Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Politics is the new religion

I watched part of the political debate between major party leaders in Sweden yesterday. At the same time the US presidential election is under way, and it now stands between Clinton and Trump. The state of politics in the world makes me filled with despair and contempt, and I wonder if democracy is really the best way to govern a country.

I wonder what kind of person becomes a high level politician. They themselves describe it as someone who is bold enough to go ahead and implement the change needed to better the country, to take it in a new and prosperous direction. They like to think that they are social architects that reshape culture to benefit all people. To me this is a clear sign of grandiose delusion, in religious proportions.

Somehow they have convinced themselves that they are the experts on how to arrange a society, and that they are in touch with the needs and preferences of the citizens. A wrong decision could affect millions of people, so their jobs come with a huge responsibility. This should make them very humble and careful with the task at hand, and that attitude should be reflected in the way they conduct themselves in interviews and debates.

Instead we see the immature interactions of a bunch of kids in a sandbox. It is all about smearing the opponent and scoring easy points. The debate format is such that they never have to go into depth on any subject. All interest groups will be satisfied, they assure us, with a confidence that puts religious leaders to shame.

The level of contempt for the voters is just mind-blowing. Nothing substantive is ever said, everything is just pure rhetoric, in a well planned psychological chess game, to win over as many voters as possible. But do the end really justify the means? Is this public charade something they have to endure because they really are virtuous people with admirable goals, and the system itself is broken? Are they acting like this because people are stupid and easily misled, and in the end they need the majority vote to get into office and act out their benevolent and divine plan for humanity? 

I would submit that the people most suited to govern a country - the open minded, smart, well informed, diplomatic, and decent people - have too much integrity to be part of this game. It takes someone with a psychopathy to be able to be so cunning that they can take it all the way to the top of the political ladder. What ideals they have and what change they personally want to implement matter very little in the end, and isn't the real reason they are in the game. Just like most people found at the top of different organizations, they are extremely competitive thrill seekers. To win the election is all that matters. So then of course they hone their skills to do exactly that; they become experts at profoundly sounding platitudes, verbal dodging of important issues, and taking delight in pointing out character flaws in opponents. In other walks of life we call them unpleasant, bullies, and psychopaths, but in politics we have become so numb to this norm that no one reacts anymore.

Politicians have access to the only sanctioned violence in a country. When they pass legislature they force the citizens comply, by the threat of physical force. Think about this for a second, to let the gravity of the issue sink in: If you don't comply with what a governing politician thinks is right and has made into law, someone with a gun will come and force you to comply. A politician is not the country equivalent of a soccer team coach, he is someone with the power to ruin your life, without facing any punishment or even reprimand.

How many rules of behavior can you yourself come up with that are so important that they should be enforced at gun point? In my opinion extremely few, only a small fraction of what is currently in the books. Nothing is more important than people's freedom to make their own choices about how to live. No one should be coerced to follow a certain life style, yet this still happens on a grand scale in our democracies. There is no way to take a step to the side and not follow the laws you find objectionable.

The real heroes of cultural change in society are not politicians, they are engineers, scientists, business people and artists. These are creative people who produce something and let the market (i.e. the people) decide if it is valuable. Politicians like to think they are the enablers of this progress, when they in reality are a distortion field that just confuses the process. They do this by setting artificial ground rules, for example by taxing commodities in an uneven way to promote certain items over other items. And they often do this because special interest lobbyists bribe them to.

Somehow this corrupt political system just continues year after year, when the vicious cycle easily could be broken by voting politicians out of office. So maybe the politicians are right, maybe most people are stupid, without any real sense of what is going on, and desperately need someone to make life decisions for them. Maybe the average person is like a child that never really grows up, unable to take the responsibilities of an adult. A weak character that is longing for someone to take charge and act like a father figure who says "don't worry, everything will be ok". Thinking about it this way, it quickly sounds like religion to me. It is the same psychological mechanisms at play, and that's why I'm so horrified by it. In a democracy people do get the leaders they deserve. Especially in this age of free flowing information that the Internet has enabled.

Am I so different from the average person, just because I set freedom first? The idea that you can somehow know better than your neighbor how he should live and what he should value, is preposterous to me. To me, a politician is just a person who takes this idea all the way as far as he can. He works as a hard as possible to convince as many people as possible that he knows what is best for them. In a way a politician is a religious leader, and many have the same kind of unreal zeal.

The real threat to a country's prosperity isn't the big banks, the financial institutions, the environmental decay, or the rich vs the poor. Those are just convenient scapegoats to keep everyone from looking at the real threat, which is political corruption, and the failed political programs where society is artificially forced in certain directions because of grandiose delusions by politicians.

The grass-root members of political parties are usually no better. They are scary in the level of enthusiasm they have. In a highly complex matter such as the best way to govern a country, how can you have such strong opinions, and how can you be so condemning of the opponents? How you can you be so dead sure that you are on the right side? To be sure about something that even the smartest people disagree on, is a sign of low intelligence, on the level of disqualification from the right to vote. Intelligence so low that it is vulnerable to mental hijacking through tribal instincts. I really hope that common people can break this unfortunate spell, and sit around a table as friends and equals to discuss these hard problems in an open minded way. I look forward to the day when issues are more important than group membership.

What is the alternative then? Unfortunately, democracy is the best system so far devised, with all of its imperfections. Sometimes I wonder if not a dictatorship would be more efficient, given that the dictator is benevolent, and all knowing. Somehow all political paths of thought get religious dimensions. Both politics and religion are ideologies, so maybe it's not that surprising. We managed to rise above superstition like religion. I'm waiting for a time when we can do the same with tribalism in politics.

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