Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Epistemological Closure


We're all very cranky.

And I blame the Internet.  The Internet SHOULD be the vehicle by which we can find that person in South Dakota who loves the Braves, too.  And it is.  I have an online acquaintance who I converse about the Braves with, and he's from South Dakota.

So why does the Internet make us cranky?

Because it creates a view of the world that is self-reinforcing and at odds with reality.  Take the Braves.  No, seriously, take them, they suck.  My little online community spends a TON of time arguing about how much they suck and how long it will be until they stop sucking.  Argue, argue, argue.  Now, that's fun, to a degree.  But it can be a little cranky-making.

Worse is what is happening in politics, because politics is about the collision of people who aren't all invested in a particular outcome.  All the posters at the Braves site want the Braves to be good again.  They just disagree with how that's going to happen.

In politics, for anything to happen in our system of government, people who disagree have to find agreement.  What has poisoned politics lately has been the complete abdication of that principle by the Republican party.  They can't even pass a budget within their caucus, because they won't compromise with anyone to their left, even within their own party.  Forget compromising with Democrats, they won't compromise with Pete King.

The Sanders "revolution" is a manifestation of this on the Left.  Read this piece about Ithaca, NY.  These are people who have zero idea about the rest of the country.  It reminds me about Paulie Kael's (probably apocryphal) statement that Nixon couldn't win, "because no one I know voted for him."  Arguing with Sandernistas about the fact that there isn't a left-wing majority in the country is like arguing with a sidewalk about particle physics.  Everyone THEY know like Sanders.

What's more, not only does everyone you see at your gluten-free bakery like Sanders, everyone you communicate with online feels the Bern, too.  Vox dug into this here.  User generated popularity pushed Sanders stories up reddit subgroups.  This explains the conspiratorial bent of Sanders current arguments (The election is rigged!) and it popularity among young people.  Take these two quotes from the Vox piece:
Sanders was able to broaden his appeal among liberals despite the fact that many prominent liberal pundits — including Paul KrugmanJonathan ChaitKevin Drum, and Jamelle Bouie were attacking Sanders for having half-baked policy proposals and an unrealistic political strategy. One big reason these attacks failed is that a lot of Sanders fans never saw them.


"It's easier than ever to surround yourself with information that confirms what you already believed was true," says Eli Pariser, a liberal activist who founded the social news site Upworthy. In a 2011 book, Pariser dubbed this phenomenon a "filter bubble."

Here is the fundamental illiberality of the Internet on display.  Your filter bubble restricts what you see to what you already believe.  You eschew open-mindedness for like-mindedness.  And that reinforces what you believe at the expense of more objective and challenging experiences.

All of this creates a more atomized, individual political landscape.  Just as Amazon has killed the local bookstore - the place where you might stumble upon a new author by accident - the Internet is undermining political parties.

The problem with anti-institutionalism is that institutions are incredibly important for communal life.  If we no longer believe in common institutions then we have no common connection with each other.  We are bound to like-minded people we never see but alienated from the larger community of our country as a whole.

The further we get from that boring, institutionalized center - traditionally the place that our two political parties lived - the more this epistemological closure tightens around us.  And now one party has completely abandoned the center and the Sanders people would like to do the same with the Democrats.

As a liberal (not a "progressive" in the sense the Left uses the word), I kept an open mind to Sanders.  He had some interesting ideas, but like Krugman and Chait, I found the ideas hollow.  So I rejected them, but I didn't turn on Sanders until recently.  I've written many times that revolutions fail.  They not only fail, they also destroy the common weal.

Sanders may lose - he probably will.  But I worry that he's not a precursor to a leftward swing in politics, but a disintegration of the idea of common ground.  The GOP has already abandoned it.  The Democrats can't afford to be next.

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