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To Stay Sane in an Age of Broken Politics, Admit What You Don't Know

Politics or reality show—the basic structure is the same: A cast of performers is presented to the public, with each seeking to get the most people to like them by the season finale.

· 11 min read
To Stay Sane in an Age of Broken Politics, Admit What You Don't Know
Ronald Reagan as a WHO Radio Announcer in Des Moines, Iowa.,1934.

The Pitch

I was just in Los Angeles, where I pitched a reality show to nine different networks—all the broadcast networks, plus Netflix, Amazon and a few others. The experience made me realize how much politics resembles a reality show. Specifically, it resembles the game-style reality shows, such as Survivor or The Great British Bake Off—as opposed to the shows that are basically long-form social experiments, such as Married at First Sight.

Politics or reality show—the basic structure is the same: A cast of performers is presented to the public, with each seeking to get the most people to like them by the season finale. They are assigned various tasks on an episode-by-episode basis. They are asked about certain subjects, which leads them into debates. They might go on tour, and get pushed out of their comfort zones. Along the way, some of the contestants attract so little affection that they simply drop out. Occasionally, new contestants are invited to replace them. They gossip about each other to the cameras to try to win the audience’s favour.

In the end, only one person wins the prize. And we forget about all the issues they debated, all the challenges they overcame. And we’re left to wonder how much they actually cared about the issues they fought about, whether it’s who made the best cake or who has the best tax plan.

Deep down, I doubt most viewers care either. We just like watching a good show.

I’m a Fraud, and So Are You

Do you actually know how U.S. immigration laws work? I don’t. I’ve been actively involved in helping many people stay in the United States. I’ve signed papers, and written essays on their behalf. Many people I know are dealing with immigration issues in their own lives. Even they don’t know the laws. But there they are, every day, arguing about it, posting about it on social media, like they’re huge experts—as opposed to just reality-show viewers rooting for their favorite contestants.

Do you know the laws regarding gun control? Do you know the tax laws? Do you know the abortion laws that govern your jurisdiction? I don’t. And I’ve accompanied women to a few abortions. I couldn’t tell you what’s legal and what isn’t.

Do you know what the Republican Party stands for on most issues? What Democrats believe? What the alt-right believes? What socialists think? I used to think I knew. But now I know that I have no clue. People say anyone in the alt-right is a “white nationalist.” I’ve met alt-right people and know that this isn’t true.

People say “socialists” want to redistribute wealth. I don’t think that’s true. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is called a socialist, wants a salary increase for herself and other members of congress, who currently earn $174,000 as base salary. That doesn’t sound very socialist.

Even the labels “Democrat” and “Republican” don’t mean much to me. These are tribes—or even cults—with unstable belief systems. These have stopped being meaningful terms.

So what terms are meaningful? In my view, there are three real political parties, and we’re all some mixture of each of them.

1. The Good Intentions People

These are people who think everyone should have a college education. People who want free healthcare for all. People who want to tax the rich to build bridges and eliminate pollution. These people all have good intentions.

It definitely seems reasonable, especially when it comes to health care: You shouldn’t get special advantages in life just because you won the sperm lottery. People should be able to go to the doctor without having rich parents or a good job. I once went to visit a friend of mine after he’d recently gotten out of jail. He had cancer. But he had the money to get world-class treatment at Sloan Kettering, where they pulled out his tumor-ridden liver and replaced it with a donated organ. As a result, he recovered fully. (He’s dead now. But from suicide.) Surely, we should all have access to Sloan Kettering-level medical service, right?

2. The Control Party

The dominant idea in this camp is that people can’t take care of themselves. So they need a body of philosopher kings to control what they should do, to ensure they will be protected against the harm they would do to themselves. Experimental drugs to cure cancer? Hold your horses. We’ll let our Food and Drug Administration decide what pills you can take. It now costs $2.6-billion to get a new drug to market. The labeling, the containers, the dosage, the instructions—every single aspect is regulated. But it’s worth it, right? Otherwise, some idiot might ignore his doctor and stick his pill in the wrong body hole.

People die when they crash at 85 miles per hour—which is a stupid speed to drive at. So we make laws that limit how fast they can drive, and punish them if they disobey. And so on. The Control Party has good intentions, too—just like the Good Intentions people. I don’t think there are many of them who want control for the sake of control. They’re trying to protect us from being dumb.

3. The Party for People Who Don’t Care

You want to pollute? No problem. The Earth has survived this long. It’ll survive your oil spills and SUVs. You want to take any drug you want? Cool! Your bank wants to borrow a lot of money so you can lend it to people stupid enough to buy a house they can’t afford. Good for you. According to the Don’t Care party, the riff-raff will shake themselves out in the long run.

Those are the three real parties. And the reality is that we are all some pie-charted combination of them. Myself, I tend to be partial to Don’t Care, but also contain a good-sized dose of Good Intentions. Maybe with a dash of Control Party when it comes to criminalizing violence. Even so, I recognize that all three parties exhibit different strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at what those are.

Follow the Money

We’ve all heard the stories of epic waste in government—the Pentagon paying $50,000 for a pen, or a special kind of toilet. The truth is that the public sector simply will never be as productive as private industry. FedEx vs. the United States Postal Service: We all know which one is run more efficiently.

This lack of functionality in government causes problems in our society, such as financial crises (on a large scale) or homeless people freezing to death because of a lack of emergency shelters (on a local scale). I don’t know how to solve this. I don’t think anyone really does.

In the case of the financial crisis, yes, the banking sector became too deregulated in the 2000s. Its leaders got greedy and lent money to people who couldn’t pay it back. But a big part of the problem is that in the 1990s, laws had been passed requiring banks to lend more money to people who were near the poverty line, on the theory that this would help them get out of poverty. In short, the resulting crisis was a joint effort by Don’t Care and Good Intentions .

But you wouldn’t know this based on the way the issue was reported. Blame was assigned on a simplistic basis. Every issue is a thousand times more complicated than the slick explanations that roll off politicians’ tongues or appear in columns written by journalists.

Energy policy, drug policy, immigration, war, education—all of these follow the same pattern. These are hard issues, and they all come with their own histories of corrupt, misguided and in some cases plain stupid policy-making.

Why is American health care such a mess? Because the system is a patchwork of mandates and programs inspired by an often contradictory mix of Good Intentions, Control Party and Don’t Care. Or take foreign policy. Who do you think funded Osama Bin Laden in the 80s? We did, of course. To adapt an old expression: No Good Intention ever goes unpunished.

How the Politics of the Left Lost Its Way
One important – and overlooked – effect was how it changed the idea of the term “Left” in political terminology.

Like a Horse and Carriage

Why is it that when two people fall deeply in love and want to spend their lives together, the magic words they say to one another is, in effect: “Let’s call the government and tell them about our love. They need to be involved”? This brings every couple into a ménage à quatre with Good Intentions and Control Party.

Does the government really need to regulate marriage? I’ve been married twice. Getting a divorce is hard.

But the Good Intentions people are hard to argue with. Kids need to be taken care of. Women need to be treated fairly—something that didn’t happen a lot until the modern age. And let’s not forget the Control Party: People get angry when marriages break down. Bad things can happen. Our worst tendencies need to be kept in check.

And all this played out before Don’t Care got involved and insisting on broadening the range of allowable marriages—which may have been the right thing to do, but also brought a whole new class of people under the joint yoke of Good Intentions and Control Party. As in so many areas of law, one party steps in to correct the flaws of the others, only to invite more meddling from the other two. And so the cycle continues.

Propaganda Goes Personal

Because policy in all these areas is complicated, we take mental shortcuts. We revert to the logic of small children, in fact: “I like this person, so I’ll vote for them.” Or teenagers: “This person gets me, so I’ll vote for him.” As campaign managers candidly admit in those after-the-fact documentaries and podcasts that follow every election, this is how a modern election is run.

While the logistical mechanics of these campaigns are complex, the principles are simple, and every political party applies them: (1) Collect data on every possible voter to determine their pressure points, (2) Get the right Facebook and Google ads in front of those voters, (3) Run negative ads about the opposition, (4) Money: Raise as much as possible, and spend all of it. (5) When you can’t get enough actual humans to support your candidate, send in the bots. Bots can’t vote, but they can retweet and like your social-media posts, creating the impression of a popular tsunami in your favour.

The campaigns themselves have become robotized, in fact—responding to your behaviour as if they were Siri or Google Assistant. If you “liked” an aquarium you visited with your kids a month ago, you might see a political ad pop up: Senator Tailfin wants to pass laws to save the fish—unlike that nasty Governor Oilspill, whose states’ lakes are contaminated by toxic sludge.

You are the only person seeing that exact mix of ads. Everybody else is seeing something different. Meanwhile, neither politician cares about the fish or the water they swim in. They’re essentially just contestants in a reality show.

Making an Old Slogan Great Again

Of course, politicians still have an overall brand that goes beyond the particularity of targeted messaging. And some brands work better than others. In 2016, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” may have been a rehash of Ronald Reagan’s 1980-vintage “Let’s make America great again.” But it worked a lot better than Hillary Clinton’s “I’m With Her.”

Robert Cialdini, author of the classic 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (and a podcast guest of mine), was Clinton’s branding and influence adviser in 2016. He warned her not to go with “I’m With Her.” From what I understand, he pushed her to focus more on popular anxieties about the mental stability of Trump, and the worrying prospect of him having access to nuclear codes.

As for Trump’s campaign managers, they took a slogan that had worked in the past and ran with it. They focus-tested heavily on immigration issues and made ads based on the results. How does Trump actually feel about immigration? Who knows? We only know what his Facebook and Google tests told him. And since voters tend to take shortcuts—using emotions as a proxy for thoughts, and one issue as a proxy for many others—it doesn’t take a lot of information to know how to market a candidate. Thanks to the effects of social-media groupthink, if you know how a person stands on even one issue, you probably can guess how they’ll stand on many others.

Read More. Opine Less.

Easy solutions? There are none. Because the problem isn’t the system. The problem is us. We love our games. We love reality TV. Being lazy, we all love shortcuts. What’s worse, while our brains don’t change much from generation to generation, our problems have become far more complicated. What caused the financial crisis? What’s inflating the student-debt bubble? What’s the ideal tax rate? Which drugs should be legal and which shouldn’t? Should the United States be the world’s policeman? Should there be a minimum wage—and if so, what should it be? We have no idea how to answer any of these questions. And neither do the journalists who lecture you about their preferred solution.

So educate yourself. Try to read books by people who have spent years studying the issues and outcomes that seem meaningful to you. And if you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself, consider resisting the urge to offer an opinion.

Also, listen to smart people when they talk. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people involved in these issues. I’ve tried running for Congress. I didn’t win office. But along the way, I spoke to many political leaders who did.

When it’s time to vote, avoid the temptation to vote for someone because you hate the other guy. Or because you saw a Facebook ad that assures you someone agrees with you (they don’t, not really). And notwithstanding all of the attention lavished on the presidency, remember that it’s the local vote that counts most, because local issues will affect you directly.

Or just don’t vote. If a critical mass of people “vote” by living a good life, others will follow their example. In which case, many of the laws and rules we argue about won’t be needed anyway.

Ignore Your Tribe

Most important of all: Don’t vote because your “group” is voting a certain way. Identity politics leads to hatred. It leads to deaths. In extreme cases, it can lead to genocide.

In the early days of Soviet communism, Martin Latsis, chairman of the Ukrainian secret police, wrote in the journal Red Terror: “It is not necessary during an interrogation to look for evidence proving that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question you should ask him is what class does he belong to, what is his origin, his education and his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused.”

This kind of logic is beginning to creep into our western consciousness—on both sides of the political coin. Surely, that’s the most evil kind of mental shortcut of all.

James Altucher

James Altucher is an American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, bestselling author, venture capitalist and podcaster. Follow him on Twitter at @jaltucher.

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