Americans, please stop politicizing everything

Because politics do actually make you stupid

Back to Reason
Oct 9, 2020 · 7 min read

The great American soap opera

As an outsider, I’ve looked at American politics with bemusement for most of my life. I’m from a small European country with pretty much a direct democracy and our top politicians often ride to work on a bicycle or public transport. All very understated and certainly no royalty-like treatment for the head of our state, no armour-plated cars or private jets. And no big drama around election time. I’ve lived in a number of European countries and experienced several forms of democracy and levels of “politicisation” of everyday life; but every two to four years it struck me as odd, that the local news reported almost more intensely on American elections and mid-terms than they did on their own. The politics of the countries I lived in was more or less drama free and more middle of the road, more functional. (Of course that doesn’t apply to all European countries — the further South the more drama? I don’t know if that’s a thing. And the UK also has an affinity for scandal, I think simply because of their love for tabloid press. But the UK doesn’t want to be part of Europe anyway.)

But America as a whole has created a soap opera and the world is lapping it up. I think the problem is, Americans actually take this soap opera seriously. But like a soap opera, it’s all staged, craftily written and produced. It’s there to entertain you, not to govern your lives. Please don’t be offended, I think I will make my point in a minute.

What’s news?

I came to write this article, because I heard from a family member in Europe that Mr. Trump had contracted Covid-19. Let me back up:

I moved to the US about 4 years ago and quite early on decided that American news was not for me. No matter how prestigious the newspaper or channel, I rarely agreed with the way news was reported. Nobody was committed to offering more than one point of view, and way too often opinion was “marketed” as news. I also don’t like how public debate (or any debate, for that matter) is held here — too much shouting, too much hyperbole, too much accusing people of lying or being wrong, instead of providing facts, negotiating, and developing actionable solutions.

Then again, we might all not be able to agree on basic facts anymore. I will refer a second time to Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”, which explains why in a few years’ time half of us might contest the fact that the Earth is round. And I have been worried that so many people here refer to “news” they saw, when in fact they saw a post by God-knows-who in their social media feed. People, that’s not news!

(Either way, for years I mainly read The Economist and some BBC, because the BBC technically has a very strong public mandate; and less frequently, I read local news from various European countries (language permitting). But also there I noticed a worrying trend, especially in newspapers, to publish a political stance not explicitly marked as commentary. At least what seemed untouched in most cases was the daily news on national television in countries that have a national station with a public mandate. Having said that, I’ve not watched TV since 2001 unless I visited my parents. Then came Covid-19 and all news was flooded with nothing but. And it wasn’t that I just got sick of the topic, it was that I felt the national debate in most countries got out of hand. I completely disagree with the mindless reporting of case numbers without context of other factors (particularly death rates). And specifically the shift in narrative from “let’s flatten the curve so as to not overwhelm the health care system” to “case numbers must drop to zero before we can move on with our lives”, even though scientists said from the very beginning that everybody will get this virus, and that a majority of people is not in the at-risk group. The new media mandate seems to be to instil the fear of God in us, which in turn doesn’t allow us or politicians to make actually useful decisions. Even more so, when politicians make decisions based on what they saw in the “news”. Instead, it was decided to shut the world down. I’ve covered some of these topics separately and will not go further into it here.)

Long story short: I have not visited a single news site in about 4 months. And I had no idea Mr. Trump had Covid-19. Nor did I care, really.

No conversation to be had

But the problem became clear to me immediately. Even before Mr. Trump was taken ill, Covid-19 was politicised and it hampered government from making actually useful and targeted decisions. Neither should local government have had to defer to Washington for those decisions in the first place (local measures were needed depending on local situations). Nor should local political orientation have influenced what those decisions were. Now the President is sick, this will blow out of proportion. Democrats will say: “See, he didn’t take this seriously, didn’t take strong enough measures, the Republicans are bad”. Republicans will say: “Well, he got sick and he’s fine, so that’s proof that we did everything right.” Dear Reader, do you understand that this kind of debate is “meta”, i.e. it is not about the actual problem (the virus), it is about personal and political opinion? Because it’s meta, it will not lead to reasonable action and solutions, it won’t be in your best interest and it might put you in harm’s way.

My partner, who is American, tells me that this kind of debate is already starting to happen. At his family home, Fox News runs all day and his parents are brainwashed that way. His friends, mostly New Yorkers, are brainwashed the other way. That’s how he “stays in the loop” (lol); but it is impossible for him to have a real and meaningful conversation with either of those two sides, they just don’t want to hear anything he has to say that doesn’t align 100 % with the party line or their version of “truth”.

And the problem for you Americans is that every little piece of sh*it gets politicised in this way. Personally, I have no American friends left, because on many an occasion, I’ve been accused of “sounding like a Republican”, or “sounding like a Democrat”, when I provided some counter arguments to a debate. The operative word being accused. When I sent an article to a former American friend of mine that came from a different source than she would normally read, she told me she wasn’t going to read it, because I sent her (and I quote) “propaganda”. Those “friends” of mine were not even able anymore to realise that I had no interest in the American political system and that I jumped between party ideology, and all kinds of other ideologies, as I saw fit depending on the topic at hand, and with a view to finding a pragmatic solution that would benefit a majority of people in a local context.

Americans deserve better

You guys all deserve better. Because first of all, it’s ridiculous that 330 million people can choose between two sides only. As proven by this Economist thought experiment from 2016 “What if the US had a parliament”:

Also, in light of having watched the NBA finals on an actual television recently, I’ve been exposed to some ads and I’ve been shocked at the below-the-belt, waaaay too simplified level of debate on both sides. Americans, you should really demand better. (As an aside, while I find the stance the NBA has taken admirable, they missed the point of adding “local” after their call to “Vote”. America must focus on local politics and stop feeding the glorification of a royal-like president, who this year will be — wait for it: an old white man, accused of sexual misconduct. Hooray!)

The proof is in science

In Europe, Americans have the reputation of being “quite stupid”. Americans aren’t stupid, but the longer I’ve lived here, the more I realised that it is exactly the polarisation, the appalling level of public debate, and the self-aggrandising politicisation of absolutely everything, that can make people quite stupid — no matter their IQ or education.

There’s even a study to prove it: This study by Mr. Kahan presented a set of data to a large group of people and then asked them to draw logical conclusions from said data set. When the data was presented as politically neutral, people with higher numeracy (mathematical reasoning ability), did better at making use of the quantitative information to draw correct conclusions; which was expected. When the same data was presented as a political issue (in this case, gun control), not only did all subjects’ responses become more polarised and inaccurate, the people with higher numeracy did the worst. More “intelligent” people were using their intellectual capacity and reasoning skills to selectively interpret the data to make it conform with their political view. I think in a short and simplified way we can say politics makes people stupid and draw the wrong conclusions. And the more intelligent you are, the more stupid politics will make you. (Mother Jones wrote up the study and summarised the implications the results have, if you don’t want to dig through the study itself).

Anyway, there’s not much I can say, you must draw your own conclusions and as citizens of this great country of yours you simply have to wake up and smell the roses.

Ask a political scientist

Here’s the YouTube channel of the political scientist Andrea Jones-Rooy, whom I have found extremely knowledgeable (and funny) in explaining political issues and hot potatoes. I am sharing the channel without having seen all of her videos, but I respect what I’ve seen of her so far. Most useful I found one of her shows at Caveat, New York, in 2019 in which she explained how flawed the US voting system is and how it could be fixed. Unfortunately, that show wasn’t taped, but in her video below, she explains the same principles:

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