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The Second Party Switch: How Procedure and Safety Installed Conservative Instincts Into Democrats
What Mandates, Ukraine, Bureaucracy, Conformity, and Progressive Politics Have in Common.
An age old question precedes this argument: what is conservatism? I’m not going to pretend to have a monopoly over what conservatism is, but I think it’s fair to characterize it in part by a fondness of order, routine and tradition. This is the key trait of conservatism in this argument.
NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has classified the traits of purity, ingroup loyalty and authority as conservative-leaning through numerous surveys. Orderliness, a subtrait of conscientiousness, is associated with conservative beliefs. In the current day, these traits may be realigning. This isn’t to say that Democrats are suddenly adopting every conservative policy issue, although you can notice many of them becoming militarily hawkish, pro-CIA, and for speech codes, all traditionally conservative positions. Rather, it’s to point out that Democratic politicians, media, and some voters now follow patterns of behavior that I’ve long associated with conservative personality types.
The best way to perceive the Democrats’ resistance to change in bureaucracy and questioning of ideology is a conservatism of routine. This is best highlighted by their response to COVID-19, in which they lined up around public health officials like Anthony Fauci, taking and enforcing orders. To be fair, some of these orders were actually greatly beneficial for the average person, like getting vaccinated, while others are now widely acknowledged to be ineffective and costly, like wearing cloth masks and school closures. The reason why the latter were defended by a majority of Democratic ideologues for months after they were evidently self-destructive is a loyalty to procedure. Just like how some Christian fundamentalists are partial to any kind of biblical argument from politicians, regardless of whether they are actually consistent with church doctrine or effective in the real world, any kind of COVID procedure, passed down from the usual authorities, would appeal to this large faction of Democrats.
This type of procedural loyalty is best demonstrated by this meme (thanks to Handwaving Freakoutery, whose intriguing ideas will be considered in a future post, for highlighting it). Loyalty is held to the bureaucratic ideology, which provides methodical instructions for supporting it, whether it is hiring a diversity officer, repeating a template social media post, or reporting to a HR manager. Participating in politics is now routine, unthinking, and often hedonic in a strange cross between Brave New World and Max Weber’s Iron Cage, in which all parts of work and life are fit into repetitive rules and top-down control. Participation in liberal politics is highly reflexive, particularly progressive politics, which NYT writer John McWhorter notes has particular religious undertones. This is true whether it’s enforcing public health dictats, the diversity-industrial complex, maximizing control of teachers relative to parents, or pushing pro-ukraine misinformation (which, if you’ve studied your basic logical fallacies, is not a statement that Ukraine is in the wrong).
You can think of Democratic dogma as revolving around the following flywheel, which is repeated ad nauseum:
Find an issue (or make one up, like a conspiracy theory about mass racism).
Signal political positions on social and legacy media, hyperbolically exaggerating well beyond the original issue.
Demand that “someone” (bureaucracy) must do something about it.
Use the moral panic created by 2 and 3 to push through policies regardless of cost-benefit analysis. This is often done without any legislative involvement at all.
This mindset is often referred to as “do-something-ism”, the compulsion to take action, or more often to tell someone else to take action, regardless of whether that action is beneficial. The problem with this mindset is not just that it’s irrational, which most popular ideologies on the left or right tend to be, but that it completely fails to prevent unintended consequences, the main benefit of traditional conservatism.
What do-something-ism does fulfill is the psychological desire for order. For a do-something-ist, if something is being done about it, neuroses are subdued and permission is given to proceed with normal life. The chronic version has a psychological name: generalized anxiety disorder, which according to Jean Twenge’s book iGen, affects three in five Zoomers. You might even remember that a recent CIA recruiting video that was roundly mocked for using ‘woke’ buzzwords also treated this affliction as a positive identity. As destructive as creating a tribe around an arbitrary demographic is, creating a tribe around a psychological condition that impairs your judgment of risk is severely worse, particularly for an intelligence agency.
Actual conservatives may be quick to say that this is due to the decline of religion, law and order, and traditional social norms, and they aren’t completely incorrect to say so. While I would critique the irrationalities of each of those order-providing traditions, they fulfill the exact same desire while inflicting much less damage. The question to ask is why these traditions, which have fulfilled these purposes in the past, failed to attract those who seem to need them the most.
Back in the podcast days, I recorded an episode on the Sun and Moon, or Dominant Party theory of politics. The theory posits that one party will have cultural dominance, winning most elections, while the other party primarily reacts to the first’s excesses and mistakes. Between them are typically periods of decoherence, in which the former Sun party loses its lustre while the former Moon party gains ground with new ideas, until the two have switched. The most recent example was the Nixon-Carter period, in which welfare became unpopular, stagnation solidified as a problem and the Reagan revolution was brewing. The Sun and Moon theory predicts these types of transitions, but what it does not predict is an extended period of decoherence like the post-Clinton era, from Bush to now. I predicted that this was due to increased homogeneity in social groups, which pressured many who had a majority of social connections to an ideology to adopt something resembling that ideology. This created forced decoherence, as people with naturally conservative preferences were finding some post-hoc justification of liberal mores, and vice versa. You can listen to the episode for details on what evidence I have to support this, other than the policy changes of parties.
In this environment of decoherence, the conservative impulse for order needed to be squared with progressive desire for change, out of which birthed a predictable, routine, unthinking method for pushing consistent change.
So, how much of a problem is do-something-ism and what can be done about it (joke intended)? Considering I’m writing this article, I assess it to be a severe problem. Simply look at the short term consequences: it can easily be argued that the do-something-ist impulse is the major driver both to start a military conflict against Russia and to impose destructive lockdowns despite a highly-effective vaccine. Moreover it creates an information environment which is a firehose of bullshit, where quality is ignored and conformity is prized (this is a teaser for my next article).
To answer the second part of the question, we need to treat do-something-ism as the sign of incompetence that it is. I’ve advocated for firing if an ideology impairs one’s ability to work in their job, such as progressive denial of individual differences impairing teachers, or religious conservative denial of evolution impairing biologists. Once ideology crosses the line from being something that someone believes in their spare time to something that directly impacts their non-ideological work, it is no longer in the territory of free speech and viewpoint diversity. Do-something-ism must be dealt with in the same way. Of course, not everyone with such a bias should be fired outright, since it may not affect their job or they may be competent enough in other areas that they are still worth employing. The pressure for removal on competence grounds, which I want extended to all ideological impairments, is an excellent place to start. After all, changing the bureaucracy is changing the very ground on which they stand.