January 16, 2019

CulturePolicy

In this Political Climate, What’s a Freedom Lover to Do?

By: Eric Kohn

How should conservatives and libertarians react to the current state of American politics? If you’re a fan of governmental gridlock, you might see the recent swearing in of the 116th Congress as a cause for celebration. The Democrats taking over the House of Representatives likely means that very little legislation is likely to end up moving to President Donald Trump’s desk. Not much will get done that’s good. But not much will get done that’s bad, either.

But there’s still plenty that should give freedom-lovers pause. I’ll highlight a few of them.

Politics as entertainment
We’re increasingly viewing politics outside of its proper role in American life. Politics is a means by which we make some decisions about how some elements of our society will be structured. That’s important, to be sure. But we’re increasingly viewing politics as entertainment and as sport. The problem with this? Our desire to be entertained will frequently be at odds with what is actually best for the health of our republic. And the more competitively we view politics, the more we’re likely to hunker down in our tribes and overlook the beam in our own eye while we rant and rave about the speck in our brothers.

Negative polarization
Politics and government are an important part of our civil society. But we’re increasingly defining ourselves not in terms of what we’re for, but in opposition to what we’re against. Today, many Democrats are Democrats not so much because they believe in the platform and the policy ideas of the Democratic Party, but because they hate Republicans. And many Republicans are Republicans because they hate Democrats. This increasingly leads people to reject policy ideas because of who is offering them, rather than on their merits.

Take Trump’s border wall proposal. Regardless of what you think of the merits of the idea, it’s inarguable that it was a proposal that has historically enjoyed bipartisan support. You’ve probably seen the clips of various Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to Joe Biden to Chuck Schumer speaking in support of a border wall or border fencing. Polling shows that Democratic support for a border wall consistently hovered around the mid-40% range. Trump’s support for the idea has driven it down to about 12% support among self-identified Democrats. Our negative polarization will only make it harder and harder for liberty advocates to sell our policy ideas.

Constant escalation
A friend of mine often remarks to me that “the ratchet only turns one way.” There’s truth to this. But the future isn’t predetermined. Many people on both sides of the political aisle are guilty of constantly escalating the rhetoric and the political gamesmanship. How do we get out of this trap? I wish I had a good answer for that. Recommendations to not constantly continue to descend into the gutter are frequently met with indignation at the suggestion that one side must “unilaterally surrender.” These are the new rules, we’re told. And everyone has to play by them.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, there are times when you need to fight and when arguments need to be had. But not every time. And likely the only way this will stop the escalation is by sometimes deciding not to punch back harder just because we can. Can we do that? Do we even want to? Only time will tell.

So, if you love liberty, what should you do? Let’s start by not falling into these traps. Keep perspective on what politics is and what it’s actually for. Define yourself in terms of what you’re for, instead of in terms of what you oppose. And don’t fight just to fight. Be an example of the way you’d like the political fray to be, not a reflection of how it is right now.