The last few weeks I have been playing around with the idea of adopting a personal policy of strict political neutrality. And I take a pretty broad view of politics:
politics: social behavior oriented toward large groups.
By large groups, I mean anything larger than the Dunbar number (which I will assume you are familiar with). A more cynical definition might be behavior oriented toward a group where the influence of individual people doesn’t really matter (i.e., it only matters in the aggregate).
So, for example, behavior oriented toward America is clearly politics. But opinions about the Church can also be political if they are directed toward anything other than your local congregation. Political neutrality can be viewed as something like the flip side of my view that people should focus more on their local institutions.
A Brief History of My Politics
My first political memories are from when I was 10 years old and Michael Dukakis was running against George Bush in the presidential election. I remember there being snow on the ground that was pushed up into huge piles in my elementary school playground. During the run up to the election, politics mostly meant playing King of the Hill and pushing people who aligned with the wrong candidate off of the snow pile. I knew I was a Republican, and I pushed as many Democrats as I could off the hill, but the reasons were pretty vague.
Fast forward to the year 2001, when I graduated from university and joined the Air Force. At first blush this might not seem like political behavior, but the reason I joined the Air Force was that I wanted to cement my status in the national community. Basically, I wanted America to like me.
Five years later, in 2006, I finally figured out a way to leave active duty and I went to law school. At this point I was pretty disillusioned with the concept of gaining the respect of society via military service, but I still felt like I needed to be political. So I joined the Federalist Society and became an editor for the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (both conservative institutions). Of course, for a little balance I also joined the team of the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender (not a conservative institution).
When I graduated I was so interested in being political that I decided to return home to Utah and run for Office. I ran as a Republican. At one of my campaign events someone said that I couldn’t be a true conservative because I graduated from Harvard. They were wrong about Harvard, but it turns out they were right about me. At the time my political leanings could probably be described best as libertarian and it seemed like the Republican party was the more libertarian option. I won’t feel bad if you disagree with that assessment.
I didn’t win. But during the course of my campaign I became interested in public education policy and decided that if I really wanted to understand education I needed to become a teacher. So I did. This was my second major career choice, and my second biggest career mistake. So I joined the Air Force and became a teacher for essentially political reasons. This was starting to become a pattern.
My third career choice wasn’t even my choice. Mercedes got sick of me making career decisions for abstract political reasons and applied for a job as a patent attorney on my behalf. I acquiesced, and that’s more or less where I am now.
Like many others, my views on politics had to be seriously corrected after Trump’s victory in 2016. Trump was a complete ass, and even though I wasn’t excited about Clinton’s tax proposals, I didn’t see how anyone could actually vote for the man. Also, I didn’t really know anyone who openly supported him.
After his victory, I realized a few things. First, we must have some completely different worlds going on in America if a basically conservative person doesn’t even know anyone who openly supports the victor in an election. Second, politics isn’t really about policy. It’s tribal. Clinton seemed to have all sorts of policy knowledge, but somehow she was a terrible candidate.
According to this account, Americans actually are a lot more polarized than they used to be. But this point was really driven home for me by Covid. At first I naively assumed that a pandemic wasn’t really a political event. But it turns out that a pandemic actually provides many opportunities for making policy decisions, and where there are big decisions to be made at a national level, people are likely to have different opinions about what kind of decisions ought to be made.
Maybe you remember this too, but just a few weeks ago it seemed like there was going to be a massive national rift over whether we should end the coronavirus lockdown. Many on the left wanted to defer to public health experts who said we needed to extend the lockdowns to get the virus under control. Many on the right wanted to end the lockdowns to get eh economy rolling. The stock market didn’t seem to care.
Anyway, all that ended when the killing of a black man by a Minneapolis police officer became national news. Then many on the left decided that the opportunity to make some progress on racial issues was more pressing than public health concerns related to coronavirus. We started seeing articles explaining why public health officials who supported the protests weren’t being hypocrites.
Supporting one kind of protest but not another may seem confusing at first, but the decision reflects what public-health experts have always tried to do: maximize the health of the population across all aspects of life.
— Atlantic Editorial
Anyway, the death of George floyd launched a wave of Facebook activism the likes of which I have never seen before. One of the key messages was that people needed to take sides. Some went so far as to say that if you didn’t show support for the Black Lives Matter campaign, you are a racist.
It is not enough to say you aren’t racist, you have to be anti-racist
— someone on the internet
Political as Fandom
Until recently my position couldn’t really be described as political neutrality. Rather, it would be better described as something like political fandom. Specifically, I was a fan of the Libertarian team. Unfortunately, it turns out Libertarians never win and those that do tend to focus on issues, like returning to the gold standard, that don’t really resonate with me. Anyway, being a fan of the Libertarian team is like being a fan of the Cleveland Browns.
I love sports. I know that my cheering doesn’t really have much impact on the game, even if I am at the event in person. But I do it anyway because it is fun, and it is something I can share with my friends and family. Sure, some fans get out of hand, but most people enjoy sports responsibly.
Can politics be like this? Can politics be approached as a fun activity that brings families together? Maybe, its not entirely implausible. I have had lots of fun political discussion with my family, and I don’t intend to sacrifice those completely in the name of political neutrality.
But the stakes are obviously higher in politics. Political decisions cost people lives and livelihoods. Is it morally responsible to treat it like a game?
I’m not going to answer that question. I don’t know. But I will note that to some extent, the fan approach is inescapable. I assume that regardless of whether I attempt to impose some kind of expectation of political neutrality, part of me will always cheer for one side or another when election time comes rolling along.
The idea is not to completely suppress my innate political leanings. The intent is to moderate them. Adopting a principle of political neutrality doesn’t automatically make me a politically neutral person. It is just a reminder to try and understand where other people are coming from, and then to the focus on things that I can control.
Politics as Addiction
Still, the claim that we all need to be more involved politically in order to combat racism got me thinking. Do I have a moral responsibility to be more political? Even though some of the biggest mistakes of my life were made trying to develop some kind of political identity?
You could argue that there is a difference between choosing your career based on politics and posting a black square on Facebook. You could also argue that just because I have been burned by political thinking in the past doesn’t mean I should abandon it forever. Perhaps I just need to be more moderate.
But being political comes with real costs. And not just the kind I experienced (i.e., bad career decisions). The groups that you identify with are fundamental to your identity. Your identity influences virtually every decision you make in a fundamental way.
Remember when I said that Trump taught me that politics was tribal? Your tribe is important. It is the context for your life story. At one point in my life, I thought America might be the thing that gave me purpose. Striving for status at a national level seemed vitally important. Now, I am more interested in family and community. And if I choose a small tribe, then politics on a grand scale must necessarily take a back seat.
Sure, I have opinions about Trump, the lockdown, and the killing of George Floyd. But none of these opinions is essential to the things I really care about. If I put friends and family first, it is important that I have correct opinions about things that will effect them. It is not important whether I have the correct opinion about, say, defunding the police (unless of course, someone were paying me to have such an opinion, which they are not).
For some people, politics is an escape from reality. One of the reasons it is so alluring is that our political beliefs are not subject to the same practical constraints as, say, our beliefs about how to make money. But this also means that politics can become something like an addiction that dominants our thinking and prevents us from taking practical steps to better ourselves. And for an addict, complete abstinence is often the best policy.
Let’s return to the idea of defunding the police for moment. When I first heard this, I thought it was insane. But, I thought, I might as well look into to it to find out why someone would make such a radical proposal. Surely there must be some version of it that makes sense in some world, right?
Well, I am not an expert on the issue, but I did find some interesting things about disbanding the police. For example, it worked in Northern Ireland. Also, it worked in Camden, New Jersey. Now, defunding and disbanding might be different things. But I learned just enough to convince myself that disbanding the police is a good decision in some circumstances. I guess I also believe there are probably activities that the police engage in that are counter-productive…so maybe cutting some things out of their budget might make sense sometimes, too.
The point is that a policy proposal which at first struck me as unnecessarily radical turned out to be, at least in some circumstances, very reasonable. So what if I did this for every other political proposal that I thought was crazy? Would I find out that there are some good reasons for those, too?
Also, I am not in charge of any police forces or police. How to properly reform a police department seems like the kind of thing that can be incredibly complicated. So if someone out there decides to disband their police department, or even defund their police department, I am not going to second guess them. The politically neutral position is a position of political humility.
That is, when people take political actions that I think are crazy, stupid, or immoral, I am not going to suppress my opinion that they are wrong, but I am going to force myself to consider that they might be right. Then I am going to wish them the best and continue looking out for my family. If something about the situation strikes my fancy, I might also do a little research, try to better understand the issues, note my predictions about the outcome for future analysis, and maybe place a few bets.
In other words, for me being politically neutral doesn’t imply that I should not attempt to comprehend political issues, or create mental frameworks for what is happening on a large scale. It does mean that I explicitly reject politics as a primary source of identity or responsibility.
Politics as Density Wave
Ok, before I close out this post, I want to provide one more analogy based on a recent fact that I learned about the the relationship between the Sun and the Milky Way galaxy. Namely, that our local spiral arm moves at a different speed around the galaxy than the sun itself…kind of like how a traffic jam can move at a different speed than the cars.
So one way to think of politics is as a vast wave of public opinion. These waves flow through us and impact the top level of our thinking (likes waves of water moving across the surface), but it isn’t really us. Thus, being politically neutral doesn’t mean that you are not effected by political waves. It just means you recognize that politics as a separate phenomenon that doesn’t define you.
So when a political disagreement flows through society, I might take it as an opportunity to change my mind on something, but I will not identify with the wave. I am still a drop of water (or a star in a galaxy, whichever you prefer).