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Politics: The Naïve and Cynical


1. Here is a naïve view of how politics works.

Politics is about policy. Groups of like-minded people coalesce around a set of ideas about how the world should work. This group is called a party. The party puts forth a platform of policies that will put those ideas into action. The role of the party then is to serve as the interface, or point of friction, where ideas become policies. To gain power, the party promotes and sells these policies to the public as better than those of their opponents.

Thus, the adversarial nature of politics is essentially a debate between objectively superior policies. An election campaign is when the marketplace of ideas is open for business. It is like a graduate seminar in philosophy, where ideas are freely debated, the principle of charity is in full operation, and the best ideas win, whatever their source. 

The goal of this public debate is truth: Truth regarding the demands of justice, the requirements of redistribution, and the scope and character of the public goods that state should offer.  The more people have input into the process, the closer we will be to the truth.

When the party with the best ideas wins, and the better policies are thereby implemented, the country as a whole is better off. As John Stuart Mill taught us, truth is both partial and non-rival -- that is, everyone can share in the truth without it being minimised or depleted.

The crucial trait of a successful politician is that he or she be intelligent. Political leaders should be smart people. Better: they should be policy wonks, charismatic academics, philosopher kings who will rule in the better interest of all. The model naïve politician is someone like Pierre Trudeau, or Jack Layton.

2. Here is a cynical view of how politics works.

Politics has nothing to do with policy, it is about power. Joining a political party is not like joining a faculty club, and is more like joining a tribe or a gang. Their overriding function is to gain power and relative status for their group at the expense of people of other tribes and gangs.

Therefore, a party platform is not a list of policies seen as being in the objective interest of the country. Rather, it is a statement of brand affiliation, or, more simply, identity. The function of the party is to sell its brand or identity as more appealing than that of their opponents. Policies are implemented because of how they appeal to the group and buttress its identity.

Elections are basically popularity contests, not much different from the process of voting for class presidents (read Robin Hanson on this point.) So the point of an election is to make one tribe’s leader seem more appealing than that of the other tribe. The ultimate goal of the exercise is to win power for one tribe. If that requires demonizing the other parties as bad patriots, or bad people, so be it.

For cynics, to govern is to choose between competing interests. There will be winners and losers, with some groups inevitably rising and dropping in status. This is because power is indivisible and rival. One group can only hold it at the expense of others. 

The best politicians are charismatic figures, or gang leaders. They are polarizing figures, ruthless at pursuing the interests of their tribe at the expense of others. Loved, or at least greatly admired by their followers, they are loathed by their opponents.

The successful cynical politician is not necessarily intelligent. What matters is that he is authentic. The relevant question is not “does he have good ideas” but rather “is he a proper representative of my tribe?” The model cynical politicians are men like Jean Chrétien, or George W. Bush.


As used here, the terms "naïve" and "cynical" are not intended invidiously. Instead, they are intended to describe the two extremes of a continuum. Different countries might have different political cultures: some might tend to be more naïve in practice, while others might be more cynical. Citizens of different countries might prefer to be at different points on the spectrum. Some institutions might be more conducive to one form over another.

Yet there is an obvious normative quality to this continuum. Not only can it be used to describe how politics does work, it can also be used as a language in support of reform (or in support of the status quo): we may think that politics ought to be more cynical, or ought to be more naïve.

In fact, the most significant political divide in Canada, and perhaps other polities, is not between left and right, but between those who are cynical and those who are naïve about politics. It informs almost all other opinions about how our political machinery -- including Parliament, the courts, the party system, the electoral system, the media -- should function.

Some examples:

  • The naïve will be in favour of coalition or minority governments and proportional representation. The cynical will prefer majority governments and first past the post.
  • The naïve will have faith in a deliberative approach to democracy. The cynical will rest content with more Schumpeterian forms.
  • The naïve will desire more power for individual MPs or representatives, calling for more free votes in particular. The cynic sees the party as paramount, with party discipline the basis of all political engagement.
  • The naïve will curse the growing reliance on negative advertising as antithetical to the truth-seeking essence of politics. The cynical will see such framing, and the resulting culture of "truthiness," as useful to the in-group/out-group definition that is at the core of political engagement.   

Most arguments between pundits and academics consist of disguised disagreements over which mode of politics is better, the naïve or the cynical. Indeed, most apparently partisan disagreements are, if you scratch the surface, differences of opinion between cynics and naïfs.

To decide whether one is cynical or naïve is the most important meta-political decision one has to make. It is unfortunate that we spend so much time arguing about our partisan biases, and pay so little attention to our meta-political commitments. Whether that itself suggests that we are all, deep down, cynics (or perhaps meta-cynics) is an important question.