Why politics doesn’t matter
A Letter to Boomers
Yesterday, I followed a tweet from Medium to Jonathan Taplin’s article “Why Politics Matters.” It was subtitled “Letter to Millennials 4.” If you are a “Millennial” to whom people address open letters, I feel your pain. I was constantly talked down to as a member of the “slacker” generation: Generation X. In the 1990s, Boomers loved to speculate about these mysterious citizens 18–24 years old who had weird jobs they’d never heard of and who didn’t support their old ideas about politics.
You’re not a generation. You’re an individual who is a certain age.
Much of Taplin’s article is a scolding of youngsters in the guise of a history lesson. He sounds like the Robert Anton Wilson quote: “It only takes 20 years for a liberal to become a conservative without changing a single idea.”
In the 1960s — you see, kids — they had real problems. They had institutionalized racism. They had discrimination. They had war! They also had heroes! Yes, those brave men who said heroic things. Those were the days! When politicians could inspire!
So when Taplin quotes Robert Kennedy (“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”) and then asks “Can you imagine any politician in 2015 saying such a thing?”, I have to answer: “Well, yeah.”
I mean, politicians say shit like that all the time.
“There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect.” — Ronald Reagan
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” — Barack Obama
“Posterity is the world to come; the world for whom we hold our ideals, from whom we have borrowed our planet, and to whom we bear sacred responsibility.” — Bill Clinton
I also understand the significance of the picture he has posted — of Kennedy campaigning in Watts. It is powerful. But I’ve seen pictures of people reacting that way to many presidents and politicians, even, you know, the bad guys.
Whither the heroes?
I’m jumping into this discussion not only because I hate the word “Millennials” and all the patronizing “wait til you grow up, kid” down-talking every new generation incurs but also because I still receive an earful of this scolding from Boomers myself.
Conservative or liberal, all Boomers making public political arguments seem to agree that they used to have heroes. And we cynical younger types don’t.
Taplin’s article makes it sound like his generation shrugged their shoulders at Nixon, packed the protest signs in the closet, and went back to their jobs, never to vote again. But that’s not true. His generation continued to elect politicians who caused more problems. Boomers became corporatized just like every previous generation. Yes, they turned to art and work. And they kept voting for the oligarchy they hate.
The political disconnect between “Boomers” and every other “generation” they label is that Boomers continue to interpret their own naïveté as idealism. They continue to talk down to other generations because they never renounced their error in judgement. Look how he brushes off the fallibility of JFK and blames the press for today’s cynicism. “Give me back my heroes!” he shouts to a jaded press corps. He doesn’t recognize, “oh, my heroes weren’t very heroic and maybe even kinda sleazy.”
This misinterpretation of their own naïveté is what leads Boomers to continue to seek governmental solutions to problems. And that’s why they keep being disappointed. They are disappointed not only in their politicians, who are “no longer” heroic but also in younger individuals who don’t share their idealism.
Look, the death of political idealism is a healthy turn of events. In fact, we need more of it. Political idealism makes terrible law and leads to some really delusional beliefs.
Politics has always been about power and force. As such, it has always attracted people who wish to get things done by force of law rather than free association.
Cynicism or realism?
When Taplin critiques another generation’s “cynicism” perhaps he needs to look at the root causes of our contemporary political issues. Those causes are mainly the government.
It’s hard to look to Ferguson, Missouri or Charleston, South Carolina and feel like institutionalized racism is an issue that got fixed in the 1960s. Our current racial politics are primarily an issue of police – a government institution– harassing minority individuals. While private racism hasn’t been eradicated, what is in our focus now are government agents shooting young, unarmed black men and seats of government flying a flag that local politicians used to protest Civil Rights.
Likewise, the gay marriage struggle has been one of individuals fighting back against government blocking their freedom of association. We weren’t fighting to be gay in public. We were fighting to get the government to stop blocking marriage between loving people – a business in which the government should never have been involved.
We’re still struggling with the same issues: racism, discrimination, war. But our heroes are no longer the politicians who failed to eradicate the problems in the first place.
The Two Governments Fallacy
Perhaps the biggest disconnect between Boomers and “cynics” is that Boomers, more than anyone, are big believers in the Two Governments Fallacy. (That’s a thing I made up.) They believe there is a good government and a bad government and you can elect the good one to fix things the bad one screwed up.
This is a false dichotomy. Government is government. And government is force. Government leads to more government. If you want government healthcare, you’re going to get a powerful military and if you want a powerful military, you’re going to get government healthcare. You can’t vote one “side” of government larger and not grow the other.
Boomers helped create this present oligarchy with their naïve belief that the “good government” would prevail. Boomers protested against government and then voted in “heroic” politicians to fix it.
We can’t totally blame them. They’re basically just like their parents. They came of age in an era of American political success: “Government can fix the Depression! Government can end the war!” So they trusted “the good guys.”
Politically, what can we do?
For starters, voter turnout isn’t going to make a difference when it assures one of the two mainstream parties will win. Believe me, I turn out almost every election and nothing’s ever gone my way. (But if David Lee Roth ever becomes Superintendent of Schools, you know whose write-in votes to thank.) If all the Millennials registered to vote, it’s not going to “freak out” the oligarchs as Taplin asserts.
In the tech industry, we know it’s really difficult to code your way out of bad code. It’s much easier to throw out all the buggy code and start over. Similarly, you can’t government your way out of a problem you governmented yourself into.
Government is neither benevolent nor malevolent. It is a system of force. If you build it bigger, give it more power, all you’re doing is guaranteeing that someday, a politician you don’t like will inherit all that power. (Just wait ’til the Republicans are in charge of your healthcare.) The only way to change it is to remove its power. We do that by creating solutions to social problems outside government.
I’m not naïve enough to entreat you to vote Libertarian. Though they are the ones who advocate for less of everything in government, the party never explains itself well.
But I am naïve enough to entreat you to investigate individualist ideas. Read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (great summaries here and here). Check out voluntaryism, minarchism, anarchism, and the Free State Project. Hell, while we’re talking misguided idealism, check out Liberland. People all over the world practice voluntary associations with one another, free from government coercion.
We need more ideas on how to get off the train. Voting for the corporatized government that caused or exacerbated all the problems isn’t going to help. Neither are those patronizing Boomers who agonize about absconded idealism while voting for careerist politicians going to help.
If whatever “generation” we’re in right now is anything, it’s a generation of users, a generation to whom “user experience” is critical. We seek technological solutions to problems rather than governmental ones. In large part, that’s because the user experience of politics and government sucks.
We can’t fix the government with votes but we can loudly declare what we’d like government to do. We need government interfaces to be like any other user system:
- Simple enough so we can understand it and use it without it impacting our lives too much
- Open and transparent so that those operators of it can’t cheat and deceive us
And where that doesn’t happen, let’s interpret government the way the internet interprets censorship and route around it.
Politics Doesn’t Matter
Politics — the practice of negotiating whose money will be taken to be given to whom — doesn’t matter. Solutions matter.
Those politicians with their inspiring words that I quoted above? None of them built a business to disrupt the entrenched (government-supported) taxi cab system. None wrote an algorithm that changed the way the entire human species indexes information. None invented a system of decentralized, digital currency.
Law is important to check the aggression of private actors but politics will never (nor should it) be a font of ideas and hope. Ideas and hope come from the private individuals doing the work and actually making things better. If Boomers want to continue labeling the generations beneath them as “slackers” and wondering where their cynicism comes from, we can’t correct them any more than we can vote ourselves into happiness. We can only offer them solutions that their politicians never did.
Forget heroes. Forget idealism. Make better things. Make things better.