The Politics of Potholes

Crush #19

Our politics has seen better days. Culture wars, gridlock, and hyper-partisanship are all the order of the day. When not only politicians and activists but journalists, celebrities, and athletes stand on every soapbox they can find while even an American Supreme Court justice boycotts a State of the Union Address in order to make a political point, something has gone wrong. This is even before we look at the kind of characters who are running for political office today. Is it fair to say that the best and the brightest aren’t gravitating toward politics these days? The whole business has an odor to it which keeps the more capable and the more reasonable on the sidelines. I’m not speaking of just one country. The condition of democracy in just about any country you care to name isn’t exactly inspired. As for the non-democracies, there’s not a lot to be optimistic about there either. What has gone wrong, how did we get here, and is there anything realistic to be done about it? I’m not going to solve all of this in the next ten minutes, but let me offer just one or two suggestions.       

Consider what’s called identity politics. You’re familiar with this. It has taken many forms in many countries for many years. The various forms of nationalism come to mind, also racial politics, religious politics, gender politics, the politics of sexual orientation, and so on and so forth. What they have in common is what I’d describe as a kind of retreat—away from the idea of democratic politics as a way of life in which all citizens engage in a shared effort to solve a nation’s problems and into a group identity of one kind or another. The basic idea is that when a citizen casts a vote, runs for political office, signs a petition, or whatever it is, they are acting not as a citizen of their country but as a representative of an ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever it is. Certain forms of identity politics are considered more reputable than others, but the term itself and most of what’s associated with it are often considered problematic—toxic might be a better word—and it’s a view that I share. I’m prepared to bid adieu to this phenomenon in all its forms, and here’s why.

When you vote on the basis of your group affiliation, regardless of what that group is, does it not rather invite someone else to do the same? The thing about human actions, and not just the political ones, is that they tend to invite a response, and the response is usually in the same spirit as that to which it’s a response. Your act of friendship, for example, invites me to respond in kind, and for the most part this is well understood. Anger invites an angry response, love invites a loving response, and so on. It doesn’t cause it, but it does invite it, and we very often respond to these invitations. The same happens in politics. Let’s suppose that due to circumstances of your birth, you find yourself a member of “group X” (let’s avoid real-life examples, to keep the toxicity level to the necessary minimum). The members of group X are not all the people of your society but some of them. They might be a majority or a minority; the numbers don’t really matter. What matters is that the self-interest of group X conflicts inevitably and quite directly with the self-interest of group Y. Given the clash of interests and the tendency of an action like voting to invite group Y to respond in kind, we now have a recipe for conflict. What is its solution? Democratic politics is all about managing conflict, and it’s difficult at the best of times. It was difficult when people tried, however unsuccessfully, to bracket their group affiliation and to be impartial, but in our case we’ve now made it a lot more difficult. In my opinion, we’ve made it impossible. The advocates of identity politics will surely reply that no political arrangements are truly impartial or difference-blind, so we should just be honest about this and stop pretending that what’s good for group X or Y is good for America, or any other country. Impartiality is an illusion, so let’s be openly partial and self-interested.

From there it’s a short step to what we now see. We continue to see many voters trying, however imperfectly, to pursue what they believe, usually in good faith, to be the common good, and we see an increasing number of others voting their identity. Collective self-seeking is the order of the day. It generates winners and losers, recrimination and resentment, and groups locked into a conflict that is in principle unsolvable. What’s to be done? My suggestion is that we put identity politics in every one of its forms, including any that still enjoy a somewhat favorable reputation, on the scrapheap. We’ve tried the various forms and the result is much the same every time, which could have been predicted. It’s a recipe for a kinder and gentler form of civil war, and it’s getting less kind and gentle by the day. It’s a commonplace of both the left and the right, it can be moderate or extreme, democratic or undemocratic, but the consequences are similar every time.        

I’m prepared to give up on the politics of identity and any ideology associated with it and to put in its place the politics of potholes. I for one don’t want my government to recognize my identity. I want them to ignore it and go back to filling potholes. Clear my snow. Fix the sewers. Stop dreaming of shining cities on hills and just govern. Most of what governments do is small, local, and ideologically neutral, and much of that stuff can be done competently. The problems begin when the political bosses get ambitious and start thinking big. To them I say think small, or better yet, don’t think at all. Let the voters think. Go back to being public servants.        

Let’s think for a minute about the old ideal of public service. There was honor in this, or so it was believed, and it was the opposite of self-serving. A political officeholder didn’t need to be an ideologue and it was probably best if they were not, but that they be prepared to do the people’s business regardless of identity and party. The idea is old, but I don’t mean to speak here as a conservative, a liberal, or an advocate of any political ideology. I do have a political philosophy, but I’m not going to try to sell you on that but to call instead for a politics that puts potholes and such things ahead of ideologies and identities. No civil war was ever fought over snow removal, so kindly go back to clearing that stuff off the roads in winter, building highways, fixing our lousy public schools, and similar things. I propose that every political office-holder be required by law to spend a minimum of two hundred hours per year working on a road crew shoveling asphalt. I’m not talking about serving soup at a soup kitchen every election campaign, for five minutes or however long it takes to get your photo taken. I want them to get out of the legislature and their comfortable offices, give their staff a holiday and pick up a shovel. I’d also like to hear words like “resistance,” “alt,” and “anti-_____ism” somewhat less. Hit “like” somewhere if you agree.        

I’ve singled out identity politics here not because it’s the only source of our current malaise but because for me it represents the final stop on a bad road that we’ve been traveling for a long time now. It’s the road of strident ideology, not just partisanship but hyper-partisanship, the mindset that divides people into the enlightened and the deplorables, and people in all parties do it. Getting out of this impasse isn’t going to happen soon, and waiting for a great uniter won’t work either. Unity isn’t imposed by the state or any head of state but is a bottom-up phenomenon, when it happens at all, and the same can be said of division. We will continue to focus on divisions of culture, race, class, gender, and so on and so forth for as long as identity remains at the forefront of our political consciousness. This is precisely how divisions are fostered and deepened when what they need to be is managed, dealt with, and with some semblance of fairness. 

Not so long ago, people were astir about fascism. They had cause to be. Then it was communism, a Cold War, and a nuclear arms race. Now it’s pronouns. I want no part of any debate about pronouns, only to suggest that this road is a road to nowhere. Get busy with that shovel.