Last week I pointed out that the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions will cost taxpayers as much as $136 million, and to little effect. This week the political duopoly begins the second half of its festivities. With both sides still bleating their talking points past each other, I was reminded of a startlingly relevant quotation all the way back from 1815. It appears on page 411 of Benjamin Constant’s Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments:
When a nation is shallow and imitative, it finds nothing more powerful than editorial slogans. They are short, they seem clear, they are inscribed easily in the memory. Cunning men throw them to fools who seize them, because they are thus spared the trouble of thinking. They repeat them, because this gives them the appearance of understanding. Hence it arises that propositions whose absurdity astonishes us when they are analyzed, slip into a thousand heads and are repeated by a thousand tongues, such that one is endlessly reduced to proving what is obvious.
I’m not just picking on Democrats here. The GOP has the same problem, and to the same degree. There are a lot of reasons why such a base strategy is politically successful. One is rational ignorance; people have better things to do than dissect the fineries of policy.
Another is tribalism. If Homo sapiens has been a species for one million years, then we have lived in small tribes of 150 people or so for nearly 99.9 percent of our history, up until the agricultural revolution a little more than 10,000 years ago. After all, for most of our species’ history, other tribes were just as likely to steal from or kill members of your tribe as they were to share a meal or become friends. That’s why a wary, us-versus-them mindset is in our blood. People have a natural tendency to identify with one political tribe and vilify the other one.
Substance gets lost in the resulting vitriol. Any rock, down to the tiniest pebble, must be hurled at the hated Other. Even if you miss, you feel better about yourself simply for having thrown it.
It may be only two months until the election, but it feels like so much longer than that. What to do, then? Leading up to the election and beyond, independent voices need to keep pointing out the parties’ fiscal and regulatory excesses, as well as ways to reform them. It takes some repetition, but if we keep at it someone will listen.