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Is Politics Broken?

From Teachers to Soldiers to Evangelicals, Political Ideology no longer coincides with the life we actually live.

Photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash

It is undeniably true that most teachers are liberal. Statistically this is proven with the barest of Google-searches. Anecdotally this is obvious, as anyone who’s spent much time talking politics with educators on any level can attest. Personally this is unquestionable, something I know having taught high school and college at a dozen schools over 20 years.

Yet if teachers are liberal, they actually work in a profession that is, in many foundational and fundamental ways, almost pathologically the opposite in principle and action.

In many ways, schools are the most Darwinistic, survival-of-the-fittest, unequal, intolerant, capitalist jungles in our society.

Success in school depends first on one’s inherited environment and traits, and then through competition and adaptation.

On the macro-level, a student’s success in school rests upon the value and worth of the building’s location. Do you live in an economic desert, someplace sparsely watered by the money that nourishes schools? Then life is going to be hard and mean. Get used to it, too, because ain’t nobody coming to your rescue. On the other hand, do you enjoy the metaphorical benefits of water and good soil (that is to say, high property values and income)? Congratulations, you have landed in a diverse, thriving school economy, with ample opportunity for growth and success.

If the neighborhood’s poor, then hope for the inherited wealth and habits of your family. Statistically, a wealthy young man with terrible grades and a lousy attitude is far more likely to be successful upon leaving school than the poorest student the class, even if that poor student has the highest grades. Family wealth can ensure tutors, provide a healthy daily diet, help navigate social pitfalls, or soften the crippling anxiety of an uncertain future. If still poor, pray for family capital in the form of habit and behavior that can ensure you already know how to read, have been allowed to discover an aptitude for math or music, or arrive with a well-developed vocabulary.

If the neighborhood AND the family are poor, then pray for inherited personal strengths. Success is far more likely if you enter school with a competitive genetic advantage. The genetic capital a student brings to school is their most valuable and powerful personal asset, whether that’s their skin color, gender, height, athleticism, brains, or beauty. We would like to believe that any student can succeed in school through hard work and care, but while this is true, the nature of the system ensures that it’s far more valuable to arrive with the proper abilities and attributes already pre-loaded.

The school environment itself is fiercely competitive, even for those who arrive with inherited capital and genetic strengths. Day to day success depends mostly upon individual, non-cooperative effort. Equality in schools is a barely maintained illusion. For one, you are constantly measured against your peers. Success or failure always arrives as a comparison against your classmates. Yes, nominally success in school is supposed to be independent of any variable but one’s own individual talents, but we all know this is nowhere near the truth. Every class is a competition. The foundational economy of grades guarantees it.

After competition, adaptation is the law of school’s jungle, despite some modern efforts (and a lot of editorial grousing). Because conditions change so dramatically from environment to environment in a school (from grade to grade, to classroom to classroom), success is not merely dependent upon skill, but adaptability. Survival depends on the ability to adapt either as the environment changes (as in year to year) or as one moves from one environment to another (as in class to class). School is a daily reenactment — sped up to impossible levels — of the natural adaptive struggle in the animal world. Students move from environment to environment, and their success is dependent upon their ability to shift gears, change processes, and maximize or minimize specific traits to the landscape. One class may demand gregarious extroversion while another asks for introverted silence. One may use logic, the other creativity. Students must adapt to each environment quickly, often in as little as a few minutes.

I could go on building this case, but there is another point to make. Namely: If you wanted to find the most liberal, socialist-leaning, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, pro-big government, pro-union, competition-fearing, anti-bullying, marginalized-population-loving, suspicious-of-power group of people in the nation, you’d find the nearest public school and gather together the teachers.

I’ve exaggerated the Darwinistic aspects of school, of course. It’s not entirely as awful as all that, mostly because of the efforts of teachers. Never-the-less, there’s a profound disconnect between the system teachers work within and their individual politics.

These days, our politics is all-encompassing, and it’s increasingly true that our political tribe spills out into all the other relationships of our lives. But what, exactly, IS our ‘politics’ if what it ‘says’ is vastly different from what we ‘do’?

Consider the other end of the political spectrum, the military. Ignoring for a moment the Officer Class (who enjoy perks and benefits to a ridiculous degree of comfort, safety, and economy), the majority of soldiers live in a profoundly egalitarian system. Labor is distributed evenly, as is salary. Food and housing are provided by the system. Achievement and reward is merit-based on individual talent, skill, and ability, not competition, and apportioned by a system which is owned collectively. Individuality is thoroughly discouraged. Identity and personality take second (actually, third, fourth, fifth, or more) place to cohesion and function of the whole. Even appearance is de-personalized for the benefit of the group’s function. I could go on building this case, but there are bigger points to make.

One being this: If you were looking for a conveniently collected source of Republican-leaning individuals, you’d go find a military barracks and start there. If you wanted freedom-loving, pro-individual, capitalist thinking, greed encouraging, free market, John Wayne, anti-government purists, you’d find the most stalwart, hard-core, uncompromising idealists in the most communist place in the country.

Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

The overwhelming Evangelical support for Donald Trump reveals another profound disconnect between politics and the actual lives people lead. This is not a criticism of Evangelicalism; it’s a criticism of politics — or at the least an attempt to recognize that Politics, despite its overwhelming presence as identity in America today, has very little actual, solid, graspable, definable principle. We ‘say’ that we are a member of a political tribe, and that label comes with an attendant moral philosophy that ought to guide actions and relationships, but doesn’t. In fact, what is truly remarkable is how frequently our politics and our lives run in opposite directions.

There’s a horrible aspect to this truth that drives a dangerous division. To anyone outside your political tribe, the stark contrast between one’s politics and the rest of his or her life is evidence of a profound hypocrisy. Not being Evangelical, it’s easy to see Evangelical support of Trump as deeply, immorally, almost mind-bogglingly ‘wrong’.

But I also know a number of Evangelicals. I have relatives who qualify, teach great students who count themselves among the tribe (some of the best over the years, actually), and work with colleagues who attend Evangelical services regularly. And unless we are discussing politics (which we’ve learned to avoid), they are invariably kind, thoughtful, good people. Admirable. They give to charity, volunteer, and abstain from certain harmful behaviors to a far more noble degree than I ever have.

I’m no political scientist, and maybe this too sets me apart from a tribe, but it seems to me that issue may be in the idea of ‘politics’ itself. There is no substance to politics. Behavior is driven by other, more substantial, more grounded functions and events. Occupation. Ritual. Culture. nationality and sports teams and family. Inherited patterns of thinking and so on and so forth. Strip away a person’s history, job, class, language, tradition, and religion and ‘politics’ vanishes entirely, like one of those pictures made of thousands of other pictures — from a distance it has shape and form, but the closer you get the more it vanishes, until there’s nothing left but the smaller parts and their meaningful images.

We are increasingly aware of how tribal our politics actually are, yet we can’t seem to get past the notion that our politics are still, at core, our ideology. But the disconnect between what we vote for and the lives we actually lead in our workplace and home is vast. It’s not merely vast, it’s downright contradictory. And that contradiction, which we ignore in ourselves, makes it all too easy to judge our political opponents harshly.

It makes all of us hypocrites.

If faced with a contradiction, with two (or more!) competing bodies of evidence that claim to be true, which do you accept? Which is more true: what we say or what we do?

There are a lot of words in politics. In some ways, it’s ALL words. Speeches, brochures, mailers, ads. Most political actions are either in the future — ‘I will do this’ — or a careful parsing of the past. All words, little action.

This conflict begs the question of where ideology really exists, especially in relation to politics. And how is it that ‘ideology’ can so frequently be the opposite of physical action and environment?

There’s a syllogism here.

Words are not real.

Politics is all words.

Therefore Politics is not real.

True or not, if we could hold this little formula in our heads for a bit, we might just escape this political mess we find ourselves.