The Tragic Emptiness of Our Political Discourse

Paying attention to this U.S. presidential campaign and commentators' efforts to make sense of it can be a painful undertaking. Aside from the hateful rhetoric and incitement to violence that Donald Trump has unleashed on society, our tired conceptual short-hands that we try to impose on people and ideas are outdated. Among the most abused words are "left," "right," "liberal," and "conservative." These are powerful identity labels for a lot of people, but insofar as we use them to describe modes of thought, policy frameworks, and life philosophies, they no longer mean much by themselves.

When we slap one of a narrow collection of labels on a host of unrelated issues, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our country because it constrains our ability to see nuance and narrows our perceived set of options. The left-right political dichotomy was an invention of revolutionary France in the late 1700s. The labels may have made sense in that period and subsequent ones, but they are an inadequate means of understanding today's world. This simplistic analytical framework from over 200 years ago cannot begin to capture the socio-technical complexity and knowledge base of the 21st century and its associated political debates. When we describe people and groups as "extreme right" or "extreme left" (or "populist," for that matter), we distract ourselves from the more relevant reality that they are often angry, frustrated, worried about their place in society, and scared about their own future. This patronizing and incurious labelling merely alienates fellow citizens from each other and distracts from the need to dig deeper, ask more questions, and learn how our rapidly changing world is causing pain for many people. Democracy requires active listening, starting from the assumption that no one has a monopoly on wisdom.

The terms "liberal" and "conservative" have been used across the centuries in different contexts by economists, political theorists, ideologues, philosophers, and political parties to mean completely different and often contradictory things. We have tried to imbue these words with so much meaning that by themselves they confuse more than they elucidate. Today, the word "liberal" means something very different in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. In parts of Europe, it is more connected with an entire socio-political system based on tolerance and freedom of thought, whereas in the United States it tends to be associated with specific types of people and a vague ideology of "progressivism" linked to the Democratic Party. As such, "liberal" is often a dirty word in the United States when used by "conservatives," which itself has become a proxy for the Republican Party and no longer has much connection to a conservative mindset based on caution, tradition, and a reliance on evidence. In Latin America and parts of Europe, "liberal" tends to be associated with laissez-faire, free market economics. As such, Americans who identify as economic "conservatives" in the U.S. political context suddenly find themselves on the side of "liberals" when they're in other countries by way of supporting identical policy frameworks. Am I the only one experiencing cognitive dissonance here?

Resisting the Binary

As we contemplate our national direction beyond the 2016 election, I propose that we stop trying to categorize collections of political positions in a simplistic binary. There is no coherent reason why a concern for high levels of debt and desire for efficient management of our resources need be accompanied by a dislike for those who are different from us or a fear of the "other." It is does not logically follow that believing government is ill-equipped to handle certain challenges means that one does not care about resolving them as concerned citizens. A deep passion for justice and social inclusion need not be linked to a disregard for honest debate about the effectiveness of legal mandates versus normative social change. Believing we should do our best to help those less materially fortunate does not have to be decoupled from an appreciation of economic incentive structures that encourage hard work. A belief in God or simply being awestruck by the vastness of a universe beyond our comprehension is not necessarily connected to intolerance or the impulse to impose specific beliefs on others. Desire for a level of order and predictability in society shouldn't preclude one from arguing that we should change and improve on certain things. What purpose does it serve to try to categorize this multiplicity of unrelated concepts into an antiquated binary rather than debating them on their merits, aside from saving us the trouble of engaging in genuine discourse?

Our collective delusion that "liberal," "conservative," "left," and "right" are useful ways to meaningfully communicate mutually understood concepts today is part of why our political discourse is such a disaster. If specific people self-identify with one of these labels, it is perfectly appropriate to call them by that name, but more information is still necessary to find out what the word means to them.

The path dependencies of the brain become deeply ingrained in our neural circuitry through a lifetime of repetition. As such, these words will continue to be used, but they are highly problematic for describing political positions because as deeply held personal identifiers they tend to immediately evoke strong emotions and sets of assumptions in our brains simply upon hearing or reading them, which can put us in an agitated state and blind us to the content of an argument. Emotions are an important part of discourse because they signal passion and commitment, but too often we focus on the identity labels and don't take the time to understand where our views actually converge and diverge. Given that people bring their own specific sets of assumptions to the terms and there is no widely understood definition of them, without clarification they serve primarily as empty rallying cries. And throwing a "neo" in front of "liberal" or "conservative" does not make them any clearer as a means of explaining mental frameworks, policy agendas, identities, or life philosophies. Our highly interactive, globalized communications environment further complicates an already muddled American understanding of what these words mean.

New Thinking and More Words for a Changed Political Landscape

The complexity of today's world can be overwhelming and scary. The technological, ecological, and associated social changes we are collectively experiencing are highly disruptive and deeply unsettling, even as there is great potential for a better future. In order to confront the challenges of today, we would benefit from a renaissance of thought, especially in our public life.

Many are not aware of it, but we are living through a paradigm shift in science based on deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us -- which tends to be articulated in terms such as "complex systems" and "emergent properties" (for my fellow nerds out there, this is what Thomas Kuhn talked about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Our language must adapt to better account for the complexity and nuance that we know to be present from meticulous observation, measurement, experimentation, and perceptual attentiveness, but which we struggle to communicate with each other in words. The call for improving our lexicon has been made by people such as renowned neuroscientist Mike Gazzaniga, whose 2011 book, Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, is one of many works that illustrate this paradigm shift. As Casey Schwartz has summarized his argument, "Gazzaniga is calling for a new 'vocabulary' -- one that doesn't yet exist -- that captures the dynamism between the brain and the mind, between the individual and the group, between the group and the environment. All of these relationships are two-way streets; none a matter of simple, linear cause and effect."

Political spectrums are useful analytical frameworks for where one's views fall relative to the rest of society on specific political issues such as different aspects of the climate change debate; the importance of material social equity as an absolute and when weighed against incentives to innovate and work hard; the different mechanisms government should use to shape the structure of our economic system; how broad our notion of social inclusion should be; how much we should allow predictive computer algorithms to guide policing and other government decision-making; the degree to which we should regulate electronic data collection and processing by corporations and government; and how to adapt our policies to the rapid social reconfigurations and displacement brought about by modern networked electronics and computer-robotics, such as increased automation, the "sharing economy," and the "gig economy." On questions such as when it is appropriate to genetically engineer human beings, we have not begun to scratch the surface. It seems fraught with risks of unintended consequences and nefarious uses as well as significant benefits, but how many of us have weighed all of the different arguments for and against?

Our political landscape has changed, but our political discourse has not kept pace. Trying to compress the kaleidoscopic enormity of the political and ethical questions we face in an increasingly complex world into a simplistic "left-right" or "liberal-conservative" binary needlessly constrains debate, especially given the vagueness and overuse of these terms. Moving past the words themselves and rearticulating the core concepts that we seek to convey is a much-needed exercise. Using them as standalone words without any clarification is little better than grunting at each other.

We need political parties, and politicians will tend to simplify and use slogans in order to communicate to broad audiences. They are necessary for our society to function, and the structure of our hyper-connected, high-speed world imposes pressures on politicians that would break the average person. Parties must also craft platforms and build coalitions out of disparate groups and ideologies. But we as citizens need not be bound by the antiquated discourse of the parties, not trapped by their factionalism.

Conceptual short-hands are necessary, but we must also recognize that our knowledge base is continuously growing, society is perpetually changing, and language is always evolving; thus, short-hands must periodically be updated, redefined, and invented. The centuries-old analytical frameworks that constrain our intellect will not disappear from debates anytime soon, especially since our two-party system encourages a binary mode of thinking about public problems, but we should at least recognize that more words are necessary for real communication to occur between people that are alive now. It will take time and concerted effort to update our political discourse, but it is essential if we are to meet the challenges of today with courage, determination, and force of intellect. We can start by taking the time to explain what we mean when we say "liberal," "conservative," "left," or "right." By disaggregating what they signify as personal identity terms from the conceptual meanings we bring to them, we might realize that some of our social frictions are the tragic result of fights with memories of ghosts from the past. Certainly not most of them, but some of them. The emotional connection to these words should not preclude us from debating the worldviews and theoretical frameworks that they allegedly represent.