I have politics. I think we need to tax the rich and use that money to help the poor. I think that includes the ultra-rich but also working rich like me. I think we need to regulate industries which when unregulated are shown to have detrimental societal effects. And I think we need to fund research into what kinds of things have detrimental societal effects so that we’re not just strong-armed by major players in those industries. I think that whatever regulations we come up with shouldn’t be so strong that people are no longer motivated and excited to build businesses, and I think that it’s good for industrial people to be monetarily compensated for their industriousness, but that at a certain point they have been compensated enough and that money would be better spent helping those less well off.
But here’s the truth. I have never really believed in politics. I have never felt like it matters to my day-to-day who the president is. I have never felt like either of the two large parties represent my interests. I have never felt like any political movements outside of the two large parties have any realistic chance of affecting large scale change. I have been told that local politics is the only real politics and yet I have never been to a city council meeting. I am supportive of protesters but I don’t expect their success.
When Trump was president I maintained that he for the most part was enacting normal Republican policies, and the most pervasive criticism of him, though it was not put this way, was that he doesn’t think before saying things. And I still believe this. Every accusation that Trump is a racist or sexist more or less breaks down into a) he said some racist or sexist stuff without thinking about it and b) he simultaneously supports some normal Republican policy which is argued to lead to regressive outcomes.
Even when Trump supporters attempted to impede the final confirmation of Biden’s election victory, it still didn’t seem real. Even as every news outlet, all of my friends, all of my social media was talking about it, whether or not to call it a riot, a protest, or a coup, what it said about the double standard of police, the double standard of progressives, or the double standard of conservatives – even then, it didn’t seem real. On the contrary, it felt like the series finale of Game of Thrones was on: it was an exciting, public, cultural moment, which was also fictional and conceptually distant from anything actually affecting me. Even a friend in DC told me it was remarkable how little disturbance there was to anything not near the actual Capitol building. In fact, “thousands” of protesters is not very many people. Even the upper bound of ten thousand is not very many people. The US is not literally on fire. And whether or not you call it a “coup” does not change the ineptitude of the operation through the lens of actual revolution, to the point where it begins to make more sense to view it as something closer to a sporting event / renaissance fair.
To be fair, I do think Trump’s inciting of this event was totally unprecedented, not at all a normal Republican tactic, and also as people have been saying, absolutely predictable given the last four years. Though maybe I differ from the Twitter armchair experts in that my armchair analysis is that this is more about class war and the partisan divide than the white power movement.
But now that Biden’s term has started it has reminded me again that I really still don’t believe in politics. That the president has changed, and the biggest shift in my life is that I no longer get to be the contrarian pointing out the president sucks but not for the reasons you think he does, and now have to revert back to just pointing out that the president sucks.
And you’re saying, hey, if you feel like the policies set by our government don’t affect you, maybe that’s because they don’t. And maybe they don’t because you have the privilege of being well educated, well off, having a strong safety net, being raised in a safe place, having your health, and facing more or less no oppression. And if you cared about other people who are experiencing this oppression, maybe then you would care about politics. Maybe then you would do something about it. There’s a goddamn pandemic. Trump dropped the ball. Who knows if a Democrat president would have done a better job and avoided 400,000 deaths. Maybe even a more normal Republican president would have done a better job. Three times as many Americans are out of a job than in the 2008 recession. They’re waiting for stimulus money to come in. Most Americans have less than $5000 saved up. This $2000 is going to feed people. It’s going to save lives. I mean not literally, because our welfare services are good enough that very few people literally starve in the US. But improving lots of people’s lives is also an objectively good thing to do, you don’t have to go all the way to literal life-saving. And stimulus money and COVID response are just a few examples of real life change that depends on politics. Lives are at stake.
Well okay. Sometimes I do think I’m better than other people on social media because I’m not getting as worked up about politics. Sometimes I do vaguely feel that smart people who understand what’s really going on and aren’t just getting swept up in trendy politics are less angry about the scandal of the week and What It Says About Society. That those who can get over initial tribalistic emotional responses to things end up having a more Pinker-esque optimistic view. That in the grand scheme of things, short term political movements mean a lot less than scientific achievements gradually raising the water line. That getting worried about them is a waste of energy insofar as it’s just worry, and even if you are the 1 in 50 people who actually translates that worry into action, even the action tends to be a fairly ineffective use of your time.
But I do also think it’s important for me to remember that policies affect the real world. And to the credit of people who get worked up about politics, I think a major strength you have over me is that you remember this all the time. You’re absolutely right that a lot of policies don’t impact me because I’m not very oppressed. Even almost all of my social circle (queer children of immigrants who are minorities) is not very oppressed. But I know oppression exists. Maybe it’s not enough to just vote in elections. Maybe we should be in the streets and on the phones. Maybe the US is sort of on fire and having a measured response isn’t all that valuable.
And at this point I would just like to say, congratulations on ALMOST understanding our place in the world as Americans. Because the truth is that the US is sort of on fire. In fact, the whole world is sort of on fire, and the US is one of the least on fire places to be. US residents estimate that the global median income is $20,000 a year. In fact, it’s $2100 a year. The US is the out-of-touch 1% of the world.
Here’s my thought process when I encounter US political angst on social media. First: this is a dumb thing to get upset about. Second: But I guess it’s good that you care about the wellbeing of others. Third: Except if you care about the wellbeing of others, then in the grand scheme of things, this is not the thing you should be getting upset about.
Sure, sometimes I forget that US politics matters. But then when I see people acting like the reason it matters is because they care about other people, I start to become more confused. I do think people care about other people, but I also think they are extremely prone to just reacting to whatever media is beamed into their eyes, and so unless they work really hard to curate those beams, they end up saying and writing things which hit this weird inconsistent type of caring that looks like virtue-signaling to outsiders, but which I try to understand as being just a non-rigorous, emotional, plea for connection – a sort of “I’m hurting, do other people feel this way?”
And then at the same time, these people know in the back of their heads that there’s a lot of people in the world who have it really bad, whose lives could be improved if they donated small amounts of their wealth to effective causes. And I start to think, these people don’t think global poverty is real! I mean, they don’t think it doesn’t exist, it’s just not real to them the way US politics are. It doesn’t take them on an emotional journey. It’s not beamed directly into their eyeballs. And it’s not chic to care about. 400,000 deaths? So one year of global Malaria? $2000 stimulus? So one year of median global income? I’m not saying that greater pain invalidates lesser pain, I’m just asking you to have some perspective before you come telling me to have some perspective.
So what do we do? Well, there’s the Giving What We Can Pledge. I took this when I first got a job outside college and have since donated over 10% of my income every year to effective global charities. Peter Singer advocates for a sliding scale which makes sense to me – 10% means a lot more to people with less than me. And that money can save literal lives (at a much higher rate than it can in the US). It’s not popular because it’s not easy. I mean it is functionally very easy to do, but it’s not easy to walk yourself to a place where you want to. I mean it’s your money, and you probably already help the less fortunate in other ways.
But it is political in a way that is very real. It’s political in the way that investing in education is political. Deworming children (for about 30 cents each) so they can attend school and to avoid organ damage has been shown to dramatically increase their life outcomes. Delivering Vitamin A supplements (for about 1 dollar each) substantially reduces child mortality. It is an apolitical good.
I wrote this because I was frustrated. The thing that improves the world is never the thing that people are talking about. If everyone took the GWWC pledge, we would have enough money to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permanently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. And that’s using just 1 year’s donations. Yet people, global one-percenters nonetheless, seem to continue getting angry about things that matter less.
I wrote this because in real life I would only ever be supportive of someone wanting to get involved politically. I am a firm believer that the war is not to be fought between people who both want to help but in different ways, but between those who want to do something and the apathetic. If you want to get on social media and harness political rage as a way to enact eventual policy change to help people, then in theory I’d like to support it.
I wrote this because I wanted to express the tiring thing about your politics to me. That it’s all lies. It’s all half-true stories being published and publicized. News which is sold because it’s what people are buying. It matters, it doesn’t matter. And none of it’s real, except it’s all real, it’s just not happening to you. But in the end there are still other people, and they are still our neighbors, and we do still want the best for them. So it is good to keep trying. Maybe even consider adopting radical politics like me. Take matters into your own hands and seize the power to do good by recognizing that we the one-percenters of the world already have it.