Dax Shepard is quite right about one thing, and completely misses another
I love the movie “Idiocracy.” And I love actor Dax Shepard’s portrayal of the character Frito in that movie.
I like money too.
My spouse has been listening to Dax’s podcast lately. Armchair Expert only started this year but is already super popular. Dax is doing events and selling out venues in an hour.
I know Dax likes to talk about politics, but not in a political or tribal way. In other words he challenges talking points, assumptions, conventional wisdom, etc. That’s cool. So I was curious how he’d talk with Jon Favreau, the former Obama speechwriter who now hosts his own very popular podcast, Pod Save America, with Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Dan Pfeiffer, all of them former Obama admin guys.
And not two minutes into the conversation, my ears started twitching.
Here’s how Dax began the show:
“I would surmise that for about 90 percent of us, our real output — our real total political output — is at best, maybe you are voting in midterms so you’re voting once every two years. And I think it is a little cuckoo that people spend a good chunk of their day talking about something that ultimately the only outcome is that they will go cast a ballot in four years. And my example would be, I go to the dentist once a year, and if every time you saw me I was like, ‘Oh I’m going to the dentist in eleven months, oh I’m going to the dentist,’ all these thoughts — you’d think I was fucking nuts. Or I got to smog my car every two years in California and if I thought about it all year, every year, leading up to it, it doesn’t seem entirely productive for us. My personal opinion is we’re a little overpoliticized. How do you feel about that? Tell my why I’m wrong. Let me also exclude people who actually go out and join marches and they’re a part of public rallies and stuff. So those people are actively doing something. But just talking about politics all day long, when all you’re going to be doing is casting a ballot, what is the purpose of it?”
I was like, ‘Whoa. Yes.’ I didn’t even listen to Favreau’s response, no disrespect. Because I think Dax pretty much said it all. He’s right, with the caveat that to some degree people are always going to talk about national politics in the same way they talk about their favorite sports teams. But I agree, it’s way overboard and out of balance with how much most of us can actually shape or influence national politics.
Notice how I keep qualifying the word “politics” with the adjective “national”? That’s a clue to where I’m going.
So Dax is right. But if you just stop there, it’s kind of hopeless. Here’s what he’s missing, which most people are missing.
- There is no understanding here of the role of local politics.
- There’s no understanding that political change at the national level can happen through party-building and organizing that starts at the local level and works its way up to the national level.
- When he talks about people who are involved, Dax only mentions people who go to rallies or protests. But that is the lowest level of political commitment beyond voting. It requires little effort and no long-term commitment. What about the people who run for school board? Or the people who do the boring and thankless work of organizing the county arm of the Republican or Democratic Party? That’s real commitment. It used to matter. It needs to again. These should be the venues in which future leaders cut their teeth, learn about politics and service, and are vetted by their peers.
- Dax’s own sentiments about politics — which I think are widely shared — illustrate why only a small number of people are usually going to be involved in local politics and party-building, and why if we want politics to work, we need to let these people have a bigger role. Ironically, by doing so, more people will get involved.
- How? One of the biggest ways to do this would also be incredibly unpopular and counterintuitive: Restore the party’s role in primary by giving party delegates more control over who the party nominates for president and other offices, and maybe even through choosing the nominee at the convention.
- That could invigorate the party structure process at the local level, because people will want to get into that mix. That should inject local politics with more meaning.
- The primary process changed after 1968, and many experts in how politics works think that change was not for the better. That’s what my podcast “The Long Game” — especially episodes 1–10, explains. And episode 11 summarizes that. I wrote a piece summarizing this as well. Many others have written on the topic as well, and a good number have come on the podcast. Their articles are in the show notes.
- National politics occupies too big a place in our imagination and conversation, but it’s also arguable that the federal government does extend its arm too far into our lives.
- Our own sense of belonging and meaning doesn’t have to be political, but it should involve some level of self-giving service, whether to family, or to local community, or to friends. And the more institutionalized and formal your commitment is, the less likely you are to flake on it. My recent conversation with Yuval Levin is largely about this.
Yuval’s focus is on recovering a way of viewing the world through the lens of institutions. He thinks this will help us do four things.
- Institutions empower us by constraining us.
- Institutions embody our ideals and so allow us to meaningfully devote ourselves to those ideals.
- Institutions make a claim to legitimate authority.
- Institutions satisfy our intense desire for membership and belonging.
Yuval gave three lectures at Princeton University earlier this year, and I was able to read the text of those lectures. You can watch video of Yuval’s lectures here.
Our Politics is One Big Gravitron — That Makes Accomplishments Really Hard
Think of it this way: all the forces in our politics are centrifugal, pushing each of us further and further out and into our own brands and identities, away from one another. We need more more centripetal forces, which counterbalance the healthy push toward individuality and empowerment with a complementary drive toward service, cooperation, and team-building.
As things exist now, if you want to be involved in politics, or in public life for that matter, all the incentives point you to self-promotion. Build your brand. Grow your followers. Increase the size of your platform. This applies to business and to politics and to many other things.
In politics, gaining influence means becoming more of an individual. This requires you to stand out, to accentuate differences between yourself and others, and it often leads to saying or doing things for attention rather than for substantive reasons. Think Ted Cruz during the 2013 government shutdown, crowing that he could get Obama to defund Obamacare if the rest of the GOP would just fight harder. Or consider the current push on the left to #abolishICE, which sounds good but does little to solve the dual problems of border security and family separation.
Guess how Cruz in 2013 was similar to Democrats today talking about ICE? He was planning a run for president then, and so are Democrats like Kamala Harris and others. What do you do in modern politics to lay the groundwork? You take simple, easy to understand positions that stoke the passions of the most energized and often extreme voters, left or right. That helps you get attention, it helps you build your e-mail list, your e-mail list helps you raise money from these same voters who give online in small dollar amounts, and voila, you’re off to the races.
This is not the way it was always done. The parties used to control more of the money, and party insiders used to control more of the process. Was this process perfect? No, of course not. Did it constrain ambitious politicians from taking positions that attracted attention but which were unhelpful to actually solving problems? Yes. Is going back to that system the answer? I have no idea. Maybe we can draw lessons from it as we try to find our way forward. Certainly it would be foolish to imagine that the past holds no wisdom for us.
The point is, none of this centrifugal force encourages mutual cooperation. Once influence is gained, what can be done with it when everyone else is still competing for attention and followers?
Change, progress, overcoming challenges — all these things require people to work together, over time, in a sustained way. And when disagreements arise, as they always do, people need a forum and a process in which to work it out.
These things can’t happen in a purely centrifugal world. A healthy democracy needs both centrifugal and centripetal forces. One of the key centripetal forces that would push us toward others and constrain our ability to act anti-socially — in the political realm — is the political party. They bring people together under a banner of general principles and then enable collective action while setting up structures and processes through which to mediate and hash out disputes and disagreements.
Sure, there are many signs of ill health in our parties. Perhaps there is a need for a new one. But many of the problems with our parties is that they’ve been drained of life blood by structural reforms over the last 50 years and by a decline of appreciation for the importance of institutional change.