A friend shared with me some very disturbing information this week. He has evidence that seems to suggest that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged by the government as a pretext to take away our guns.
This shocking news came from a perfectly sane adult, a good father and husband, who is one of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with.
Though the claim is completely nuts, the person sharing it is as sane as the day is long. A startling number of people who make sound, well-reasoned decisions in their personal lives are comfortable engaging in political ideas that are empirically, provably false and sometimes downright insane.
There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories in politics, but the degree to which they have entered mainstream political discourse is shocking and unprecedented. From Benghazi to Agenda 21, there seem to be no filters remaining to prevent ludicrous ideas from reaching the highest levels of policy. Somewhere over the past decade or so, the politics of crazy jumped the tin-foil barrier and started to influence the political opinions of ordinary people who are otherwise competent, intelligent and even educated.
Although the politics of paranoia has become a Republican staple in the past few years, it is a mistake to imagine that this is a unique illness of our political right, or to blame it purely on the Internet. The Age of Crazy is a product of broad social forces that will soon affect Democrats just as deeply as Republicans. We cannot begin to formulate some response until we acknowledge the forces responsible for undermining our political sanity.
Reason in politics does not come from the same sources as individual reason. In our personal lives, we learn to shun stupid or loony ideas because we recognize or experience first-hand the damage they produce. Many of the same people who are scanning the skies for UN helicopters nonetheless do a very good job caring for their children, performing surgery, or operating heavy machinery.
We seldom apply the same rigor to politics that we bring to decisions affecting our work or families. The consequences of accepting poor advice in our personal lives can often be sharp, immediate, and expensive. The consequences of believing stupid political rumors are usually distant, deferred, and diluted among millions of people.
We account for the lack of individual feedback in politics by filtering public opinion in two ways. First, instead of direct democracy, we have a system of representative democracy in which we elect trustworthy citizens to decide political matters on our behalf. We hold these representatives accountable in broad sweeps, but defer to their judgment on the fine details.
Second, a dense network of social capital institutions has always mediated our political environment, filtering out the stupid and the crazy while promoting into higher positions people who show promise in dealing with local matters. The stark, sudden decline of reason in our politics can be traced to the combined effects of a generation of social and political changes that have left us more distant from public affairs, undermined our interest in responsible citizenship, and corroded the social institutions that once filtered the toxins from our political swamp. The factors behind those changes seem to be:
1) The spread of consumer capitalism
2) The decline of social capital
3) Political centralization
In 1995, Benjamin Barber published Jihad vs. McWorld, predicting that unrestrained global capitalism would destroy the subtle, traditional social bonds that formed the foundation of participatory politics. Barber claimed that consumerism kills real democracy by replacing traditional social ties with an emphasis on individual pleasure. The rise of consumerism leaves in its wake a choice between reactionary tribalism and a cold commercial society unable to govern itself.
Barber’s work wasn’t taken all that seriously for a couple of reasons. First, as an old-school leftist he was far too skeptical of capitalism, failing to appreciate the degree to which this consumer ethic he hated would bring new freedom and opportunity to people he claimed to care deeply about. Second, he made the mistake of branding tribalism with the term “Jihad” which confused readers. That mistake inspired readers to overlook the truly global implications of his theories and fail to fully consider their impact on the US.
Nonetheless, Barber was dead-on in his assessment of how consumerism would crush older, critical “social capital” institutions. McWorld has evolved into a far freer, more inviting place than Barber ever imagined, but its impact on the social capital that makes American politics work has been even more devastating than he warned.
The consumerism Barber described has encouraged us to view politics as we would any other product. As citizenship steadily dies, politics is taking on the shape of a sport whose purpose is to entertain us.
Our enthusiasm for politics has less to do with any investment in real outcomes than with a sense of loyalty to a team. Instead of representatives, we are sending to Washington a colorful collection of entertaining mascots. We have moved away from electing trusted characters and listening to their judgment, instead choosing our most enthusiastic partisans and expecting to dictate their every move.
Consumer culture is also taking a toll our social institutions. It would be hard to find an element of our social capital infrastructure that is not in steep decline. From kid’s sports leagues to organized religion, we are rapidly becoming a nation of people who are, as Robert Putnam described, “Bowling Alone.” With that network of mediating institutions losing their punch, there are few forces left to check the creeping growth of crazy.
Two generations of political centralization are exacerbating the impact of consumerism and the death of social capital. We have developed a Supreme Court willing in too many cases to legislate on our behalf. Our schools and health care are intensely regulated by nameless Federal bureaucrats. Centralization erodes the already weak feedback loop that limits the crazy.
For example, our representatives are free to say anything they want, no matter how stupid, about a subject like abortion because that topic has been pre-empted by our black-robed guardians. Centralization of power may briefly shield us from the impact of political dysfunction, but by doing so it exacerbates the root problem, planting weeds in the gardens of democracy.
What can we do to stem the tide of stupidity lapping at our political foundations? I don’t know, and that scares me. In truth, the forces of freedom and capitalism that are contributing to this problem are also our greatest allies in spreading liberty and prosperity. We don’t need to stop them, we just need to adapt our politics to live with them. Greater local control sounds good, but it’s tough to figure out how to make that work when our political system is gripped by so much lunacy.
Perhaps by merely recognizing the nature of this problem we will be taking the first steps toward alleviating its effects. If we were more conscious of the ways that irresponsible discourse impacts our political ecosystem maybe we would take more caution. Like anti-litter campaigns, simple social pressure against wildly irresponsible claims might bring that critical degree of humility we require in order to maintain open institutions.
Perhaps a nation of smart people can have smart government just by figuring how to handle our garbage.
Why the crazy wave is affecting Republicans more than Democrats, and why Democrats will catch up very soon.
More on the decline of social capital