The thoroughly modern vice of predictability
On Chicago machine politics, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and the problem with being able to predict what too many talking heads are going to say
A few generations ago, it was entirely plausible that an American might have their political beliefs entirely shaped by their membership in an ethnic community. The Irish, most visibly, took their large concentrated numbers in places like Boston and Chicago and blended the tendency for an immigrant population to "stick together" with the inherent advantage of arriving with a command of the English language, producing powerful results in machine politics.
■ Under such circumstances, one's opinion on any particular public issue could easily have been "whatever is good for my voting bloc", especially as defined by the people with the power of patronage. Predictability of opinion could easily follow from the low level of investment in policies but the high level of investment in the cohesion of the voting unit.
■ Today, there really is no such excuse. Yet we suffer all too often from a thoroughly modern vice of predictability. The level of unoriginality in much of what passes for both analysis and opinion is stifling.
■ Oft-cited research suggests that party membership has become more ideologically uniform in the United States by quite a lot over the last quarter-century. And it is easy to cite heterodoxy in some of the prominent politicians of the near-past, like Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alan Simpson.
■ The problem is less that there is so much self-reinforcing adherence to the "party line" on predictable issues, and more that the issues along which so many campaigners and pundits choose to align themselves are so unfailingly predictable. The problems that require urgent attention, particularly at the national level, are pretty confounding to the existing matrices of "left" and "right".
■ What is a "progressive left" approach to cybersecurity? What is a "nationalist conservative" response to the escalating costs of catastrophic natural disasters due to the expanding bull's-eye effect? Is there an inherently more or less "moderate" approach to protecting intellectual property interests against hostile foreign state actors?
■ There may ultimately be sound reasons for responses to these issues to take on an ideological tenor, but the problem for now is that these issues scarcely turn any heads at all. The Cyberspace Solarium Commission, just for example, issued a blue-ribbon report with dozens of urgent recommendations for national cybersecurity protection. Two years later, some progress has been made -- but fundamentally none of the discussion or debate has moved any closer to mainstream discussion. It should be a centerpiece matter of national debate, but instead we get stale leftovers.
■ If nobody really wonders what any given TV talking head is going to say or what a brand-name columnist is about to write, and if nobody ever feels surprised by novel subjects that arrest a Senator's attention or heterodox opinions that have nothing to do with the latest horse race, then we're selling ourselves far short. If "the discourse" is all just clicks and eyeballs based on the laziest possible assumptions about what will activate the average person's partisan lizard brain, then we're plainly just kneecapping ourselves.
■ It may be comfortable to keep politics safely within predictable lanes, but really big issues are at hand. And ignoring them because they take time and effort to understand -- or because they don't fit neatly into simple one-dimensional scales of "left versus right" -- isn't good for anyone. The problems that really derail the world aren't the ones with predictable ideological alignments, they're the surprises that appear to come out of left field only because we haven't been paying attention to the real ball game.