The public conversation

By | March 25, 2018

A recent article in Vox entitled “The real problem with the New York Times op-ed page: it’s not honest about US conservatism” pointed out some rather stark truths about the current state of public conversation. In particular, the article noted that there is an increasing inability of various wings of American politics to speak the same language about things, and a consequent alienation of various groups. This is not healthy for the development of the true civic conversation that we desperately need in these times of change.

By passing along this analysis, I am not suggesting that it was either complete or inevitable; simply that it was a reasonable diagnosis of the state of division that we seem to have achieved currently. It’s not the first time that we’ve had deep social divisions reflected in deep political divisions in this country – certainly those that led to the Civil War were at least as serious, and we weathered equally complex divisions in the 1930s without Civil War – but it’s perhaps the first time that these divisions were so widely publicized and knowledge of them shared so broadly. What may be different this time is the pace of change and the speed of the feedback loops that make consequences of decisions readily available for examination.

The recent speech by Hillary Clinton regarding reasons for her defeat – good people voted for her, bad people voted for her opponent – embodied the current “liberal malaise” in a caricaturist fashion. If you set out to write a speech satirizing how mainstream Democrats are thinking, you could hardly do better. There is no path to victory, or even reasonable compromise, that lies through that particular Valley. On the other hand, the task of the Right has been vastly simplified by Trump and his dog whistles. They don’t even really have to propose serious public policies at this point; all they have to do is shout “emails”, “collusion”, “Benghazi”, or any one of half a dozen other codewords that summon up the image of the presumed liberal elite for public flogging.

Their task is further simplified by the simple fact of organizational behavior that it is far easier not to do something than to do something. If a particular process requires approval by five different parts of an organization in order to go forward, then there are five ways it can be obstructed for every one way it can be brought to success. Since the essence of the Republican platform involves unrestricted behavior by private actors in virtually every sector except national security (and even that largely privatized), all they need to do is effectively paralyze certain chokepoints in the governing process to achieve their ends. Pruett at EPA, DeVos at Education, and Perry at Energy are doing their jobs perfectly, finding the chokepoints and disabling them. In another couple of years, these organizations will be so dysfunctional that they may have to be completely scrapped and reinvented by any administration committed to serious governmental action. It doesn’t take a lot of termites to bring the house down; just enough time undisturbed.

It’s not impossible to see how dialogue across the divide might be restored by mutual respect and willingness to engage one another. The country could be pulled back from the brink by renewed civic conversation. It’s much harder to see what the motivation for such conversation might be on either side. For the right, it’s enough to keep the air full of distracting bubbles while the termites energetically chew up government. For the left, deploring the right is a source of endless satisfaction and virtue signaling. For a large part of the left, that’s all they need, since they don’t really give half a damn about the poor anyway, and the hard steps necessary to really change society for the better are too much trouble to really invest much effort in. At the moment, despite various pundit handwaving (including my own), the civic dialogue actually meets the needs of an awful lot of the participants.

Until we can think systematically about how to change the incentives operating on both political elites and the public generally in favor of cooperative dialogue and away from self reinforcement, we’re pretty much stuck where the Vox article leaves us. I haven’t had much success in thinking about what such incentive changes might be; perhaps you have.


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