Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

OPINION: Two-Party Politics Fails to Serve the Public Interest

Created: 24 September, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
5 min read

At its core, politics is a matter of convincing other people that policy choices that conform to personal ideology best serves the public interest. Consciously or not, personal ideology is usually a surrogate for the public interest or general welfare. In other words, most people believe that their personal policy choices best serve the public interest.

That generates a paradox. Subjective personal ideologies often lead to contradictory or mutually incompatible policy choices. In most cases, the main choices are incompatible liberal and conservative policies. In those instances, two policies could have roughly the same overall net impacts on the public interest -- good, bad, or indifferent.

Or, only one of the two left vs. right options might better serve the public interest than the other. In some cases, the least worst left vs. right policy amounts to what best serves the public interest.

Based on two-party rhetoric, mostly spin, one might believe that politics will always be a matter of personal belief in the main ideologies that dominate American political thinking and perceptions of reality, i.e., liberalism vs. conservatism, capitalism vs. socialism, and religion vs. secularism or science. That raises the question of whether it is possible or helpful to define "service to the public interest."

It is reasonable to believe that the endless arguments and gridlock that dominate left vs. right politics are almost as futile as arguments between science and religion because those fights are between irreconcilable subjective, personal faith and objective facts.

Since the public interest concept in politics is a matter of subjective personal belief, just like personal religious belief (which also colors conceptions of the public interest), trying to define service to the public interest might appear to be a hopeless, pointless endeavor.

Defining the public interest: Neither hopeless nor pointless

Fortunately, that conclusion is flawed. It is based on the false premise that people will always fit more or less into the main categories of political belief with their different realities, common sense, and perceptions of the public interest. That is not necessarily true.

A more objective definition of the public interest is one that is based on a brutally honest and transparent balancing of competing interests. Competing interests include economic interests, political and religious ideologies, personal ambitions, societal changes, environmental constraints, and constitutional requirements.

Looking to a public interest based on balancing competing interests to guide policy debate and thinking is not a new idea. What is new is what modern social science now knows about the profoundly corrupting effects of personal ideology on both facts and common sense or logic.

Dissident Politics has argued repeatedly that political rhetoric under the two-party system is mostly empty debate grounded in self-serving spin, e.g., lies, misinformation, withheld information, denied or distorted facts, flawed logic, and undue service to special interests, especially the Democratic and Republican parties, their politicians, and their major financial backers.

Dissident Politics has proposed one version of what service to the public interest might look like, but other visions are obviously possible. As argued before, political ideology or morals should constitute (i) a search for unspun facts and (ii) application of unbiased logic in service to (iii) a public interest, which is defined here as a balancing of competing interests.

The left and right give the public their heavily spun versions of policy based on their facts and their logic, but reality and the biology of politics says that what the American people get is more self-serving propaganda than anything else.

This point cannot be overstated: In politics, “we do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our own judgment.”

Convincing voters while serving special interests is the point of two-party politics at least at the federal level. In Dissident Politics' opinion, that approach to politics does not best serve the public interest. Impacts on the broader public interest are irrelevant at worst and an afterthought at best.

Advocacy does not mean enlightenment: It means winning

Two-party politics is a matter of pure advocacy, not a means to enlighten the public so that Americans can intelligently decide among competing choices. Balance and fairness aren’t part of the two-party political equation or its rhetoric.

Partisan advocacy can be ruthless. It includes tactics that range from false character assassination to blocking research to shed light on complex issues, e.g., public health impacts of gun ownership. Such tactics are ideologically or morally acceptable to at least some partisans because such tactics are used. (In fairness, when it comes to blocking research, conservatives and some economic interests are the main advocates of the tactic, but it is nonetheless a real and important factor in two-party politics.)

The point of two-party politics is to defend the dominant subjective ideologies, powerful special interests, and the corrupt system they built. The current system is built on emotion, irrationality, spin, and service to narrow interests regardless of how it impacts the public interest. How anyone can see that as the best way to serve the public is beyond comprehension.

Fortunately, there is at least one feasible way to shift some power from subjective, emotion-based politics focused on special interests to something more objective, rational, and public interest-aligned. Adopting a competition among interests vision of the public interest along with true respect for unspun fact and the logic that flows from those two political principles or morals goes a long way to begin to move the balance of power from special interests to the public interest.

That three-point fact, logic and the public interest political ideology won’t make all disputes disappear or avoid all mistakes.

However, it is one way to make politics more based on reality, reason, and the public interest than the current system. It has to be better than what we have now. If there are other ways to fix politics, it is not at all obvious what they might be, especially in view of the biology of politics.

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