The political ouroboros

We talk about left and right. We should talk about democratic and autocratic.

It’s easy to separate politics into “left” and “right.” Left-leaning policies focus on equality, inclusion, and the sharing of risk and reward. Parties that push these policies have a “progressive” platform. Right-leaning policies focus on equity, independence, and self-reliance. Parties that push these policies have a “conservative” platform. These parties go by many names—Tories, Republicans, Liberals, Democrats, and so on.

In theory, one can be conservative, but still want a habitable planet; one can be progressive, but still own a gun. But once climate change, or nuclear disarmament, or the deflection of gigantic meteors, or the Cascadia Subduction Zone, become one party’s platform, they become anathema to the other. Politics is now a team sport, rather than a healthy discussion about policies. “Single-issue” voters are in part responsible for this—but so are algorithms that serve each of us a personalized newsfeed tailored to maximize engagement and outrage.

The dinosaurs lasted well over a hundred million years. Humans with language have been around for a few thousand years, and we’ve almost burned the place down. So perhaps “have our species last as long as the dinosaurs” might be a good starting point. And yet we can’t agree on a way forward when facing our species’ biggest threats.


But there’s a bigger risk to stable government, and we don’t talk about it enough. Given today’s events, I thought I’d write a bit about it. Fareed Zakaria used the term illiberal democracy in 1997 to describe “a governing system in which although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; thus it is not an open society.”

Unfortunately, illiberalism is often mistaken for conservatism. So I’m going to use the terms democratic, in which leaders are chosen by the masses according to a set of rules everyone agrees to; and autocratic, in which the leaders choose their successors, and decide which citizens get which rights.

Here’s what that looks like, as a vastly oversimplified diagram. The colours are sort of meaningless—in Canada, the liberals are red; in the US, the republicans are red:

The platform is left/right, but the process is up/down. The two aren’t necessarily related: A benevolent dictatorship might be progressive—but it’s still top-down. A conservative state might limit reproductive rights, but if those laws are voted on by a majority in a fair election, it’s still bottoms-up. We agree to follow the winning leader.

(There’s definitely some correlation between platform and process, particularly when your platform isn’t supported by facts—because collective delusion is a process. That’s why a conspiracist, by definition, doesn’t trust the process. Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair, it’s hard to get someone to accept a thing when their worldview depends on denying it.)

What we’re seeing in countries around the world—whether it’s elected officials changing laws so they can stay in power, or armed militia disputing free and fair elections—is a rejection of the process, now that the platform has become a team sport.

Eating our own tail

An ouroboros is a drawing of a snake or dragon eating its own tail. Throughout history, it’s represented the inevitable cycle of the seasons; the divine and the earthly; an eternally competing union; and more.

It’s a fitting analogy for politics—focusing on the left/right duality alone ignores that this is circle, not a dichotomy. Antifa and MAGA seem opposed, but they’re right next to one another. It’s easy to slip from benevolent dictatorship to tyrannical nationalist on the back of populism.

The events happening today aren’t about political platform. They’re about government process. And while I’m laissez-faire on platform and policy, I’m a hardass on process. I believe the full weight of the law must come down upon any involved in dismantling a democracy.

Coin shaving and horse thieves

Crimes that are easy to commit, but have dire consequences, often have draconian punishments. Shaving coins for tiny amounts of metal was easy—but undermined the currency of the realm, so it was punishable by death. So was horse thievery, which was trivial to pull off, but left a person to die. A strong punishment was the only way to tip the incentives strongly in favour of the law.

Fake news and conspiracies are more than fanciful. We’ve gone far beyond the harmless hobbyism of the Loch Ness Monster and Yetis. Millions of people use their highly scientific smartphones to complain about how science is a lie, vaccines are bad, and the truth is out there. This epistemic crisis is not only killing people in a pandemic, it’s undermining the process by which we choose to work as a society. We’ve humoured it long enough.

The philosopher Karl Popper observed that there can be no such thing as a tolerant society, because “in order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.” We can be tolerant of differences in platform. But if we want to maintain an open society in which we, the people, decide how we live, we must be overwhelmingly intolerant of attacks on the process.

Otherwise, the snake will continue to eat its own tail.