Sayre’s law states that “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Another form is, “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” This is often attributed to Richard Nixon or sometimes Henry Kissinger. Intellectual history is full of famous battles between rival camps over small differences. For example, two warring camps of Straussians do battle over their understanding of the political philosopher Leo Strauss.
This is not just true of the academy. People within in any organization tend to give more weight to small issues than to the larger issues. The famous example of this is the people designing a nuclear power plant will have vicious disputes over where to place the employee bike shed. Anyone familiar with corporate life knows that the major source of tension between people is the trivial items. This is often referred to as the law of triviality, but despite the name, it is a big part of organizations.
This is something to keep in mind when examining the behavior of actors within the modern political drama. Since the end of the Cold War, the rancor has steadily increased, while the policy debate has steadily narrowed. If you had no idea which political party was ascendant, you just examined the policies coming from Washington the last thirty years, you would be hard pressed to identify the two prevailing ideologies that allegedly control both parties and the disputes between them.
This is where we see Sayre’s law at work. What emerged after the Cold War is a general consensus on the big issues. The ruling elite is in favor of open borders for both cultural and economic reasons. They favor a global trade and economic regime that places the management of these issues outside local legislatures. They embrace democracy as a sort of civic theater, a drama that is never intended to impact policy, but instead reinforces the prevailing morality of the elites.
Within this political structure, there is very little room for any dispute, much less disputes over consequential matters. Our political class, which includes the mass media, the commentariat and the donor class, is left to fight pitched battles over trivial issues, often invented for the purpose. In the case of the media, the selection pressure over the last thirty years has resulted in a collection of performers highly tuned to personalize trivial issues and express those emotions on the stage.
It is why the Trump years were a cacophony of hysterics. This is how everyone responds to everything. In the case of Trump, the entire dramatis personae just happened to be on one side. Note how none of the claims about his administration were rooted in policy. They never engaged in policy disputes with him. It was all highly personal and ridiculously petty. Seventy years ago, when Sayre made his observation about the academy, this was the sort of thing he had in mind.
One reason for this is that whenever serious issues cannot be discussed, the void is filled with heated debate of unserious issues. The result is everyone is looking for a boutique thought to distinguish herself from the mob. Everyone in politics at all levels believes they went into the game to change the world. Instead of accepting their role as another anonymous face in a chorus of actors, they embrace strange, but pointless ideas to distinguish themselves from the crowd.
This is a very feminine instinct, which underscores just how feminized our politics has become over the last half century. The reason the military is always adjusting its uniform policy for female soldiers is they are biologically tuned to signal their fitness to males in competition with other females. The male soldiers are happy to wear the uniform that is assigned to them. Females instantly seek to make small trivial changes. This is the nature of our politics, where everyone wants to be a special snowflake.
One result of this is that all political positions are positional goods. Positional goods are goods that people value because they convey standing within society. For example, South Asians like to wear gold as a way to advertise their wealth. In African cultures around the world, display items like expensive cars are common. In northern European cultures, counter-signaling wealth is a form of positional good. The trust fund guy who drives a twenty year old Volvo, for example.
In politics, especially left-wing politics, positions on issues and the hierarchy of one’s issue list is a positional good. For example, the forgiveness of student debt is an issue for those who stake out the far-left position today. There is no plan as to how to execute such a scheme. They do not appear to understand who holds the debt and what it is used for by the system. The impossibility of forgiving college debt is probably its chief appeal, as it lets them espouse something cost free.
If you go down the laundry list of left-wing political positions, what you find are aspirational and notional items. For four years the Democrats could have struck a deal with Trump on roads and bridges. They were too busy complaining about Hitler to engage in fruitful discussion. In other words, to transform the notional into the practical would have stripped the issue of its value. Something similar happened with immigration, where Trump was willing to give the store away.
Mainstream politics is entirely about positional goods. This is true to some degree of all politics, especially outsider politics, but we now live in an age in which official political discourse is nothing more than a personal spat in the faculty lounge. The difference between what goes on in the academy and in Washington is that the latter revolves around a central set of tenets that contain the ruling consensus. The disputes, however, are every bit as trivial and pointless.
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