A lot of people can’t seem to get their heads around politics

28 Aug 2015 07:01 am
Posted by: Donna

David Roberts’ latest piece for Vox, Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics. is a spectacular explication of the frustrating inability of a lot of otherwise smart people to grasp the U.S. political situation. He begins by describing his admiration for wicked-smart Tim Urban, who writes brilliant things on a site called Wait But Why:

One of the purest expressions of the nerd spirit is the site Wait But Why, started in 2013 by Tim Urban, a Harvard graduate and co-owner of a tutoring company but really, by his own testimony, just some dude.

Urban is a nerd. He gets interested in some complicated subject, digs into it until he feels like he really understands it, and he explains it. (To get a flavor, start with the one about procrastination and the epic series on artificial intelligence.) It’s a bit like the explanatory journalism that’s so popular these days, but in the case of WBW, it is completely untethered from the web-media demands for speed, volume, and topicality.

Urban originally promised to post twice a week. Then it was “every Tuesday.” Now it’s “every sometimes.” He takes his time. But the posts, when they come, are a delight — 3,000, 8,000, even 26,000 (seriously) words, complete with crude but hilarious illustrations, diagrams, and infographics, written in friendly, nontechnical language that still manages to honor the complexities of the subjects.

Roberts is one of the smartest writers around and I’m eagerly looking forward to exploring Urban’s offerings. Unfortunately, as Roberts explains in what is the main thrust of his piece, Urban buys into common and erroneous narratives of how politics works in this country:

…The second [problematic narrative] is the conception of politics as a contest of two mirror-image political philosophies, with mirror-image extremes and a common center, which is where sensible, independent-minded people congregate (“both parties have good points; both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things”)…

Read the whole thing (it’s that good) but the above sentence provides a good, brief summary of where Urban is mistaken. The belief in “extremes on both sides” ignores just how lopsided things really are and how people on the Democratic side (both politicians and rank-and-file) are earnestly trying to govern while those on the GOP side are committed to obstructing it. Progress lies in understanding the two sides and realizing which one is most conducive to realizing it. And no, there’s not a middle way since:

…[In] practical coalitional politics, the “center” will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

The only thing I’d add to David Roberts’ superb analysis is the issue of “civility” politics and the automatic sidelining of anyone deemed partisan, especially if they are from the Left. My social media timeline and real life is filled with liberals grousing about the supposed spinelessness of Democrats and wondering why they won’t forcefully defend their positions. Well, I’m one of those who does do that. For my efforts, I am constantly derided for being the “Tea Party equivalent of the Left!”, mostly by people ostensibly on the same side as I am, despite my never having expressed mirror-image leftist stances to those of the science-denying and bigoted ones of Tea Party counterparts on the Right. It’s mostly an objection to my tone. So sorry!

Whatever. I say that if you want liberal ideas to gain a toehold in society, then they are going to have to be expressed boldly and loudly. There’s no other way.

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