“Real Politics, Anyone?” in Commonweal

In a recent article in Commonweal titled “Real Politics, Anyone?” Margaret O’Brien Steinfels says to politicians what many of us are thinking: don’t focus your energy on tricking us into voting for you; instead be the kinds of leaders that we want to elect. Decrying the current obsession with demographics, she writes about how campaigners carefully craft “messages” that will create quasi-coalitions of voters with big enough majorities to win at the polls. That ghost-strategy may win elections, but it contributes to our overall disillusionment— especially when the mass of us realize (too late) that no one actually supports the overall agenda of the people we installed! Meanwhile, the people who make a living by winning campaigns reduce us to being one-dimensional; Steinfels writes,

This demographic strategy is of a piece with identity politics, which claims that ethnicity, race, religion, income, and age dictate what you care about. If there’s any truth to that, it’s not enough to get out the voters.

This bizarre sub-philosophy of identity politics is called essentialism. It’s the same concept that invokes racialized/racist questions, like “What do black people want?” and “Why do white people act like that?” Essentialism is basically impossible. No matter how badly demographers (and dating websites) want to reduce us to a data profile, human beings are more than their “ethnicity, race, religion, income, and age.” Yet, heuristics – it always goes back to heuristics in a fast-paced world – allow the politicians and their campaigners to create a shortcut that reels us in . . .

For me, the problem is the way that elections work now. Politics has become a team sport, where election results are equivocated with sport scores: my team beat your team, 55 to 45 . . . Sadly, when so many people vote (based on the heuristics created by identity politics) with the simple goal of installing their own ideologues in order to keep out opposing ideologues, we have division and stalemate.

I don’t think we elect representatives to handle the task of telling us what to do or how to live; I believe that we elect them to work out (and solve) our widespread differences on public administration issues and, through microcosms of small assemblies, create public policy that should reflect the common good. We want our representatives to create a system under which we can all live (somewhat) happily and respectfully.

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