they had not come up in relation to these stories. It was something of an achievement eventually to raise them, as Thucydides did, when he started to work on the economics of the Trojan War. It is no accident, of course, that many myths have their origins remotely in what we would recognize as real events: some battles somewhere underlay the Iliad or the Chanson de Roland. The tale that is told, though certainly it is not presented by these poems as a piece of positivist historiography, is not presented as merely fictional either.
I mentioned earlier the idea that in self-deception there is a kind of conspiracy between deceiver and deceived, and in those terms there can be such a thing as collective self-deception. This applies to the representation of politics in our societies now. The status of politics as represented in the media is ambiguous between entertainment and the transmission of discoverable truth; and rather as the purveyor of living myth is in league with his audience to tell a tale into which they will enter, so politicians, the media, and the audience conspire to pretend that important realities are being seriously considered, that the actual world is being responsibly addressed. However, there is a difference.
Those who heard the songs about Troy, when those conveyed living myths, were not at Troy, but when we are confronted with today’s politics, we are supposed to be in some real relation to today. This means that in our case, more than with living myth, the conspiracy comes closer to that of self-deception, the great enemy of truthfulness, because the wish that is expressed in these relations is subverting a real truth, that very little of the world under consideration, our present world, is in fact being responsibly addressed.”
I am frequently heard to say I care less for truth than for understanding. You can weigh yourself against understanding, whereas Truth — pillar of the universe — neither budges nor reveals itself no matter how many facts you heap on your side of the scale.
So let me be clear. After the last midterms (but prior to the 2016 presidential election), I broke my self-imposed silence to write on The Rationality of Disenfranchised Non-Voting, specifically to address the claim, offered with grade school zeal, that the Pavlovian yanking of a lever connected to nothing was somehow a moral obligation.
Voting is a right. Voting well it is an obligation. The fact is, in the U.S., despite what you were taught in 8th-grade civics class, you only irregularly count, even when you regularly vote.
Our democracy badly needs a tune-up. Our voting systems need to be secured and repaired. We need amendments specifically addressing gerrymandering and the influence of money. And we need to extend the term limit on the president to members of Congress.
Until that work is done, your vote, no matter how passionately cast, will only obliquely influence the composition of the Congress and will have almost no impact at all on the laws and policies they produce — a point proved several years ago by a team of political scientists at Princeton. (See note below.)
However, I have never argued you shouldn’t vote, merely that there are circumstances in which it is rational — a greater protest, even — to abstain.
Now is not one of those times.
The world is rarely being responsibly addressed. But when it is being irresponsibly addressed, abstention is silent assent.
The questions we face with this election (and likely the next) are not the usual questions of sport, of team loyalty, of keeping score, of personality and passion play, but rather of identity: What kind of people do we want to be?
In that case, your vote doesn’t have to change the outcome to matter.
You can find information on your local election, including where and when to vote, at Vote.org.
Note: The Princeton paper was subsequently criticized, which is of course how science works. It’s worth noting, however, that even those critiques found that the rich have a vast undue influence and that America is, at best, an “imperfect democracy.” In that, it’s not alone. The world is presently experiencing a general retreat from democracy for the first time since it spread.