Politics makes us stupid. This is one of my recurring themes. This is the principal reason I refuse to be a partisan or ideological team player. People call me libertarian but I don’t in part because I’m not one, but mostly because I suspect that accepting any such label dings my IQ about 15 points.
And Will again, following up:
Let me tell a little story. Up until the weeks before I parted ways with Cato, I never felt any overt pressure to toe any sort of party line. But almost as soon as I left, I found that I was noticeably less reflexively defensive about anti-libertarian arguments. I found it easier to the see merit it in them! I feel sure that much of this has to do with the fact that at some level I had recognized that my livelihood depended on staying within the broad bounds of the libertarian reservation, and that this recognition had been exerting a subtle unconscious pressure on my thought.
Once I became an independent operator, much of that pressure lifted. And as soon as that pressure lifted, I began to feel much less attached to the libertarian label. And as that sense of attachment waned, I became even less reflexively defensive about anti-libertarian arguments. It became hard for me to avoid the conclusion that my political self-conception had been interfering with my ability to evaluate arguments objectively. I had been letting people on my team get away with bad arguments, and I had been failing to acknowledge the force of arguments against my team’s tenets. The fact that everybody else does this, too, doesn’t make me feel any better about my own sins against Truth.
These thoughts fit into a larger discussion that includes Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan, and the Andrew Sullivan crew. I largely agree with Wilkenson as far as my own experience with political intelligence. When I stopped trying to have an ideology, and stopped trying to understand the world and human behavior as fitting into some unified system that could then produce easy normative prescriptions and teleological goals, things became much clearer. Yeah, I still call myself a whig and a libertarian, but I do that just as shorthand for people, and I end up qualifying it so much that it might not even be worth it.
But that brings me to my main point. This discussion seems geared almost exclusively to the chattering class. It’s easy enough (and i think correct!) to say that political identities end up having the corrosive effects that Will suggest when they are taken up by people who spend a lot of time thinking about politics and policy and government and how Mitt Ronmey is going to attract moderate women between now and the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. But that’s a very small number of people. The vast majority of people living in a democracy aren’t political junkies, or even very much interested in day-to-day politics. And they definitely aren’t ideologues.
And that’s fine! People are busy with their lives, and if you don’t work in or around politics or live in DC, you can’t really spend your day thinking about these things. And you probably have better things to do with your free time. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. Most Americans start paying attention to national politics when the elections get close, and maybe they go vote in a primary but probably not, and when it’s time to elect new Representatives and Senators and a President they will study the information made available to them and make a reasonably informed choice. It’s sometimes amazing that democracy works, but it does, in fact, work.
But there’s the rub: while the political labels may dumb down your average DC chattering class political writer who used to work at a think tank, the labels and identities are essential shortcuts for the average citizen participating in electoral politics. You can bemoan the partisan hearts and minds of the electorate, but no one has yet devised a better system of signals that allow low-information voters to make election choices that reflect their political beliefs and interest priorities. It’s amazing but true: even the flimsiest notion that your interests and political priorities are better served by one party than by the other can guide you to informed choice up and down the ballot on election day.
And so my guess is that political identities and labels have an attenuating effect in society. Yes, they might dumb-down the chattering class by giving people tribal identities that become constitutive components of their political being and thus lead them to irrational defenses of their own “team,” but at the same time they take the vast majority of voters — those with less information about candidates, policies, and government — and provide them with the key to meaningful participation in a republic. To strip away the political identities that such citizens use as voting cues would not free them from their mental chains, but instead unmoor them from their participatory political lifeline. And such theories tend, in my view, to collapse into the kind of hopeless elitism that is either pessimistic about the quality of the voters, or about democracy in general.
Now, you can bemoan this state of affairs, and we can all normatively desire that everyone spent their recreational time studying policy and politics and informing themselves on an issue-by-issue basis. But that’s dreamworld. And it’s why I find almost all general attacks on the party system more or less not credible. Whatever pain the party system brings to elites — including the problems Wilkenson identifies — and whatever distortions it causes by preying on the general public ignorance about the details of politics, policy, and procedure, it provides the fundamental linkage between the population, their basic political interests, and the government. And it does this by providing those citizens with, yes, a political identity in the form of a political label.