Do you feel good when you engage with politics? I don’t mean afterward, a lot of us feel worse after reading the news. I mean, when you decide to read an article in the New York Times, or a think-piece in The Atlantic, or tune-in to the debates. Doesn’t that feel good?
It should. After all, you’re fulfilling a kind of societal obligation as an intelligent, worldly person. Paying attention to political developments, developing an opinion, persuading others. It’s all part of a healthy democracy! The more we all do it, the better!
It is all well-intentioned, I don’t deny that. But as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and doesn’t it feel a little bit like the world is going to hell in a handbasket? How much is our obsession with politics causing problems for our society?
Human behavior is a complex thing, however, simple explanations can do a decent job of explaining most of it. Why do we engage in certain behaviors over others? They make us feel good. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and there are many ways that engaging in politics makes us feel good.
Allow me to list some below:
It feels good to fulfill an obligation
We spend an inordinate amount of time paying attention to politics because we’ve been told by teachers, peers, parents, etc that we should. It feels good when we feel like we’re contributing to a greater good, and fulfilling an obligation we have to each other. It feels bad when we get called out for not doing our part. If we didn’t have this emotional mechanism, humans would not be where we are today but this can go wrong when these pressures are misguided.
It feels good to be part of a greater cause
It also feels good to feel attached to something bigger than yourself. It can feel small and lonely to be an individual sometimes like life has no clear meaning and that you don’t really matter. That changes when you feel connected to big, society-altering efforts like politics. When you plug yourself into the political news cycle, it can feel like you’re part of the zeitgeist. When you support your cause it feels like you’re part of a large, meaningful movement. It helps you feel significant.
It feels good to be part of a group that you are proud of
Depending on how strongly you identify as a liberal, conservative, or otherwise, it feels quite good to belong to your tribe. We all seek those close social bonds. They offer security, opportunity, and meaning to our lives. Contributing to the team effort and being recognized for it feels so good. So when you dunk on Mitch McConnell on Twitter and all your friends retweet you, it feels great.
It feels good to watch the drama unfold
Something that seems to be true across cultures is that we love a good story, and can’t turn away from the drama. Make no mistake, politics is the ultimate drama.
Think about it, there are characters that are easy to cheer for and against, and more added all the time. Likewise, there are constant storylines emerging about different developments in the political sphere. There are even seasons! Every two years we get a new set of characters and circumstances. The stakes are high, too, making it all the juicier. Plus, it’s easy to get sucked in because there is so much coverage and analysis. Just like you can get into fantasy football by crunching the numbers, reading rumors, studying the game, so it goes with politics because there is so much coverage.
It feels good to feel safe
Humans wouldn’t have made it very far if we weren’t well-attuned to threats. Our obsession with politics makes its way into our threat-awareness prioritization. Since the stakes are real, you should be aware if the political current is going to affect your business, healthcare, education, marriage, etc. It feels good to feel like we have an adequate view of the threats to our way of life.
It feels good to feel smart
We all like to think of ourselves as smart people. Surely part of being smart is staying informed, evaluating new information, and sharpening your intellect by debating with others. So again, it feels good to jump into the political debate pool because we get to feel like we’re using our brains. We get to play “philosopher-king”.
The story we like to tell ourselves is that we engage in politics because it is our duty as good, thinking citizens to stand in the agora and debate matters of the day with our fellow citizens. To make sure we’re making the right choices for our society.
The real story is that we mostly do it because it feels good, it massages our egos to do so. When we engage politically nowadays we’re wrapping ourselves in a warm blanket that confirms our identity as smart, productive citizens while we watch this season’s “America!” unfold.
I want to take a moment here to say that this isn’t inherently or wholly a bad thing. I would rather have this than the stark opposite of near-zero engagement. The behaviors we evolved to make us feel good exist for a reason and work most of the time. It feels good to eat and sleep because we need to eat and sleep (but not too much). It feels good to be politically active because we need to be to an extent, but we have gotten it wrong.
Let’s be honest with each other. Very few of us are political activists, most of us are political hobbyists. If you’re like me, the most politically impactful thing you do is vote every two years. Even that isn’t that impactful (if we’re still being honest).
I regret to inform you that your tweets, online-petitions, donations, and discussions with friends are not making much of an impact. I regret to inform you that you are probably not as persuasive as you think you are with those that are not like you. Changing people’s minds is near-impossible on heated topics like politics.
The problem is that the form of political engagement that most of us take is actually damaging. You are not in the agora discussing matters with influential members of the system. You are behind your laptop communicating with friends.
The way most of us engage politically likely makes things worse.
We feel like we are contributing, but we’re actually not — it removes responsibility.
“No need to phone-bank, fundraise, or volunteer because I subscribe to the NYT and argue with my uncle on Facebook.”
We increase polarization by feeding the social media machine and causing people to dig in.
By now we’re all well aware of the echo-chamber created by social media and its effects on political discourse. With no push-back and encouragement from others, people develop more extreme viewpoints. When the other side sees these extremes, they attach it to the group at large and are able to justify their staunch opposition to it. The feedback loop intensifies and suddenly we all hate each other and keep our politics gridlocked.
We get too pulled around by week-to-week dramas and don’t see enough of the big picture.
Each week is a new battle. Fight back against this policy, raise awareness about this executive order, let everyone know your stance on gun control (but only in the wake of a mass shooting). What are the actual issues, the structural ones that affect the others? You can take your pick. Climate change, income inequality, outdated government institutions, classism, racism, etc. We should be more laser-focused on these despite the flavor of the week.
What’s the solution?
First, more of us need to recognize when we are engaging in political hobbyism, voyeurism, schadenfreude, and the like. Did you click on that salacious headline and then share it, feeding the attention-economy that hurts our politics? Be critical of yourself first. Then we should try to separate ourselves from it. Be mindful of your political behavior.
Second, choose your cause and stick with it. What issue matters the most to you? The job of the media is to make the world’s problems your problems, to make you care about everything. When you care about everything, you care about nothing.
Whether it’s racial bias, sustainability, economic opportunity, or education the best way to contribute is to learn as much as you can about the topic and see where you can make the biggest difference. That may be volunteering to mentor underprivileged kids, donating to an organization that is making a real impact, or petitioning to get a new ballot measure approved for the next cycle. Almost anything is better than just posting about it.
Third, refactor that obligation piece. Next time you hear someone complain about a political issue, ask them what they’re doing about it. Social pressure is an incredibly powerful tool. If we hold each other accountable to true action instead of the easy-online-virtue-signaling, we could make real change.
I don’t mean to insult anyone. I have been plenty guilty of this stuff myself. It is important to be aware of and involved in politics, we’ve just been doing it wrong for too long and the outcome is obvious.
It is time we take a more local, hands-on, and focused approach. Then we might finally become the impactful citizens we like to think we are.