The New Rules of Engagement
Not that long ago, my grandparents explained to me why they never discussed politics, religion, or sex in mixed company. Politeness was their currency. And why antagonize people or create ill will over private matters?
Fast-forward to 2023, and their advice seems needed more than ever. Today nothing is private; everything is political. And American politics is characterized by a perverse degree of bad faith.
Whether the country really is more divided than any time since the Civil War or this is merely our perception—thanks to social media rancor, nonstop cable news, and rabid political partisanship—scarcely matters. Either way, the psychology is clear. Anger directed toward the “other” delivers the desired dopamine hit. Under conditions of extreme distrust, scapegoating is far easier and more satisfying than cooperation. We see this clearly with attitudes toward Brexit, Hillary versus Trump, covid lockdowns, vaccines, Ukraine, Antifa, January 6, the 2022 midterm elections, and a host of other manufactured issues. Americans are watching at least two different movies.
So does this political polarization cause, or merely reflect, broader social and cultural rifts? The late Andrew Breitbart insisted politics is downstream from culture, which seems broadly correct when we observe the progressive near monopoly over cultural institutions. But there has been a concurrent quiet revolution in law and politics, creating a “rival constitution” and placing politics more squarely at the center of American life. Today we live today in a crass and hyperpoliticized reality where every facet of life—race, sex, sexuality, family, marriage, money, career—is seen as a political statement. This aids and abets the progressive project, which leverages the Leninist/Stalinist “Who, Whom?” distinction as carrot and stick.1
Operating effectively in this environment requires us to be clear eyed and honest about the rules of engagement. Politics is not war, but it suggests violence. People who simply don’t want to fight, or who don’t recognize the fight taking place, are at a tremendous disadvantage. Ideas, debate, logic, and persuasion satisfy our sense of fairness and honor. But they are effective only when widely accepted and their results adhered to. We are not required to delude ourselves about this or to turn the other cheek to retain our humanity.
These rules of engagement may seem obvious and commonsense but nonetheless may be helpful for your family and friends who do not fully grasp the situation.
- Assume bad faith in political matters.
Many politicians, especially at the federal level, have dropped any pretense of working to achieve democratic consensus. Lying, gaslighting, and subterfuge are the operative tools to win elections and vanquish the other side. This is not the simple cynicism of my grandfather’s day, when the whole political charade might well have been viewed as a gang of crooks fighting over spoils. This is not a period scandal like Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Teapot Dome. Today we must entirely rework our understanding of modern US politics, understanding it as a precursor to violence rather than a mechanism for governance and dispute resolution. Americans acutely feel this brutal winner-take-all element
Article from Mises Wire