Jason Brennan: How Kneeling Athletes Reveal the True Nature of Politics

BrennanMuch of Puerto Rico may be without power for six months. North Korea is increasingly belligerent. The world’s reaction to coming climate change ranges between empty symbolic gestures and nothing. A just shy of fascist party won 13% of the seats in the German federal election. The U.S. has been at war—and troops have been dying for frivolous reasons—for sixteen years. But what are Americans most outraged about? Whether football players kneeling during the National Anthem, in protest of police brutality toward blacks, is somehow wrongly disrespectful of a flag, “the troops!”, or America.

Both sides accuse the other side of hypocrisy and bad faith. And both sides are mostly right. Hypocrisy and bad faith are the self-driving cars of politics. They get us where we want, without our having to drive.

What Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels (in the 2016 Princeton University Press book Democracy for Realists) call the folk theory of democracy goes roughly as follows: People know their interests. They then form preferences about what the government should do to promote these goals. They vote for parties and politicians who will best realize these goals. Then the government implements the goals of the majority. But the problem, Achen and Bartels argue, is that each part of that “folk theory” is false.

Instead, as economist Robin Hanson likes to say, politics is not about policy. The hidden, unconscious reason we form political beliefs is to help us form coalitions with other people. Most of us choose our particular political affiliations because people like us vote that way. We then join together with other supposedly like-minded people, creating an us versus a them. We are good and noble and can be trusted. They are stupid and evil and at fault for everything. We loudly denounce the other side in order to prove, in public, that we are especially good and pure, and so our fellow coalition members should reward us with praise and high status.

Our political tribalism spills over and corrupts our behavior outside of politics. Consider research by political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood. Iyenger and Westwood wanted to determine how much, if at all, political bias affects how people evaluate job candidates. They conducted an experiment in which they asked over 1,000 subjects to evaluate what the subjects were told were the résumés of graduating high school students. Iyenger and Westwood carefully crafted two basic résumés, one of which was clearly more impressive than the other. They randomly labeled the job candidates as Republican or Democrat, and randomly made the candidates stronger or weaker. At that same time, they also determined whether the subjects—the people evaluating the candidates—were strong or weak Republicans, independents, or strong or weak Democrats.

The results are depressing: 80.4% of Democratic subjects picked the Democratic job candidate, while 69.2% of Republican subjects picked the Republican job candidate. Even when the Republican job candidate was clearly stronger, Democrats still chose the Democratic candidate 70% of the time. In contrast, they found that “candidate qualification had no significant effect on winner selection.” In other words, the evaluators didn’t care about how qualified the candidates were; they just cared about what the job candidates’ politics were.

Legal theorist Cass Sunstein notes that in 1960, only about 4-5% of Republicans and Democrats said they would “displeased” if their children married members of the opposite party. Now about 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats admit they would be displeased. The truth is probably higher than that—some people would be upset but won’t admit it on a survey. Explicit “partyism”—prejudice against people from a different political party—is now more common than explicit racism.

At least some people have honest, good faith disputes about how to realize shared moral values, or about just what morality and justice require. We should be able to maintain such disputes without seeing each other as enemies. Sure, some moral disagreements are beyond the pale. If someone advocates the genocidal slaughter of Jews, fine, they’re not a good person. But disagreements on whether the minimum wage does more harm than good are not grounds for mutual diffidence. But, as ample empirical research shows (you can read my Against Democracy for a review), we are biased to see political disputants as stupid and evil, rather than just having a reasonable disagreement. Indeed, as Diana Mutz (in her Hearing the Other Side) shows, people who are successfully able to articulate the other sides’ point of view hardly participate in politics, but the nasty true-believers vote early and often.

It’s not a surprise people are so irrational and nasty about politics. The logic behind it is simple. Your individual vote counts for almost nothing. Even on the more optimistic models, you are as likely to change an election as you are to win Powerball. Accordingly, it doesn’t matter if your political beliefs are true or false, reasonable or utterly absurd. When you cross the street, you form rational beliefs about traffic patterns—or you die. When you vote, though, you can afford to indulge your deepest prejudices with no cost. How we vote matters, but how any one of us does not.

Imagine a professor told her 1000-student class that in fifteen weeks, she would hold a final exam, worth 100% of their grade. Suppose she told them that in the name of equality, she would average all final exam grades together and give every student the same grade. Students wouldn’t study and the average grade would be an F. In effect, this scenario is how democracy works, except that we have a 210-million person class in the United States. The downside is not merely that we remain ignorant. Rather, the downside is that it liberates us to use our political beliefs for other purposes.

Politics makes us civic enemies. When we make something a political matter, we turn it into a zero-sum game where someone has to win and someone has to lose. Political decisions involve a constrained set of options. In politics, there are usually only a handful of viable choices. Political decisions are monopolistic: everyone has to accept the same decision. Political decisions are imposed involuntarily: you don’t really consent to the outcome of a democratic decision.

Now back to football players kneeling. My friends on the Right refuse to take the players at their word. The players say they’re protesting police brutality and other ways the U.S. mistreats its black populace. My friends on the Right scoff and say, no, really they just hate America and hate the troops. This reaction is wrong, but not surprising. Imputing evil motives to the other side is essential to politics. The Left does it all the time too. If, for example, some economists on the Right says they favor school vouchers as a means of improving school quality, the Left will just accuse them of hating the poor.

It’s worth noting that since 2009, the Pentagon has paid the NFL over $6 million to stage patriotic displays before games to help drive recruiting.[i] The pre-game flag shows are literally propaganda in the narrowest sense of the word. Personally, I think participating in government-funded propaganda exercises is profoundly anti-American, while taking a knee and refusing to dance on command shows real respect for what the country supposedly stands for.

Jason Brennan is the Flanagan Family Chair of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), and Against Democracy. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.