What 20th-century high school taught me about 21st-century politics.
I’m even older than David Roberts (who recently posted the very important article “Tech nerds are smart. But they can’t seem to get their heads around politics.“), so I also grew up in the days before nerds became cool.
In the popular action dramas of my youth, nerds were never the heroes. We had no equivalent of, say, Neo from The Matrix or Hiro Hamada from Big Hero 6. At best, the heroes we were offered were jocks open-minded enough to tolerate the occasional nerdy associate or sidekick, like 007’s Q or Captain Kirk’s Spock. (Nerds particularly loved Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch, because he knocked people out by knowing stuff about physiology rather than decking them with a right cross.) Even in the defining nerd-fanboy film of my college years, the jockiest character (Han Solo) was a hunky action hero while the nerdiest (R2D2) was a beeping blinking machine. No matter how many times he saved the day, was there ever a chance R2 would get the girl?
20th-century high-school nerds. One thing I remember clearly about the uncool nerd subculture of my youth: We were bitter about our unpopularity. We returned the disdain of high-school society with interest, and saw its social system as a scummy, irrational thing. Figuring out its rules and mastering its processes was beneath us, no matter how much we wished we could enjoy its fruits (or at least stop being its victims).
So we told ourselves and each other that it wasn’t a system at all. There was nothing to know about how to dress or make conversation, no reason to map the social structure or look for possible points of entry, nothing to gain from identifying and cultivating potential allies.
We weren’t just un-strategic about the society around us, we were anti-strategic. If you had taken 16-year-old me aside and tried to explain how things worked and how they could work to my advantage (if I mastered the appropriate skills), I would have argued with you: High school society represented pure irrationality. That fact was the only thing worth knowing about it. Imagining otherwise wasn’t a necessary pre-condition to figuring stuff out, it was surrender. I’d be opening my pristine mind to corrupting nonsense.
21st-century nerds and politics. I have it on good authority that high school isn’t that way any more, at least in the professional-class suburbs. I’ve watched a math geek and a dungeon master go through public high school. Each has had a diverse group of friends — i.e., not just the chess club — and girl friends whose attractiveness to non-nerds went well beyond any aspiration of mine at that age. (There must have been jocks who wanted to go out with these young women, but couldn’t raise their interest.)
Despite that progress, though, Roberts’ article points to an arena where the familiar patterns of my youth still apply: politics.
The text for Roberts’ sermon is the nerdy Wait But Why blog of Harvard-educated Tim Urban, particularly a 26K-word post about the history of cars and energy and climate change that Urban wrote at the request of arch-nerd Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Climate change is Roberts’ bailiwick (I’ve often quoted from climate-change articles he wrote for Grist before moving to Vox), so he read Urban’s long post with great interest, and mostly approved.
I’m not political because nothing could ever possibly be more annoying than American politics. I think both parties have good points, both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things, and I want nothing to do with it. So I approached this post—like I try to with every post—from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.
Indeed, politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory (I’m looking at you, Larry Lessig). And it’s a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they’re figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way. They need to develop that tree trunk knowledge that enables them to contextualize new political information. Currently, they lack a good tree trunk, as Urban’s post demonstrates.
Unexamined frames. Instead, presumably because he wants “nothing to do” with politics, Urban doesn’t look too hard at his basic political frames, like this one:
Here, Republicans and Democrats are symmetrically distributed around a rational center, with mirror-image crazy zones at the extreme left and right. If you picture the political spectrum this way, then it’s obvious what you hope for: Rational moderates on each side should get together, reject their crazy compatriots, and construct a reasonable compromise around known realities and theories supported by evidence. The fact that this almost never happens just emphasizes how irrational politicians are, and why nerds like Urban want nothing to do with them.
Roberts points out the embedded assumption:
That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one’s distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things “from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.”
He offers a counter-narrative: In current American politics, the center isn’t defined by shared rationality, but by money and power. As a result, when we do have the kind of bipartisanship Urban would like to see, it’s not rational, it’s corporate. He illustrates with climate change:
The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It’s a hoax, so we shouldn’t do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It’s happening, so we should do something about it. The “centrist” position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it’s happening but we shouldn’t do anything about it. That’s not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.
The ones talking about ambitious policy to address climate change are mostly out in what Urban has labeled crazy zones.
Two asymmetric parties. Political-science research — there really is such a thing — has shown that the two parties are not mirror images, but “different beasts entirely”. Republicans are united by ideology (or abstract principles, if you prefer a less pejorative formulation), while the Democratic Party is a coalition of groups each of which centers on a particular issue and its corresponding policies — immigration reform with a path to citizenship, Blacks Lives Matter, feminism, the environment. Democrats represent growing urban-centered demographics that can be discouraged from voting and gerrymandered out of full representation in the House, while Republicans are mostly older, better-off whites who are no longer numerous enough to control the presidency (if Democratic constituencies vote).
So that’s where American politics stands today: on one side, a radicalized, highly ideological demographic threatened with losing its place of privilege in society, politically activated and locked into the House; on the other side, a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous coalition of interest groups big enough to reliably win the presidency and occasionally the Senate. For now, it’s gridlock.
Roberts illustrates with a policy that Urban thinks is so sensible that it should appeal across the political spectrum: a revenue-neutral carbon tax that fights global warming without shifting money from the private sector to the public sector. Roberts characterizes Urban’s expectation as “political naiveté” resulting from envisioning politics “as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides’ criteria are met.”
It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever.
Who’s crazy now? If Urban wants to further the goals he espouses, he needs a better understanding of where he is:
Urban supports what Musk is trying to do, which is accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. As it happens, out of America’s two major political parties, about a half of one of them supports that undertaking. That half a party is concentrated on the Democratic Party’s left flank, over in Urban’s crazy zone. Turns out he’s in that crazy zone too, but he doesn’t realize it.
There is no subject more ripe for the dissection of an obsessive nerd than American politics. It is ridden with myths and outdated conventional wisdom. And the kind of people who read Wait But Why are among those most in need of tree trunk knowledge of politics.
Nerds want to make the world better, but they cannot do so without allies in the public sector. They should roll up their sleeves, hold their noses, and try to get a better sense of the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life. Only when they understand politics, and figure out how to make it work better, will all their dreams find their way into the real world.
I’ll amplify that with my own perspective: The biggest weakness of the nerd mindset is a tendency to fall in love with a vision of how the world ought to work, and (from that Olympian height) to pass negative judgment on the world as it is. Once you do that, you’ve cut yourself off from constructive action and made yourself powerless. Having decided that the World-That-Is is not worth understanding, you will never learn its rules or master its mechanisms.
When my generation of nerds did that with the social system of high school, it didn’t work out well for us. If the current generation of nerds cops a similar attitude towards politics, it won’t work out well for them either — or for a world that desperately needs well-intentioned people who can understand and organize complex systems.