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I Hate Politics
When it comes to the art of who gets what, when, and how, absence does not make the heart grow fonder. We need to change how we do things.
In December, I undertook the revolutionary act of taking a break from work to celebrate the holiday season. I don’t often take much time off, in part because freelance life never stops and in part because politics doesn’t either. But as someone who believes in and advocates for time off to enjoy life for its own sake, I figured it was well beyond time for me to put my money (or lack thereof) where my mouth is.
As it happens, my Christmas break coincided with a wedding in Mumbai soon after. I celebrated the arrival of 2023 in the air, somewhere over the Indian subcontinent and my short escape from the never ending news cycle ended up lasting a few weeks longer than I anticipated. While I was away, I ignored the news and tried my best not to think about politics. I limited my time on social media. I spent time with friends and loved ones. I read novels. I played video games. I let my mind wander. It was lovely.
Despite my best efforts, some of the news of the day snuck past my filters. The speaker drama in the United States Congress. Something about the leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, passports, and a man named '“Mustafa” from Calgary who may or may not exist. Some other fleeting bits of news that registered just beyond the boundary of my conscious attention and then flittered back out of existence. All in all, it wasn’t the worst run of politics-free downtime. But then it came time to return to work. And here I am.
Defining “politics” is an industry of its own. When I need to define it, I often default to “it depends” and then find the most appropriate definition for the context. Politics can be institutional, public, and formal—think legislatures and elections. It can be individual, private, and informal—think of who gets promoted and who doesn’t in your line of work. Politics happens in committee rooms and in the streets. But if you need an ovearching, off-the-shelf definition that travels well, you can’t do much better than draw on political scientist Harold Laswell’s construction that politics concerns itself with who gets what, when, and how.
Nonetheless, when I say I hate politics, I mostly mean formal, institutional politics, particularly of the partisan variety. I’ve written both on here and in my book about why such politics produces bad decisions. The way we practice politics encourages obfuscating, bullshitting, lying, attacks over engagement, simple head counts over transformative deliberation, skullduggery, willfull self-delusion, lazy edutainment for media coverage, and gossipy pettiness. And everyone knows it. Even when they pretend otherwise. Yet we’re supposed to pretend the whole thing is somehow acceptable because, well, what else are you going to do? It’s just how things work.
We expend extraordinary amounts of time, energy, and money to keep this practice alive and thriving. What we get for it is a system that produces factions that trade-off government every so often, spending limited time governing because they’re stuck spending so much time preparing to govern or to hold on to government and then packaging their decisions for the public as one would sell a soup tureen on the Home Shopping Network.
When you’re in the heat of the moment, all of this seems normal and, indeed, necessary. Even inevitable. There are few who enter and remain within politics—as politicians, staff, journalists, or whatever—who escape the orbit of its logic. That’s because we human beings are relational creatures, social animals, who are shaped by those around us and the institutions that enable and constrain our world. We tend to go along and accept the status quo. Because of that, it’s at once easy and hard to blame individuals for the nonsense in which they partake. Easy because, well, they’re the ones perpetuating the sorts of behavior that produce sub-optimal outcomes, but hard because the incentives of the institutions in which they operate tend not to give them much choice.
Coming back to politics after a bit of time away magnifies the silliness. It’s like coming back to Twitter after being offline for a few weeks. Everyone looks ridiculous and for a fleeting moment you can’t believe you were once part of the circus. And then, before you know it, you’ve applied the clown makeup once again and off you go.
We need politics, obviously. There is no way to avoid deciding who gets what, when, and how. There are better ways, however. In the months to come, I’ll continue to explore some of them in my series Ideas in Democracy. I’ve covered co-leadership and ostracism so far (not that I’m necessarily recommending we adopt either). Next I’m going to dig into institutional reforms that could—maybe could in some cases—reshape our politics for the better. Those changes include deliberative democracy (particularly citizens’ assemblies), participtory budgeting, sortition, and more.
The way we practice and cover politics is infuriating. But that’s a choice. It could be otherwise. Even if there’s no such thing as a perfect practice of politics, there is better and worse. And while it’s tempting to, especially at distance, spit on the ground and walk away from politics, that void will be filled by someone else, and not necessarily someone better. So, you have to ask yourself: is it better to stay and try to improve things or bolt and make your contribution to the world in another way. I can respect either decision. But whichever way you decide, you ought to decide consciously and accept that you are, indeed, making a decision one way or another.
My choice is to stay and spend as much time as I can talking about power, the distribution of resources, and institutional changes that could bring about a more fair, equitable, and just world. But going forward, I’m going to reserve greater amounts of protected time and space away from the utter absurdity of politics as we practice it. And if I’m particularly disciplined about it, I might even shrink my To Be Read pile back to down to double digits. If you can do the same, it might be worth considering it.