Myths of the finite pie

Pie with stars crust, half color and half black, white

There is no conservative America and liberal America. This is just a concept perpetuated by political parties to scare people into action. It’s peddled by candidates trying to secure votes and by pundits profiting from conflict. We certainly have our differences and that makes for convenient ammunition as we fight over shares of the pie.

The approach, however, is culturally devastating. It pits people against each other and encourages followers to imprint their fears onto other groups. It condones demonizing others for their ideas, ideals, and their privilege. Most harmfully, it distorts everyone’s understanding of each other and the nation.

This narrative of national conflict makes it feel like impeachment and the upcoming election are the only political battles today, as nearly every story is passed through this lens. That’s what happens when two entrenched political powers spend millions of dollars to enlist voters to serve in their war over a few districts and a prized, yet ineffective, legislative majority.

People yearning for political change can feel the absurdity of this stalemate even if they can’t articulate its source. Some presidential candidates are capitalizing on this unrest and mobilizing revolts. Yet, regardless of the validity of their platforms, their most profound effect as been to harness and direct collective anger at other people who are mired in the same dysfunctional system.

It can certainly feel good to rant against the powerful, the ignorant, or the newcomers for your troubles, but these tactics do not solve problems. They only misplace the turmoil inflicted by a broken society on to our neighbors.

The politically responsible among us must find new ways to combat these tendencies. We must develop and deploy new tactics to disarm harmful narratives and stifle unproductive political games. We must support substantive debate in the service of sound policymaking and consensus-building compromise.

And no matter how critical the outcome of the upcoming election is perceived to be, political movements should be steadfast in their commitment to dismantle this toxic political culture that exalts power over progress. Changing culture — not the results of electoral contests — constitute our greatest challenge today.

Amid growing inequality and persistent injustice, amassing power to force a more fair distribution of the pie seems like a worthwhile goal. Yet social and political movements that change behavior can have a more lasting impact if they reimagine the role of a person in a democracy and employ innovative approaches to win power, rather than relying on brute political force.

Look at today’s tactics, which largely involve convincing people to share your half of the pie. Join a party, advance an agenda, and fight for a bigger piece. Honorable, yet it purports the myth of a single pie with only two shares.

In contrast, I believe the next successful political revolution will transform the processes of politics. It will redefine the expectations of civic life and reframe the language of public discourse. It will mobilize people to recast political institutions and reinvest in virtue and political courage.

To succeed in advancing democracy for all, a revolution must craft the recipe and design the machinery necessary to bake a bigger, more flavorful pie.

Hungrily /

Robert Beets

Other thoughts:

Pi Day — I couldn’t figure out how to end this letter until I was reminded that it was Pi Day this weekend. The reminder came from the article titled ‘Pi Day: How One Irrational Number Made Us Modern’ by Steven Strogatz. I love math and this was perhaps the best math article I have ever read because it illustrated how innovative approaches to addressing persistent problems can create the framework for major revelations — even changes large enough to make us perceive in real time that our society has advanced to its next era: modern anew.

Collective resilience — An another article that really stood out to me this week was from The Atlantic titled ‘The Coronavirus Called America’s Bluff.’ It made me ask, what are the true measures of a healthy and successful society? Economic output, measures of health and vitality, the ability to mobilize to confront a new challenge…? I very much liked how the author, Anne Applebaum, tried to move beyond politics of the moment. When the speed of life and communication changes by the day, it can be hard to focus on time scales of the decade and generation. She also used the word ‘modern’ a few times too.

Mobilizing versus organizing — Ezra Klein had Jane McAlevey on his podcast for a 2-hour interview, and fittingly the episode was titled ‘A master class in organizing.’ She identified how today’s political campaigns are designed to drive people who already agree with your platform to action. With decades of experience in union organizing, she sees a lot more value in the difficult work of building community and identity among diverse local populations.

Political disruptions — If your state allows absentee voting but doesn’t automatically mail ballots, definitely consider requesting one (Wisconsin residents). Mail-in and drop-off ballots are great because you get extra time to read and digest the ballot and do additional research if necessary. This is also a good time to confirm you’re registered and all your credentials are current.