The New Rules of Engagement
Not that long ago, my grandparents explained to me why they never discussed politics, religion, or sex in mixed company. Politeness was their currency. And why antagonize people or create ill will over private matters?
Fast-forward to 2023, and their advice seems needed more than ever. Today nothing is private; everything is political. And American politics is characterized by a perverse degree of bad faith.
Whether the country really is more divided than any time since the Civil War or this is merely our perception—thanks to social media rancor, nonstop cable news, and rabid political partisanship—scarcely matters. Either way, the psychology is clear. Anger directed toward the “other” delivers the desired dopamine hit. Under conditions of extreme distrust, scapegoating is far easier and more satisfying than cooperation. We see this clearly with attitudes toward Brexit, Hillary versus Trump, covid lockdowns, vaccines, Ukraine, Antifa, January 6, the 2022 midterm elections, and a host of other manufactured issues. Americans are watching at least two different movies.
So does this political polarization cause, or merely reflect, broader social and cultural rifts? The late Andrew Breitbart insisted politics is downstream from culture, which seems broadly correct when we observe the progressive near monopoly over cultural institutions. But there has been a concurrent quiet revolution in law and politics, creating a “rival constitution” and placing politics more squarely at the center of American life. Today we live today in a crass and hyperpoliticized reality where every facet of life—race, sex, sexuality, family, marriage, money, career—is seen as a political statement. This aids and abets the progressive project, which leverages the Leninist/Stalinist “Who, Whom?” distinction as carrot and stick.1
Operating effectively in this environment requires us to be clear eyed and honest about the rules of engagement. Politics is not war, but it suggests violence. People who simply don’t want to fight, or who don’t recognize the fight taking place, are at a tremendous disadvantage. Ideas, debate, logic, and persuasion satisfy our sense of fairness and honor. But they are effective only when widely accepted and their results adhered to. We are not required to delude ourselves about this or to turn the other cheek to retain our humanity.
These rules of engagement may seem obvious and commonsense but nonetheless may be helpful for your family and friends who do not fully grasp the situation.
- Assume bad faith in political matters.
Many politicians, especially at the federal level, have dropped any pretense of working to achieve democratic consensus. Lying, gaslighting, and subterfuge are the operative tools to win elections and vanquish the other side. This is not the simple cynicism of my grandfather’s day, when the whole political charade might well have been viewed as a gang of crooks fighting over spoils. This is not a period scandal like Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Teapot Dome. Today we must entirely rework our understanding of modern US politics, understanding it as a precursor to violence rather than a mechanism for governance and dispute resolution. Americans acutely feel this brutal winner-take-all element in our politics. Consensus has nothing to do with it. “Democracy” is nothing more than a cheap moniker for “when progressives win.” So your default position regarding any political statement or proposal must be disbelief.
- Assume institutions are politicized.
Like it or not, the nonmarket, nongovernmental institutions of civil society no longer operate as a buffer between individual and state. They have been almost entirely captured by progressive ideology, from mainline Protestant denominations and Catholic leaders to the American Civil Liberties Union and Boy Scouts of America. We no longer can assume their stated purpose is their actual purpose or that their public stances can be separated from politics. Thus, Robert Conquest’s third law can be updated slightly to reflect bureaucratic control of institutions that not only places them at odds with their original raison d’être but tasks them with an entirely new agenda of serving the progressive project.
- Assume business is politicized.
Medicine, education, law, banking, accounting, insurance, pharmaceuticals, arms manufacturing, and much of the tech world have been enormously affected. Firms operating in these industries often resemble what Michael Rectenwald terms “governmentalities,” in which ostensibly private market actors willingly take on the role and imperatives of the state. Add DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) to the mix, and virtually all US public companies now at the very least toe the government line when it comes to all manner of political positions. This means heroic smaller and privately held companies must be the true “private sector” drivers of the economy, a bright spot where real win-win social cooperation can take place.
- Treat public policy as politics.
Beware of those advancing a particular agenda under the guise of “public policy.” In a hyperpolitical environment, this is simply code for preferred politics. There may have been a time in American history when there actually were nonpartisan policy wonks laboring away in the basements of federal agencies or in think tanks, but that time clearly is past. Politics, not policy, drives federal lawmaking and the administrative state. If Joe Biden manages to enact his student loan forgiveness bill, for example, it won’t have anything to do with some study or statistical analysis provided by the Brookings Institution. It will reflect raw politics and patronage toward younger voters, just as George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D bill pandered to older voters. And remember, we don’t need “policy” at all, whether monetary policy or housing policy or energy policy. We need markets. This is not to say we cannot participate in policy debates or support a particular measure (e.g., an actual tax cut) and oppose another. But we should no longer allow a pseudoprofessional class of people in and around DC to claim an expertise or neutrality they don’t possess. And we should never elevate politics with the window dressing of “policy.”
- Assume religiosity, not reason, in public discourse.
We like to think logic rules the day, but every indication says otherwise. Consider Al Gore’s unhinged rant at Davos last week, a fire-and-brimstone homily which would have elicited mirth from attendees had it been delivered by an evangelical preacher. Or consider the religious zeal with which a National Hockey League player was attacked not for any action or statement concerning LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues, but merely for his forbearance—refusing to wear a rainbow flag jersey before a designated game. Progressives live in an emotional, faith-based universe, every bit as removed from pure reason as the religious observers they mock. Simply appealing to reason rather than hearts and minds is a surefire way to lose in the current environment. This is especially true for young people. Effective argumentation today recognizes and adjusts for this reality without sacrificing principle or truth.
- Never confuse the imposers with the imposed upon.
Progressives not only won the twentieth century handily but enjoyed a rout. Now they are winning the culture wars handily while capturing young people for their cause in alarming numbers. And top to bottom, progressives have more money and power than conservatives. Yet still progressives get away with presenting themselves as victims and underdogs fighting some mysterious oppression or nonexistent WASP power structure. It is important to understand the dynamics at play, because any worthwhile concept of justice differentiates between aggression and self-defense.
- Take responsibility for your own information gathering.
At this point it scarcely needs to be said that large media organizations promote government narratives almost without exception. Deep skepticism is the order of the day, but with this comes the responsibility to go beyond easy headlines and social media to become informed on the pressing matters of the day. And always remember it is OK not to have opinions on issues that you lack understanding about.
- Take responsibility for your own education.
Learning and improving is a lifelong endeavor, and it has never been easier, thanks to digital platforms. Relentless reading is one of the keys to your personal and professional development. You can choose to constantly improve and expand your knowledge using the principles of kaizen, as personified by Robert Luddy.
- Application and activism beat debate and theory.
Whether we like it or not, most Americans are not interested in political history or economic theory. They are interested in the what—primarily the material quality of their lives—more than the how or the why. And we won’t counter the activist progressive project with books and philosophy alone. Now is the time to get active in civil society, to make the case for applied theory, and to approach politics at the most local levels. A single voice can reach outsized audiences with the right digital platforms and the right message. And entrepreneurship may be the single best form of activism against state propaganda, demonstrating the win-win alternative to politics on a daily basis.
So how do we even begin to depoliticize America? This is a fundamental question if we hope to improve conditions. All people of goodwill have an obligation to fight the escalation of politics and reduce the likelihood of outright political violence (as we’re seeing this week in Atlanta). Yet as stated many times before, we won’t vote our way out of this and we should not expect help from Washington, DC. The incentives for politicians are all wrong. Division sells. In fact, division makes the very politicians promoting it appear more necessary than ever to a fearful and gullible electorate. So we should turn our backs on DC, work to ignore mainstream media and captured institutions, and build out parallel structures wherever possible. We have new rules of engagement, but they conjure up an old one from economist Herb Stein: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Better to realize this ahead of time.
- 1. “Progressive” generally connotes “left wing” today, as most progressive impulses are animated by leftist cultural ambitions. But there are right progressives (neoconservatives) in the broader sense of the word. Both varieties believe mankind can and should be perfected to serve broader state or societal goals.