Why is Everything Political? Because We Tried to Pretend That Nothing Is

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A Twitter user burns a pair of Nike shoes in protest of their 2018 ad deal with Colin Kaepernick. Source: Sean Clancy.

Following a number of recent mass shootings- large enough to make August 2019 the deadliest month for such shootings in nearly two years- Walmart has announced a change in its gun policy by discontinuing certain kinds of ammo, discouraging open carry in its stores, and calling for reforms to US gun law. The decision (far from the first of its kind) came not just on the heels of a major shooting inside of a Walmart, but also after of years of pressure by gun control activists on the company to change its policies on gun sales. This fact was not lost on supporters of gun rights. In their statement, the NRA called it “shameful to see Walmart succumb to the pressure of anti-gun elites.” Similarly, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro Tweeted: “The Left has found a new way of implementing policy from the top down, without the use of government: simply pressure massive corporations to do their political bidding.”

There are some profound ironies to this entire situation. Perhaps the most glaring is that Walmart’s move represents not some malicious intervention by a liberal nanny state, but rather the company responding to the free market. Adding to a growing conservative commentary on “woke capitalism” (the trend of private companies making visible yet minor concessions to liberal and left-wing activists in order to build PR reputation) conservative writer David French noted that “It used to be that if you spoke as a corporation you risked alienating customers. Now, you also risk alienating customers if you don’t speak. Silence has costs. In an article last year about Walmart’s corporate turn to the left, Walmart officials cited marketing data indicating that the overwhelming majority of Walmart customers wanted it to ‘take a stand on important social issues.’”

From liberal pressure on Walmart and boycotts of companies that have held Trump fundraisers, to the perennial conservative boycotts of Starbucks and pressure placed on social media platforms for alleged bias, public attention is now fixated on personal financial activism to affect politics, even if the change is only symbolic. This development is widely bemoaned by many as part of the larger trend of “politicization,” the claim being that every aspect of our society has now been “politicized,” stoking “divisive” controversy over everything from Chick-Fil-A to the NFL.

There’s an extent to which this concern is exaggerated: boycotts have always been prevalent in politics, and things outside of the realms of traditional politics have always been politicized. On the other hand, there is a real truth in the complaint about how political controversy has infected every aspect of our society. But it still misses a fundamental point. The truth is that, in a broad sense, everything has always been political; we only notice it now because for decades now political leaders and economic elites have tried to pretend that we can operate “above” or “beyond” politics, that we can shrink the role of political contestation and shift decision-making power elsewhere besides the state. While this move succeeded in shrinking the range of the US government, it has failed to actually depoliticize society, instead simply rerouting widespread political frustration into anything else that can be grabbed onto. Government’s very role is to handle divisive controversy, to be the forum where citizens hash out differences. The way out of this isn’t creating new slogans about unity: it involves giving Americans real political power to decide the kind of society they want to live in.

What is “Politics”?

“Politics” is something of a dirty word today. Just before the 2016 election, 82% of those polled said that the campaign made them feel “[more] disgusted” about American politics. Today, when you ask Americans which institutions are “pushing people apart,” they will list political parties as the most divisive by far. A major part of this perception is simply the result of what we mean when we say “Politics.”

Today, the term “Politics” is used to denote the worst practices of politics proper: ideological bickering, corruption, hyperpartisanship, gridlock, and so on. In this way, politicians and pundits can uphold the idea of being “above” or “beyond” Politics, which in reality means placing personal principle and public interest above the petty Political squabbling that is seen as below these values. This is what is meant when a congressman says something like “education isn’t a Political issue;” an author argues that “keeping our nation safe shouldn’t be Political;” or, as someone has actually said to me before: “the Constitution is not a Political document.” This framing of “Politics” bends the term enough that it makes major political issues and a literal national Constitution (a political document by definition) somehow non-Political.

The problem with this framework is that it distorts our understanding of actual politics more than it helps it. “Politics” is not a narrow set of selfish actions and maneuvers by some far-away bureaucrat. Politics is the realm of public life in which we all compete and cooperate for resources, rights, responsibilities, and ideals. It is the collective social process of formulating, advocating for, and constructing a vision of society which meets the needs and desires of those within it. We all participate in politics, each and every day. Every argument and discussion, every purchase and donation, every contract signed and agreement made, and every act of public kindness or cruelty is a political act.

“To subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market”

The current idea of “Politics” is not a neutral, organic one, but one which emerged from rather specific origins. As I’ve written before, the 1970’s and 80’s saw the emergence of neoliberalism, the broad political paradigm we currently inhabit which is focused on expanding the role of markets in society through deregulation, privatization, lower taxes and spending, and so on. From Reagan labelling government as “the problem” to Clinton refusing to identify it as either the problem or the solution, neoliberalism is a movement that shifts power from the state to the market. But it is not just an ideology or a set of policies: it is also a new lens through which the world can be seen and organized, one which “entails seeing every aspect of society, even those typically considered civic or community affairs, in the terms of the market economy.” Neoliberalism is a project in which the market consumes the rest of society.

Even before neoliberalism brought this idea to the forefront of American life, some prescient thinkers warned of its consequences. In his 1944 classic “The Great Transformation,” economic anthropologist Karl Polanyi wrote that:

A market economy must comprise all elements of industry, including labor, land, and money… But labor and land are no other than the human beings themselves of which every society consists and the natural surroundings in which it exists. To include them in the market mechanism means to subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market…

To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity “labor power” cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity. In disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity “man” attached to that tag.

Polanyi argues that placing the market (itself one aspect of society) as the primary dimension of society leads to the decay and dissolution of society itself, as industry remakes us all from multidimensional citizens into dehumanized pieces of “fictitious capital.” But, in principle, this is exactly how society has been ordered under neoliberalism. Aspects of society as fundamental to individual development as schools, neighborhoods, healthcare, culture, diet, hobbies, and relationships are all market commodities today, things which can either be sold to us or used to sell us other things and lead us into new markets.

Political theorist Wendy Brown’s phenomenal book “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution” goes into detail about this in a much more modern context:

…[under neoliberalism] both persons and states are construed on the model of the contemporary firm, both persons and states are expected to comport themselves in ways that maximize their capital value in the present and enhance their future value, and both persons and states do so through practices of entrepreneurialism, self-investment, and/or attracting investors…

As both individual and state become projects of management, rather than rule, as an economic framing and economic ends replace political ones, a range of concerns become subsumed to the project of capital enhancement, recede altogether, or are radically transformed as they are “economized.”…

…this formulation means that democratic state commitments to equality, liberty, inclusion, and constitutionalism are now subordinate to the project of economic growth, competitive positioning, and capital enhancement. These political commitments can no longer stand on their own legs and… would be jettisoned if found to abate, rather than abet, economic goals.

What Brown means is this: when a political project that deemphasized government and society while reemphasizing business grew into a consensus position, what is seen as the proper role of government in making decisions regarding justice, equality, freedom, and other fundamental values is shrunk. Every governmental decision becomes one about economic efficiency and maximizing wealth, so that rather than having a debate about what kind of world we want to live in, it is decided for us that “economic growth is the state’s social policy.” Ideas which go against market logic are taboo and relegated to the margins of our discussions. Even many center-left policies are sold to the public not in terms of improving lives or changing society for the better, but in terms of economic growth. In this sense, neoliberalism “evacuates the content from liberal democracy,” it “subdues democratic desires and imperils democratic dreams.”

Nowhere is this shift clearer than in the writing of neoliberals themselves. In a famous 1989 article at the end of the Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed that the world was entering the “end of history”: “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” as “the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.” The widely influential argument essentially celebrated a new world where the victory of the West meant that ideological differences will fade as we all fight over a smaller and smaller realm of disagreements. Fukuyama helped to popularize the idea of a post-political world as a desirable one, a place where we can get away from public contest over values and visions and move towards an apolitical management of public affairs. The political establishment has increasingly adopted this idea and the rhetoric surrounding it, hoping that the problems of politics could be simply solved by the death of politics itself.

Closing the Door on Change

Here’s the problem with Fukuyama’s idea: the realm of actual political disagreement never shrank, only the realm of positions considered by politicians did. From taxation to healthcare to political reform, millions of Americans have believed and continue to believe in policies that are well outside of the political “mainstream.” The political consensus of the American people is radically different from the political consensus of Washington. This is in large because of neoliberalism, which has created a situation where the position of Wall Street is seen as more important than the views of any given million Americans, both in theory and in practice. For example, the idea that workers should have their own representation on corporate boards (a model currently in practice in Germany which Elizabeth Warren has advocated for) is an extremely “far left” proposal by the standards of American politics, and would be fought viciously by corporate lobbyists whose sole aim is shareholder maximization. It is way outside of the “mainstream” of US politics. And yet, like many others, the idea has majority support in every single state in the country.

At the same time that neoliberalism has been shrinking the effective range of acceptable thought in which American politics functions (known as an Overton window), gridlock and various anti-democratic practices have emerged which guarantee that the government does virtually nothing in response to popular demands. Many place the blame for gridlock on polarization, but it is perhaps even more important to look at how gerrymandering, shady disenfranchisement tactics, the rise of the filibuster, undemocratic institutions, and the enormous political power of the wealthy that neoliberalism enables have all come together to thwart the desires of the American public even when they’re completely united.

Let’s look at guns again. Polling consistently finds that Americans’ support for universal background checks for guns hovers just below 90%- an unbelievable level of consensus for a polarized nation. In 2013, the Senate voted on a bipartisan bill to implement just that, with no strings attached. The Senate (politically unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, by design) passed the bill by only 54–46, and even that wasn’t enough to make it past the filibuster into law. Even many minor changes to the law with near unanimous support face an uphill battle in today’s government. The number of bills congress passes has trended downwards over time, and the single largest piece of legislation passed in almost ten years now was the 2017 tax cuts, a giveaway to the wealthy which is unpopular with the American people. So while moneyed groups like the NRA may make their case with the language of individual freedom, in practice they exist to limit the freedom of individuals to have a meaningful say in their own government.

Quick, Make a Tweet!

Let’s say that you are a citizen of the United States of America with passionate political beliefs. What do you do when engaging in politics by protesting or lobbying a government for specific policy fixes has become both unpopular and unrealistic? How do you move for social change when the traditional avenue designed for making social change has been shut off? Simple: you practice your politics elsewhere. Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, has put it this way: “When presented with government that is not responding to the desires of the citizenry, citizens are looking for other ways to change public policy… [but it’s] problematic to believe that the private sector can be a proxy for government, and so we need our government to be responsive to the citizenry.”

Neoliberalism’s market-based drive towards shrinking the sphere of the political has not only privatized the economy, but has had the unintended effect of privatizing our politics too. In a laissez-faire context where private companies dominate the economic landscape, corporations can become as powerful as small nations (Mark Zuckerberg himself acknowledges that Facebook is now “more like a government than a traditional company”). With a shift in power from a democratic state to a handful of undemocratic companies now controlling so many aspects of our lives, activists would be foolish not to shift their attention towards recognizing that these companies are political, and attempting to pressure them for change.

On the left, there is arguably more protesting and organizing put into boycotting Chick-Fil-A than into federally banning gay conversion therapy, the core controversy at hand. On the right, public complaint and congressional testimony goes into denouncing the supposed political bias of Twitter every single day, while a proposed GOP bill that would actually change the law to address it doesn’t even get a hearing in the GOP-controlled Senate. It’s not a mystery why these solutions don’t get pushed harder either: 70% of Americans believe that “people like them” have too little influence on government. The idea of legislative solutions is increasingly becoming passé.

Earlier this year, writer Libby Watson published an article about how Yelp reviews are becoming a tool of politics, with restaurants being flooded with good or bad reviews depending on political controversies that occur there, including a number of instances where internet users “[try] to game Yelp’s review system to tank a business’ standing in response to some news story involving the establishment.” Why?

In our neoliberal society… is it any wonder that citizens have turned to a largely useless website to exert some small measure of their ever-more-limited influence in the political sphere?…

Turning to Yelp to act based on a business entity’s perceived politics also shows we believe we hold more power as consumers than citizens. It isn’t a coincidence that this is happening yet again in the same moment that it feels like our democracy is crumbling. The right to vote — that civic duty we’re told is our all-important chance to Have Our Say — is rapidly being eroded, as our choice between the two major parties is rapidly boiling down to ‘a party for racists’ and ‘literally your only other choice if you’re not racist.’ Getting the most votes doesn’t necessarily mean you get to be president. Our campaign finance system ensures that the wealthy have a much louder voice, while the rest of us are left with bleated demands to call your congressman, make your voice heard, write a letter…

When any of these things breaks through, it feels like a miracle; it should be routine.

Neoliberalism and the related decline of democracy in both spirit and practice have changed the landscape we live in. Employers, shareholders, and wealthy special interest groups dictate the terms of public discourse and possess their own legislative veto, while everyone else is demoted from sovereign individuals with a right to participate in a democratic republic to sometimes-useful pieces of human capital. Thus, as Brown puts it, “the neoliberal revolution takes place in the name of freedom… but tears up freedom’s grounding in sovereignty for states and subjects alike.”

At the end of the day, the “woke capitalism” of our modern culture wars is just that: a series of minor targeted political battles over the practices of powerful for-profit entities often wrongly considered to be outside of the realm of traditional politics, achieving occasional victories at the expense of actual policymaking. It is not a substitute for real progress. The only way that we can fix the issues we are facing, the only way for our culture to become less “divisive,” and indeed the only way for political freedom to be truly realized is through repoliticizing our politics. The American public must have a way to make meaningful choices about the nation’s policies, exercising their power as citizens to decide what kind of nation they want to live in. We need politicians who are chosen by popular will in free and fair elections and constantly held accountable to the real desires of their constituents, not boiler-plate speeches given by safe-seat congressmen in a political arrangement designed to not pass bills. It’s time to embrace the fact that the divisiveness of politics is a feature, not a flaw. We need more open arguments about laws, more honest disagreements about policy, and more public engagement on every issue. We need less of the Washington consensus’ autopilot and less technocratic tweaks made for us by experts we have never heard of.

One final, closing example: the NFL. Colin Kaepernick has drawn massive controversy for his decision to kneel in protest during the national anthem at football games. Indeed, some fans were angered enough to burn any product associated with him, as can be seen in this article’s lead photo. But the New York Times interviewed one football fan whose complaint about Kaepernick is representative of a segment of sports fans who are made more uncomfortable than angry by his actions: “If you want to do stuff in your off hours, that’s fine, that’s your right as an American… It’s time to play football. It’s not time for politics.” The supposed objection here is that Kaepernick is “bringing” politics “in” to football, which is ostensibly non-political. What this position fails to realize is that football has always been political. The only reason the New Orleans Saints exist is because the NFL agreed to give the city a franchise in exchange for Louisiana Senator Russell Long’s support for a major NFL merger deal. Even more significant, the only reason that the NFL plays the national anthem at games in the first place is because the US Department of Defense has directly paid them to, in what Republican Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain criticized as “displays of paid patriotism.”

Kaepernick is not “bringing” politics “in” to football. The NFL has always been political insofar as the organization wheels and deals its way into greater profits by engaging in closed-door politics. Kaepernick is instead utilizing the sheer political power that private organizations like the NFL have acquired as an avenue of protest, one of the shrinking number of avenues available for serious dissent remaining in a world where votes are being gerrymandered into meaninglessness and every policy proposal has to include “and it’s good for business!” in the pitch. From the content of TV shows to the conspicuous use of paper straws, when politics can’t be effectively practiced through normal means, people will resort to practicing politics through culture.

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Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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