Politics: Info or War?

When elections are far, politics seems far, based more on high ideals. When elections are near, politics seems near, driven more by base desires.

Politics is about two things:

  1. Finding ways to coordinate for our mutual advantage.
  2. Fighting over who gets more of what politics controls.

Most of the time when we discuss government policy, and how much government we should have, policy wonks tend to emphasize #1, that we are just struggling in good faith to figure out what is best overall. Folks who suggest otherwise are being rude and divisive, and interferring with our struggle to aggregate info into useful policy.

But just before an election, the story changes to emphasize #2. Just before an election, the story is that everyone needs to get out and vote, especially those on our side. If you point out that the election outcome would be better informed if those who knew less abstained from voting, you are accused of trying to trick folks into losing the fight. Just before an election, politics becomes not collecting info to create mutual advantage, but war, a raw struggle between us and them (over resources, status, etc.).

Of course people try to have it both ways, by saying they fight for their side’s view on what policies are best overall, for most everyone. But it simply cannot be that on average voters make policy better overall by fighting for their side to win. Sure your side this time might be an exception, but can’t you see that humans assume this way too easily. Are you sure that isn’t you as well?

Perhaps you agree folks are overconfident, but see it as an honest mistake, not a ruse to get more for their side.  If so, you think this bias just accidentally happens to help their side; their net biases could just as easily have helped the other side. I think not.

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  • Daniel Davies on how get-out-the-voters try to have it both ways here.

  • Ray

    It sounds cliche to bring up cognitive dissonance I suppose, but it really is that simple I believe.
    People want to hold on to a relatively simple idea in their mind of how the world is, or ought to be. Thus the dissonance with reality which of course the average brain fraught with emotional thinking just doesn’t want to deal with.
    So the biases act as filters, and they are able to dismiss those things which argue against their perfect view of how things ought to be.
    When politics are far, they are able to think in a far off manner of sorts, and actually entertain the idea of being above the fray, and being more concerned with “right” and “wrong.”
    The closer an election comes however, and the blurrier the lines become between ideologically correct, and just winning for “their side.”

  • anon

    Most of the time when we discuss government policy, and how much government we should have, policy wonks tend to emphasize #1

    I assume that politics is not about policy. Policy wonks argue in the abstract about what the best policy might be (#1); politicians compete for political control (#2).

    Yes, most politicians commit to implementing good policies and rely on the policy wonks’ output to know what these are. And sometimes politicians must argue for their policy over others. But there’s so much distortion that it’s best to think of these two roles as separate.

  • Mercy

    The cynicism runs more commonly in the other direction I think: politics is primarily about securing resources for your class (or gender, or ethnic group or whatever) but once the elections over and the tories or the socialists or whatever have gained a certain measure of control, well that’s when people start talking about the “best” policy and arguing that if you cut taxes, the wealth will trickle down, if you raise unemployment benefits, crime will decrease. They invent (1) justifications for their positions in (2).

    If you look at activists, people who aren’t focused on influencing democratic bodies but on using legal and economic means to fight for the interests of a particular group, they are much more honest about this: they need those tax cuts to keep their bonuses flowing, they want to unionise to protect their livelihoods. This whole “we’re all in it together” fantasy is restricted to politicians and the press but whether they believe it or not probably depends on ideology: Straussian’s and socialists explicitily don’t, but libertarians usually sound to me like true believers.

  • Lord

    Is it that elections are always near then? While those in power have talked about 1 the last two years, I don’t recall those out of power talking about anything other than 2. Upon reversal, should we expect anything different? 1 is the position of those in power, while 2 is the position of those in opposition.

    • Lord

      Yet, 1 is the progressive view that government has a function, while 2 is the conservative view that it is a negative, so reversal may not be in the cards, but that 1 is only possible with conservatives in power, and 2 is only possible with them out of power, unwilling to cooperate.

      • TheDarkestPassenger

        Dear Lord (sorry, I couldn’t resist the terrible pun 😉 ) , people at least in America tend to embrace candidates based on a given candidate’s grasp of the collective thinking of that group, their gestalt, and then attempts to motivate them through fear, scare tactics, demonizing the other candidate about how such-and-such an awful outcome will befall all of us if the other candidate gets into office, and then attenuates this message with varying degrees of subtlety. Johnson defeated Goldwater by stoking fears that Goldwater would use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, and threaten to kill all of us through the policy of mutually assured destruction.

        That was how one Democrat beat a Republican, but the nation also had a different set of innate biases and prejudices at that time. The landscape is quite different today, but the old tropes get trotted out again and again: Fear this other guy. He/She’s a .

        But America’s citizens are done no favors by our two-party system. Republicans and Democrats in America (at the party level) do dumb down our discourse to the point that some 2nd graders may find the arguments back and forth childish. That virtually all of our politicians are running away from reality, and making arguments for things that hurt my brain to listen to is the only certainty right now. I can recall Ronald Reagan and his opponents having at least semi-lucid debates about issues other than who was more likely to start a nuke war with Russia.

      • TheDarkestPassenger

        Dear Lord, one brief clarifying quip, and then I will resume my cloak of silence/invisibility. Earlier, I meant to have a “He/She’s a fill-in-the-blank” to indicate the variety of insults candidates come up with to demonize their opponent. But here lies the meat of my comment. In the spirit of overcoming bias, if we want our political discourse to more closely resemble at least semi-rational thought, we must demand that the parties stop talking as though their opponents are practically Satan incarnate. When people use rhetoric that overblown, it’s really about driving away those voters who would like to hear a proper, intelligent, and semi-rational debate of the problems we face. Our perennial desire to have more tax cuts, but to never have to pay with any cuts in spending or increases in taxes elsewhere, is one of these things Americans increasingly behave as though they can’t wrap their head around. Ok, enough of my blathering.

      • Jordan

        Maybe they can’t wrap their head around it; maybe using rhetoric that overblown draws in people who really do not at all want to hear a proper, intelligent, and semi-rational debate of the problems we face.

        In other words, maybe you’re just biased as a rational person into thinking politicians are out of touch, when in fact rational people just aren’t the target demographic, because politicians understand on many levels that posters that only say “HOPE” on them generated more voter support than a speech on policy.

  • j r

    Politics is about two things:

    Finding ways to coordinate for our mutual advantage.
    Fighting over who gets more of what politics controls.

    You can see one of the main paradoxes of democracy at work in these two sentences. On the one hand, we believe that democracy works best when all are free to pursue their happiness in any way they see fit. On the other, there is always the chance that another person’s self-actualization may come in direct conflict with your own particular vision of happiness.

    To stay invested in the idea of democracy we have to keep up the outward appearance of belief in a robust version of individual freedom and choice, but at the same time we yearn, often secretly, for the disenfranchisement of those who radically disagree with us.

  • trevor

    Purpose of Bill:
    The Betterment of The Union between the People and The State by Means of Surveillance and Public Broadcast of our Elected and Appointed Officials Entire time in Office Act.


    Preamble: Whereas We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Law Requiring the Twenty-four hour a day video and audio Surveillance and live Broadcast of any Elected or Appointed Official while serving their term and all information received or viewed in any way of any Elected or Appointed Official in Any Government Agency Funded By The American Public.

    Section 1:This act may be cited as, “Little Brother Bill.”

    Section 2: Let a Person who is Sworn Into Office or Appointed into an office be filmed digitally and be streamed Live without any editing or pause to a point where the general American public can view it.

    Section 3: Let All Data that is Collected on Each Elected or Appointed Official be Preserved unedited and securely and Publicly for the Posterity of the American People.

    Section 4: This bill shall go into effect 90 days after passage.

  • Right Wing-nut

    “Politics was invented so that men could settle their differences without killing each other.”
    Royal Masset, Republican political consultant (from memory)

    “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”
    Mao Tse-tung (wikiquotes)

    “Politics is almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times.”
    Winston Churchill (http://www.brainyquote.com)

    POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
    The Devil’s Dictionary (http://www.thedevilsdictionary.com)

    “The thing about the Democrats is this: they understand that you have to win first. THEN you argue about what you’re gonna do.”
    Rush Limbaugh (from memory)

    ’nuff said.

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  • Sam Penrose

    What about the model that says that voters have *interests*, which are distinct from both information and the straightforward spoils of government?

    In what possible universe does the state of being “informed” exist along a linear scale? Oh, right, IQ, test scores, … the Pavlov’s Bells that ring just before academics get a status boost.

  • I think this can be broadened to social epistemology as information (for some reason I misremembered your title as “calculation” rather than “information”, and prefer it that way) or war.

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