Last night Paul Ryan gave his big speech. As a politics geek and expert on the vice presidency, I really should be writing about this, but I’m just not that interested. It isn’t because of the famous alienation afflicting the American voter. I’m not alienated.
Decades ago, in college, a good friend of mine said he quit being a film major because if he kept studying it, he would never be able to enjoy a movie again. Now, as a student of public policy (an evil step-brother to political science) I feel the same way about politics. I understand. Actually studying politics, knowing the dynamics of how decisions are made and the limitations under which politicians operate creates enormous sympathy for the people who actually enter the arena.
It also takes the fun out of politics.
When I mentioned this to my friend, he scoffed, “You are such a dork for even thinking politics could be fun.”
The fun of politics is in the tribalism. People like to sit with friends of similar opinions and party and share how clever and virtuous they are and how foolish and despicable the other guys are. That is what the pundits mean by “red meat.” I get that and have even indulged in it back in the day. I am reminded of it at family gatherings on a regular basis as I calmly try to explain basic conservative principles to my typical liberal Jewish (redundant?) clan. On the other hand, when confronted with diehard Republicans, I often find myself articulating the logic of the Democratic parties position (even if I disagree with it.)
The problem is that due to my training (and probably my inclination) I see the different sides of the issue and see the complex dynamics underpinning them.
What’s more, study after study shows that political judgments are made on a pretty thin basis of personal narratives and models of the world that are incredibly flawed. One can decry this general ignorance, but it actually makes a lot of sense. Individual inputs into policy-making are so tiny that the investment of really understanding the complexities of an issue rarely pays off – so instead we aggregate general preferences and let politicians turn them into policy. (More on the virtues of that in another post.)
Most political rhetoric is ridiculous and primarily intended as shorthand that re-states some basic policy preferences in order to remind votes. That’s fine, so far as it goes, and there are interesting aspects to it. But from my perspective the rhetoric is just a ship sailing some very deep waters.
Watching the boat sail and its crew try to catch winds and ride currents is fun for a while - but no more, I am interested in what's under the surface.