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12/28/2018 8:17 am  #1

Is Political Engagement Good for Us?

Is Political Engagement Good for Us?

The great 19th century British Philosopher J S Mill argued that we should institute whatever form of government that yields the best outcomes for a nation and its people. At the time that Mill wrote political participation was mostly an educated gentleman's pursuit. Few countries had representative government. And these few countries restricted suffrage. Most people were, in fact, political nonentities. These nonentities were mostly ignorant of politics and apathetic about most political issues. They were ignorant not only of current events, but also of the social science theories and data needed to understand these events.

Mill argued that getting more people involved in politics would improve outcomes. He also believed that involving people in politics would make them smarter, nobler, more informed, and more concerned about the common good. He hoped that getting a factory worker to think about politics would be like getting a fish to discover that there is a world beyond the ocean. Mill hoped that political engagement would sharpen the mind while softening the heart. He foresaw that political activity would make us better people, and produce a fraternity among citizens.

That was just over 150 years ago. And Mill's dream of widespread political participation has been realized. There is now widespread participation by the masses in the political process, not only through voting, but also - thanks to the information age - in the 24/7 availability of all sorts of political discussion open to all for participation.

The results are now in. And I would argue that they are largely negative. Most common forms of political engagement - rallies, political talk shows, message boards, discussion groups - not only fail to educate or ennoble us, but also tend to stultify and corrupt us. The typical citizen seems to drop down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and thinks in a way that even he would recognize as infantile if it were to be practiced in the context of his job or family. He is, infact, just as ignorant about issues as were the Nonentities, but apathy has been replaced by extreme passion.

Mill thought that political participation would turn the Nonentities into informed, passionate citizen statesmen. Instead, it has turned many into what I would call Hooligans. They have become the rabid sports fans of politics. They chant Lock her up. They cheer wildly for untruths. They use violent language. The Hooligans have strong and largely fixed worldviews. They can present arguments for their beliefs, but those beliefs are often contrary to the facts at hand. Worse still, the Hooligans cannot explain alternative points of view in a way that people with those other views would find satisfactory. ( For example, "why do democrats believe X? Well, because they hate America").

Hooligans consume information voraciously, but in a biased way. They tend to seek out information that confirms their preexisting political opinions. but ignore or reject out of hand evidence that contradicts their pre-existing opinions. They demonize and despise people who disagree with them, thinking them not just wrong, but evil. They are over confident in what they know. Their politics form their identity, and they are proud to be a member of a political team.

Sadly, political participation does not seem to be uplifting for most people. It tends to stultify and corrupt. It has tended to turn us into civic enemies who have manufactured grounds to hate one another. People embrace ridiculous conspiracy theories if they confirm their world view. People hurl crude insults, even threats of physical violence against complete strangers on the internet. Nobody seems interested in empathy, or undertsanding. Anger is universal.  I would argue that most of these folks would be happier, and better people if they confined their interests to the arts, their church, gardening, even to sports.

So, if widespread political participation does not ennoble the individual, does it at least lead to better outcomes? Well, the western democracies tend to have higher standards of living, and a better record on human rights that do their more repressive neighbors. This is encouraging. Of course, with the rise in populism, and nationalism we have seen in the past three years, even those accomplishments are in peril.

All in all, I'm not in an optimistic mood as the new year approaches.


Last edited by Goose (12/28/2018 10:32 am)

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

12/28/2018 12:53 pm  #2

Re: Is Political Engagement Good for Us?

A lot of this is because people do not really care enough to truly researching information on the people and issues they are voting on, but rather rely on a very narrow form of information to guide them. 


"Do not confuse motion and progress, A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress"

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