I knew this already, but my recent reporting on recycling has confirmed to me that we’re doing politics wrong. Specifically, I think we’re failing to appreciate three things; that issues are complex, that collaboration is rewarding, and that we are remarkably privileged.
My research on recycling led me to the conclusion that whether recycling makes sense depends on two main factors; what you are trying to recycle, and where you live. Where I live, it appears to make sense to recycle plastic, paper, metal, and glass. Where you live, it might make sense to recycle all of the above, only some, or none.
Every issue that I’ve ever researched is similar, in that there are always more than one or two possible answers to every question. Imagine if the issue of recycling had been politicized, with one side chanting, “Recycling is a Hoax”, and the other side calling for, “Recycling for All”. As the issue wasn’t politicized, I heard from people from across the political spectrum and around the country, sharing their thoughts and experiences.
Now consider all of our current hot-button political issues; healthcare, immigration, climate change, rioting, police reform, the pandemic; you name it. All have been politicized to such a degree that we find it hard to see beyond the polarized talking points. In addition to the anger or fear we might feel about the “other side”, we are blinding ourselves to being able to find actual, workable, solutions to any of them. The spectrum is always broader than just Red or Blue choices.
The photo above shows volunteers filling sandbags prior to the 2008 Iowa floods. You can see my wife and our three then young sons helping out on the left. People probably have come together like this to meet common challenges for as long as humankind has existed. While one tribe might not have helped another tribe in the remote past, nowadays, I don’t think anyone much cares about things like skin color, religion, or voting preferences when it comes down to simply getting the job done.
Politics is like that, or should be. There are things we need to get done, and I think we need more input, not less. The “Wisdom of Crowds” idea is particularly relevant here. It’s the idea that we are collectively more wise, frequently, than even a select group of experts. But, there are caveats to this idea in practice, the main one relevant here is that the group sampled needs to be diverse. If it is not, we get self-reinforcing “group-think”, and outcomes like the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle.
When it comes to politics, diversity is especially important, as the decisions we might hope to make based upon our group wisdom affects all of us living, and those who will follow us. Unfortunately, our two dominant political tribes, Republicans and Democrats, are currently behaving as our prehistoric ancestors presumedly may have done. I know it’s hard to imagine a week before the upcoming election, but I fervently hope that we will forge a better path forward in the months to come.
It is really important to realize how privileged we are. Throughout recorded history, most people have not been terribly free. They lived under dictators or monarchs, local princes or religious leaders, and had little agency beyond their households. They would not dare to contact their local politico to question even such a mundane thing as recycling, as if that existed back then; or, to protest to the area constable that the local guild allow another competitor.
Despite frequent cries that one side or the other is “tyrannical”, the truth is that we remain remarkably free. But, we could lose that. Personally, I don’t much fear that Biden or Trump winning next week will have a significant impact on whether we retain our liberties and right to self-governance. But, I do fear that we are surrendering those blessings over time by our continued willingness to play our silly game of “politics as usual”.
I hope we can do better, and I will continue to work toward that end.