Politics Makes People Mean

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One of my Facebook friends recently posted a status that went something like this:

I know I am going to lose some friends over this, but I have to say it. If you are our age and a member of/vote for the [INSERT POLITICAL PARTY HERE], then you are an idiot. That's just how it is. YOUR party wants to make life harder for us and doesn't care at all about YOU. You are enabling making things harder for the rest of us by supporting them!!

After reading that post, and seeing a number of "likes" that amount to "yeah! You tell those nasty people who like the politicians with a different letter next to their name!" I had to think to myself: this kind of post is a really sad thing to see.

These kinds of posts, telling off large swaths of your friends and acquaintances based on their political affiliations, are pretty common around election season, but are rooted in the same kind of mindset: anybody who disagrees with me on political matters is playing a part in making the world a worse place.

This mindset is confused, though. Most people with different political values than you -- especially young adults whose entirety of their political activism is voting during the presidential elections  -- are not playing an active role in making the world "a worse place." Chances are, they are making as little an impact on the political world as you are. Even if they are active in political activism, they still are probably making little-to-no impact on the outcomes of political logrolling, dealmaking, and election outcomes.

Voting to Make (No) Difference

For most young people, the extent of their political activism outside of liking pages on Facebook and reblogging some feisty pictures on tumblr exists solely in casting a vote once every four years, receiving the "I Voted!" sticker, and feeling good about carrying out what they see as their civic duty. They really don't expend much more resources or energy -- besides an occasional angry Facebook post about how the president is trying to take their guns or their birth control -- caring about politics. They're already a tiny, insignificant blip on the radar of national politics in the United States today.

"Okay, but they probably vote for a party whose values I don't agree with! Aren't they reinforcing that party by helping them get reelected?"

That might be a stronger claim if it were the case that their vote was helping some party get reelected. In reality, their vote is more than tiny -- it's statistically insignificant.

The likelihood of any one person affecting the outcome of a major national election is so low that it is actually more likely that said person will be killed on their way to the polls than to make an impact. So the claim that this person is reinforcing a political regime that goes against your values simply isn't true.

It's Okay to Be Ignorant of Politics

Maybe what the above statement is really getting at is that if you vote for X party and don't understand how they are bad, then you need to do your research or else you are an idiot. Essentially saying, "If you knew how bad they are, you wouldn't vote for them!"

But this puts way too much stock into the amount of time or energy people should spend trying to understand political issues. (Never mind that most people who would make something like the above claim are probably equally as ignorant of political minutiae as the people they are criticizing.)

Voting doesn't make a huge (if any) impact on the individual level. It may have some psychic benefits that make you feel warm and fuzzy after casting your ballot. Politics may provide some sort of recreational value to you much in the same way that football does to the sports fan. But to exert a large amount of time or energy trying to become better informed because it is connected to a greater positive outcome in your own life is misguided. In other words, it is perfectly rational to be ignorant.

If the positive outcome of an activity can be measured in utils, consider the following.

You can spend your time over 2 days in 2 different scenarios:

1) Reading up on the voting records, political stances, and lobbying groups connected to and associated with two politicians in an upcoming election takes 10 hours of time. During that 10 hours of time, you can't engage in other activities. Doing this and then voting knowing you had done all your extra research will provide you with 5 utils. (5 utils over 10 hours)

2) Playing with your children after work one evening and going on a date with your significant other on the second evening takes 10 hours of time. During that 10 hours of time, you can't engage in other activities. Doing this and then voting with your preconceived notions will provide you with 15 utils. (15 utils over 10 hours)

Obviously people don't sit back and do utility calculations before they decide what activities they will be spending their time doing, but the two scenarios make a point that it is perfectly rational for people to spend their time engaging in activities they sense will be more directly beneficial to their lives than actually watching the news, reading up on politicians, or further entrenching their biases by perusing websites about politicians they don't like.

People know, even at a subconscious level, that their time is better spent elsewhere. And they're right.

What About Political Activists?

What if the people you are speaking to actually are unusually politically active for their age? What if they really do go out and canvass for some political cause you find morally abhorrent?

You still have little to hold against them in terms of them actually making a negative political impact on the world.

Even if somebody were to have a disproportionate effect on getting a politician elected, it is unlikely that this politician would actually carry through on much of what they spoke to during elections.

They may have been campaigned for by people with radically X-ist beliefs, but the politician will probably govern from a moderate position, trying to balance pleasing special interest groups that have a heavy impact during reelections and voters who will be displeased if she goes too far outside campaign promises. The result is them choosing from a limited menu of options that appease both the interests and enough voters to win reelection.

Even more, they tend to drift to the center in terms of rhetoric during general elections, anyway. Somebody may campaign for a politician who sounds like a radical X-ist during the primaries, but it isn't surprising (and makes sense) when that politician becomes more moderate during the general election.

Perpetual Government

But even if a radical X-ist were elected and attempted to carry through on radical X-ist policy when in office, and even if the other branches of the government made it easy to do so and the entire system of checks and balances between branches broke down even further, it is still unlikely any major change would happen or could be directed to your friend who campaigned for this politician.

Even if both entire houses of congress and the White House were swept away and replaced with new politicians with a new agenda, there is a perpetual government that is heavily insulated from electoral results.

Bureaucrats are hired and appointed by a chain of people that eventually can connect back to political office but oftentimes is so disconnected from that office that it exists as a sector all unto itself. Bureaucrats may enter their jobs with one president in office of one party and retire 30 years later with an entirely different president, party, and national political landscape at work. All this time, they are the ones enforcing the laws, developing and writing the regulations, and carrying out the day-to-day functions of government.

What's more is that even if a politician wanted to radically alter the structure of the bureaucracy they would most likely fail. The bureaucracy itself is an entrenched interest, with special interest groups, unions, and lobbying firms all existing to represent the interests of the bureaucracy and its compatriots.

So, even your politically-active friends are probably not playing a role in keeping you down.

Do Political Beliefs Count For Something?

It is pretty clear that your run-of-the-mill Republican or Democrat, especially at 22, 23, or 24, isn't actually playing a role in keeping you down and oppressing you. It is pretty clear, too, that you shouldn't be mean to them because they decide to vote for somebody else than you do.

On the rare case that you do find somebody who has reflected long and hard on their political beliefs, it is possible to make an inference based on their self-description. You can get a better glimpse into the things they value or where you and they come apart in where you see your values manifesting practical implications in the world.

Where somebody stands on a handful of issues can provide tools for you to get insight into what broader set of values and beliefs they hold (if you can also assume they're aware of their values).

For example, I don't believe there should be any laws regulating homeschooling. If I met somebody who had a very strong belief in favor of banning homeschooling, I would judge it unlikely that they and I would be friends based on the inference I make about the set of values they likely hold connected to that belief.

But to say that somebody is an idiot because they hold broad beliefs that differ from yours in very minor ways (the way a Democrat would by hating Republicans, or vice versa) is simply to allow your political beliefs to turn you into a mean person. Chances are they have the political affiliations they do for the same reason you do.

So, What's the Solution?

The solution is to stop putting so much weight in politics, political parties, and politicians. Stop treating the world as one of "Democrats versus Republicans" or "Conservatives versus Liberals." Turn off MSNBC or Fox News and go call your parents, play with your kids, or read a book. Take that money you were going to donate to a politician and buy yourself a nice dinner with it -- it will make a bigger impact that way. Free yourself from the power politics puts on your psychology and you will stop being so angry about things that are outside of your control. You will find new energy to contribute to those things that are in your control.

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