Democracy and the Good Life: The Politicization of the Self

The Politization of the Self: Ideology and Democracy

Modern political ideologies are nothing more (nor less) than lifestyle brands built to capture votes in the democratic marketplace. They are the shallow, intellectually incoherent two-buck chuck of the political world: sweet, deeply addictive, and very cheap to acquire. These ideologies have already exacted a terrible toll on our democracy and they may or may not prove fatal to democratic government. And yet saying even that undersells the damage done.

Nothing is more important to living a good life than deciding what kind of person to be and what to value. It is quite possible — even easy — to have a terrible life even when you value the right things. There are no certain steps to having a good life. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible to have a good life if you value the wrong things. If you think of a life as a kind of exploration, it’s challenging but possible to arrive at your destination if you start off with good directions. But if your directions are flawed, you’ll almost certainly go wrong. The things we value provide the direction to our life.

Unfortunately, while modern societies deliver the core tools necessary to build a good life (e.g., freedom, plenty, choice, information), they provide no guidance on what a good life is, no coherent way to think about what to value, and no tools for making good decisions. Worse, we are constantly bombarded with strong inducements to live our life for somebody else’s gain. The ever-increasing exploitation of economic markets has created a world where your attention is a product fought over by countless entities, none of whom have any concern for you. The result is a culture of rampant materialism and hyper-competition that shows no signs of abating — a negative sum game where everybody is somebody else’s chump. We live to the endless beating drum that Saul Bellow gave to Henderson (the Rain King): I want, I want, I want.

Yet not everyone is so constituted that material success and possessions are appealing. Plenty of people will never be satisfied by stuff. And those people are a critical resource for any culture. They are the people who might define a better culture, who might set an example for what kind of lives deliver value, and who might serve as useful exemplars to those just beginning adult life or becoming tired of life as a game of Monopoly.

And what happens to those people?

Just as markets do not leave us alone to “live our life”, neither does the political marketplace. If the hyper-competitive world of temptation and material status is hard to resist, consumer-packaged ideology creates its own kind of seduction. For people who find material success unimpressive and economic competition unrewarding, the political sphere has become the alternative.

Politics, unlike ideology, is necessary. No large civil society can exist without a political class and if the culture is sound, that political class does important and useful work. Good public policy is beneficial to society as a whole and to individual lives within it. Even the day-to-day administration of that policy is useful, honorable work — no different (better or worse) than similar day-to-day middle management in a private enterprise producing a good product. Nor are these goods limited to a professional class. The benefits of individual participation in the democratic community are potentially as important and widespread as the opportunity for participation in the scientific community.

Even more than with markets, though, participation in modern political systems is extraordinarily challenging. Some people can stare into the void and think of nothing but their next iPhone or dinner out, but many people have a desire for meaning that cannot be meant via the acquisition of stuff or the accumulation of money. The people purveying ideologies use that need, just as people selling beer use sexual desire. It’s difficult to resist.

Fighting our own biases is a great example of why this is. It’s really hard; it’s a never-ending struggle against many of the natural tendencies built into the way our brains work. Reducing (you’ll never remove) these intellectual biases is a daunting amount of work. It takes constant attention, humility, and imagination. But you don’t need any of that to be an anti-racist. Denouncing people you already dislike? That’s fun not work.

It’s the same on the right. Honor systems demand a lot of personal sacrifice. Christian virtues demand even more. Any good Christian will tell you how hard it is to live even remotely close to their ideal. These two value systems used to be foundational to right-leaning political ideals. Yet the modern right has far more interest in your MAGA hat and your views on grooming than in virtues and it no longer even pretends that a leader much less a member of the community must display either honor or morality.

Adopting a political ideology is easy: it takes almost no thought, requires no sacrifice, demands no work, and costs nothing. It’s the perfect internet good. With no work and no effort, you get to attach meaning to your life, sharpen your identity, and opt-in to a supportive community.

It’s a deal!

Changing your behavior is hard. Changing your beliefs is easy. Framing political ideology as a form of meaning and character makes it easy for people to combat the lack of meaning in their life by assuming that having some set of political opinions IS what makes a life meaningful.

This pegging values to political opinions isn’t an innocent mistake. By confusing political choices with character, people give themselves a pass from thinking about who they are and what they should try to be. It is odd and ironic that everyone has become so cynical about politicians but so trusting of their ideology. Certainly, as David Foster Wallace put it, most politicians are salesmen not leaders. But we need politicians, and it is impossible for them not to sell themselves. That’s the job. It’s not quite wrong to distrust them, but it misses the point. Like a classic magician’s trick, while your cynicism was focused over there on the distinguished greying performer waving their hands, it entirely suspended judgement on all those insipid ideas being foisted off on you.

Another part of what makes big, packaged ideology tempting is that it provides entrée into a readymade community — a community built on belief. You usually can’t build a community around a single idea or issue. It won’t hold people together tight enough or long enough. But when you’ve bundled up a viewpoint on every conceivable issue in public life, there will never be a shortage of things to fight for.

Anything that builds community ought to be welcome. Community is a near necessity for a good life and is sorely lacking in modern urban culture. One of the traditional benefits of civic involvement is exposure to the problems, difficulties, and characters of your fellow citizens. Participating in local politics creates working relationships between members of the community. It makes every involved citizen more aware of the problems and needs of other people.

Unfortunately, the defining characteristic of ideological communities is their rigidity. In any ideological community, the demand for purity is front and center. When political ideology is what gives your life meaning, you’re going to take it very, very seriously. The zeal of the converted is notorious. And since political ideology is always positioned as an “us” vs. “them” proposition, it has none of the flexibility of outlook that comes with membership in the scientific community. Members of an ideological community aren’t trying to discover or learn anything. They are trying to win.

The demand for purity is most evident in the sharpest periods of ideological tumult. The logic of revolutions is always a battle for the purity crown. The Puritans, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and a host of other revolutions both religious and political show the same general pattern. When ideas become a battleground not an exploration, conformity replaces truth, and purity slays rigor.

Purity is intellectually corrupting. This is particularly so for a lifestyle ideology. It’s possible to take Marxist or Libertarian orthodoxy seriously and at least in the context of a philosophical system the demand for purity (though misguided) is not obviously absurd. When the package of ideas is just a random collection of the intellectual flotsam of the age, having to pass a purity test is intellectually degrading. Yet being in an ideological community is comfortable only if you’re willing to go along. Holding each idea, taking each stance, parroting the party line — these all get rewarded with strong positive feedback loops. The positive feedback for conformity is intense and the price of non-conformity is banishment or worse. Communities built around ideology are enemies of individual thought and, inevitably, enemies of all self-change.

As Nietzsche says, ideological communities have more need of enemies than friends. Instead of broadening experience, they narrow it. Instead of creating connections between people, they burn them. The social research on polarization is compelling, but far more compelling is life on the ground.

We live in a world where every news outlet has a side and a faction. Where every fact becomes a political battleground. There is no comprehensible reason why “mask theatre” or vaccination should be ideological issues. There is no way to fit one’s stance on them into a coherent political world view. The same people who insisted on “following the science” proudly wore their cloth masks into restaurants before taking them off to eat, closed Kindergartens and playgrounds against a disease that affected old people not children, and obsessively Purelled their hands against an airborne virus. These worthies were opposed by an equally virulent faction who decried the “jab” and were happy to expose their elderly parents to a devastating disease rather than listen to the advice or take the medicine of the urban elites. Of course, these same people carted their dying parents to hospitals, downed ivermectin tablets, and were more than willing to have heart surgeries when it was necessary.

The experience of the pandemic painfully illustrated the role of CPI in our current culture. We confronted a life-and-death public health crisis and instead of bonding together, tore ourselves apart in a frenzy of ideological nonsense. It is as if, as a devastating tornado ripped through a town, its occupants fought in the streets over whether coke or coffee is a better drink.

Lifestyle ideology is collective madness.

We live in a world where social media crowds function as ideological vigilantes clustered inside a walled fortress. People are afraid to talk about politics over the Thanksgiving Table. Not since the Civil War have we lived in a society so bitterly divided. But unlike the Civil War, one would be hard-pressed to identify exactly what we’re divided over.

That’s true at least in part because the natural momentum of ideological warfare is toward an ever-increasing focus on minutiae. It’s easy to make fun of the historical spectacle of people torturing and killing each other in a centuries long duel over tiny differences in Christian doctrine, but this is what ideology thrives on. And unlike lifestyle advertising in the product sphere, political ideology has become untethered from the underlying product. Apple’s advertising works, but it relies on the consistent excellence of their products. If that starts to degrade, so will the impact of the advertising. In the political realm, ideology is largely unconnected to underlying principles or real-world implications. That’s not an accident. In the great ideology wars, what’s at stake is not who gets what, but who is what.

This shadow war has created a macabre dance between two great CPI factions leading the other into increasingly pointless battles. For every delusion on one side, there is a countering delusion on the other. It’s Newton’s Law of ideology played out in the democratic marketplace. For every stupid idea on the right, there must be an equal and opposite stupidity on the left. Conservatives believe in massive voter fraud. Progressives in racist voter suppression. Progressives are sure that police are out hunting black youth. Conservatives are equally certain that every school shooting is a plot to strip them of their guns and snuff out popular rebellion. Conservatives see the deep state in every new regulation. Progressives see the rising tide of fascism every time seven fools park their pick-up trucks for a rally. Each side manufactures a great bogeyman to explain why the just cause needs more Lebensraum.

We used to fight over how much to pay for government and who gets what, now we fight for who gets to use which bathroom.

How did we get so stupid?

The answer is obvious enough. People have been made so by one of the greatest and most efficient markets in the world. The ideologies bought and sold in the modern democratic marketplace make for shallow, stupid and pointless opinions. When you buy your giant roll of half-price, 2-ply political opinions at the trough of the ideological hucksters, you get what you pay for. Comfortable, flattering opinions that give you a group to identify with, special code-words that signal your membership, a bunch of people to despise, and a set of simple axioms that trivialize every public policy decision into a remorseless flattening of We’re Right and You’re Wrong.

There is a simple rule of thumb to see if you’ve been victimized: if your belief set has a label in our culture, then it is cheap, mass-produced crap.

Yes, it really is all bad. And for anyone plunging into these insane wars, the price is going to be high. There is no community of real friends. There is no place from which to carve out a high ground. There is no good feedback. It is nearly impossible to find a healthy political micro-culture in which to thrive. It takes a character formed like granite to remain intact.

This ideological seduction is a tragedy with ramifications for each of us, for our culture, and our politics. As long as there have been economies that generated wealth, a majority of people have been happy to lead lives focused on accumulation and luxury. That may never change. The people who aren’t so inclined are a precious resource. They can help set better cultural values and are exemplars of lives worth living that aren’t focused on the material.

Yet those who turn away from the empty wasteland of materialism and blunder into the toxic dump of ideology have exchanged bad values for worse. It is unremarkable to claim that political ideology is the new religion. Yet it is not an opium for the masses, it is more like cocaine for the elite. As a distraction from the void, it is lower-quality, less rewarding and more self-indulgent than a fine dinner and a Porsche. Ideology and the politicization of the self is costing us our best and most promising people.

The Entire “Democracy and the Good Life Series”

Part 1: Why Democracy is Better for Leading and Ethical Life

Part 2: Ideology and the Political Marketplace

Part 3: Ideology as a Lifestyle Brand

Part 4: Consumer Packaged Ideology and Polarization

Part 5: Saving Democracy from Ideology

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