A lot of people can’t seem to get their heads around politics


Crossposted from DemocraticDiva.com

David Roberts’ latest piece for Vox, Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics. is a spectacular explication of the frustrating inability of a lot of otherwise smart people to grasp the U.S. political situation. He begins by describing his admiration for wicked-smart Tim Urban, who writes brilliant things on a site called Wait But Why:

One of the purest expressions of the nerd spirit is the site Wait But Why, started in 2013 by Tim Urban, a Harvard graduate and co-owner of a tutoring company but really, by his own testimony, just some dude.

Urban is a nerd. He gets interested in some complicated subject, digs into it until he feels like he really understands it, and he explains it. (To get a flavor, start with the one about procrastination and the epic series on artificial intelligence.) It’s a bit like the explanatory journalism that’s so popular these days, but in the case of WBW, it is completely untethered from the web-media demands for speed, volume, and topicality.

Urban originally promised to post twice a week. Then it was “every Tuesday.” Now it’s “every sometimes.” He takes his time. But the posts, when they come, are a delight — 3,000, 8,000, even 26,000 (seriously) words, complete with crude but hilarious illustrations, diagrams, and infographics, written in friendly, nontechnical language that still manages to honor the complexities of the subjects.

Roberts is one of the smartest writers around and I’m eagerly looking forward to exploring Urban’s offerings. Unfortunately, as Roberts explains in what is the main thrust of his piece, Urban buys into common and erroneous narratives of how politics works in this country:

…The second [problematic narrative] is the conception of politics as a contest of two mirror-image political philosophies, with mirror-image extremes and a common center, which is where sensible, independent-minded people congregate (“both parties have good points; both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things”)…

Read the whole thing (it’s that good) but the above sentence provides a good, brief summary of where Urban is mistaken. The belief in “extremes on both sides” ignores just how lopsided things really are and how people on the Democratic side (both politicians and rank-and-file) are earnestly trying to govern while those on the GOP side are committed to obstructing it. Progress lies in understanding the two sides and realizing which one is most conducive to realizing it. And no, there’s not a middle way since:

…[In] practical coalitional politics, the “center” will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

The only thing I’d add to David Roberts’ superb analysis is the issue of “civility” politics and the automatic sidelining of anyone deemed partisan, especially if they are from the Left. My social media timeline and real life is filled with liberals grousing about the supposed spinelessness of Democrats and wondering why they won’t forcefully defend their positions. Well, I’m one of those who does do that. For my efforts, I am constantly derided for being the “Tea Party equivalent of the Left!”, mostly by people ostensibly on the same side as I am, despite my never having expressed mirror-image leftist stances to those of the science-denying and bigoted ones of Tea Party counterparts on the Right. It’s mostly an objection to my tone. So sorry!

Whatever. I say that if you want liberal ideas to gain a toehold in society, then they are going to have to be expressed boldly and loudly. There’s no other way.


  1. “…how people on the Democratic side (both politicians and rank-and-file) are earnestly trying to govern while those on the GOP side are committed to obstructing it.”

    This believable ONLY if you have “drunk the Kool-Aid” and have become so partisan that common sense has escaped you. It is as biased and silly a statement as I have ever read on this site.

    • Steve, here’s the problem to which I think Donna may be referring:

      Say you have two divorcing, wealthy, parents. They disagree on which of two outstanding private schools to enroll their child. The public school in their area is unquestionably inferior. So, in their negotiation, the mom tells the dad if he won’t agree to her choice, the child will have to attend the public school.

      Is the mom “earnestly trying to parent” or is she “committed to obstructing the parenting process”?

      One could argue either side of that question.

      By the same logic, some of the tactics employed by Republicans, such as the use of the filibuster to block confirmation of appointments or the brinksmanship employed in the debt ceiling debate, could be argued either as an earnest attempt to govern or a commitment to obstructing it.

      Su, is Donna’s statement “biased and silly” or is it merely reflective of a worldview different than your own?

      • Bob! Bad example, calling the public school “unquestionably inferior.” Buys right into the (R) meme.

        I vote for Democrats because I support the Dem party platform, overall. I do not vote for Republicans, generally, because I do not support their platform. It’a actually less about the people than it is their ideas to implement the platform.

        • Patricia, you’re ripping my comment out of context. I said the parents were wealthy. If a private school receives tens of thousands in tuition from parents of wealthy students, won’t it logically be superior? If not, why do you care about the funding of public schools, since you’re implicitly saying here that the premise that better funding means better quality is “buying into the Republican meme”?

    • Strangely, only people from the Left have “drunk the Kool Aid”. Those from the Right are reasonable non-Koolaid drinking people who happen to think that evolution and climate change are myths and that women’s bodies shut that whole pregnancy thing down when they are raped. Of course. Okay.

      • Your example is a reasoned and nuanced on that I agree with. It is how I tend to see things. I understand that Donna sees the world from a different perspective than me, and I have no problem with that at all.

        My singling out of that particular comment was the extremism of it. It is the equivilent of saying all Democrats are good and all Republicans are bad, and that just isn’t true. Human beings are far too nuanced for any sweeping comments like that to possibly be true. Not all Democrats seek wise governance and not all Republicans seek to derail wise governance. Some on both sides simply seek power. The greater truth, though, is that they have differing views of what constitutes “wise governance”. That statement she made (which I still think was biased and silly) assumes that only Democrats have the answer and that all Democrats have hearts of pure gold with intentions to match. That just isn’t the case.

        • That’s not entirely logical. You’re taking logic that applies to demographic groups, such as blacks, whites or latinos, and trying to apply it to a self-selecting group, Republicans. Think of how bad your argument would sound if you made it in defense of the Nazi party. The flaw is that political parties tend to act collectively the majority of the time. Hence caucuses. Hence the Hastert rule. So. if Donna sees the debt ceiling brinksmanship as obstructionist, she logically can extend that to say Republicans are obstructionist.

          • (Sigh!) Once again, Bob, you have forced me to have a blinding glimpse of the obvious. I had not thought about that and it is absolutely true…self-selecting groups do not necessarily reflect the characteristics that you could expect to find in a demographic group. I will have to rethink my position.

            I reacted strongly because I am one of the Republicans to whom she is referring, and I do not agree with Donna that we are ONLY obstructionists and have no ideas on how to govern. I don’t think that about Democrats, either. I just don’t agree with the Democrats ideas of governance.

            Anyway, thanks for the reality check!

        • “Not all Democrats seek wise governance and not all Republicans seek to derail wise governance.”

          Who gives a shit? What matters is who is actually in office. In Congress, the Republicans openly admit that they seek to obstruct the President at every opportunity.

          Republicans do plenty of governing at the state level. Lousy governing but they’re definitely getting things done! Like bankrupting their states of revenue and regulating the ever loving hell out of abortion.

      • That is not true…there are plenty of Republicans who have drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid and have limited themselves to just as narrow a view. I don’t happen to think one of the items you mentioned is true, and I don’t of any other Republicans who believe them. either. But I am certain there are some that do.

        My ridicule of your comment was because it ignores Human nature. No large grouping of people is all good or all bad. Your statement basically was that all Democrats are good and all Republicans are bad. That simply is not true. You also assume – incorrectly – that only Democrats have the answer on how to govern. No matter how much you believe that, it, too, is simply not true.

        It is perfectly normal to hold strong opinions and to fight hard for your beliefs. But when those opinions so consume you that you blind yourself to any other possibilities and when you embue your opponents with evil intent, you lose something vital.

      • Donna, I owe you something of an apology. Bob Lord made me realize that I was wrong in applying normal group demographics to a self selecting group like a political party. Given that, I see why you could make the statement you made in good concience. ;o)

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