Cheerleaders and Critics: American politics and the pendulum effect

By Tim Bearly
Reader Contributor

“Politics is a pendulum,” Albert Einstein said, “whose swings between anarchy and tyranny are fueled by perpetually rejuvenated illusions.”

To dispel these illusions we must first develop a better understanding of the oscillating nature of politics.

Like the ebb and flow of natural phenomena, our social and political cycles persistently shift back and forth — just as tides come in and out, and glaciers grow and recede, the pendulum of public opinion continually swings to and fro.

When we examine our history we see, in the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, “A pattern of alternation between negative and affirmative government — that is, between times when voters see private action as the best way of meeting our troubles and times in which voters call for a larger measure of public action.”

The pivot point of the political seesaw shifts as inequality increases — which often results in a stronger desire for public action. Inversely, when most people feel that enough of their basic needs are met, private action (the marketplace) is seen as a more effective and viable solution.

Of course, the pendulum effect goes well beneath the surface of the public sector vs. private sector debate. It is, to put it in simple terms, all about money and power —which, like matter and energy, are interconvertible — and the many different groups, individuals, political parties, corporate entities, and tribes of every stripe who endeavor to acquire it. This is why the bob of zero-sum politics will never come to rest at an equilibrium position.

As we rotate back and forth from cheerleaders to critics every few years — depending on whether “our side” wins or loses the election — we can see the disastrous consequences of our tendency toward overcorrection.

Political correctness is an irrational response to a rational concern. Most people want to live in a society where we all respect one another. However, most of us have likewise become exhausted with what Steven Pinker dubbed the “euphemism treadmill,” whereby taboo words are replaced with less abrasive words — which, in turn, eventually devolve into offensive words — resulting in never-ending semantic change and politically-correct nonsense. When the treadmill is moving too fast for us to keep up the pace, that is a clear sign that political correctness has gone too far and the PC police need to be stripped of their badges.

But there is another disconcerting overcorrection on the flip side. Many on the other end of the spectrum have apparently chosen to respond to the absurdity of political correctness by going out of their way to be deliberately offensive — which apparently has become a sign of being a “rebel” and proud First Amendment advocate. Now we must watch, as the pendulum swings back, with another irrational response to a rational concern.

Extremism is commonly the impetus for the following examples of overcorrection:

“Privatize everything!”

“Nationalize everything!” 

“Regulate everything!”

 “Deregulate everything!”

Indeed, these are hypothetical (or perhaps not so hypothetical), fanatical, and binary assertions. But, like Newton’s third law of motion (every action has an equal and opposite reaction), with every shift to one extreme on the political spectrum, we can expect an opposite shift of equal magnitude.

Groups, like sports teams, vie for dominance — natural selection has instilled in us this tribalistic propensity. Expecting an opposition group to maintain good faith after a defeat on the political gridiron would be like expecting soccer fans to chant, “We’re number two!” after their team loses the game.

It may not happen this season or even the next, but the social cycle will eventually reverse. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan:

“For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’.”

Notwithstanding the frustrating and often detrimental by-products of social cycles, the counterbalance of opposition groups can be healthy for our society. Everyone in power, regardless of the doctrine they espouse, should have their feet held to the fire; however, this has proven to be an impossible task for those who share the same allegiances and affiliations as the aforementioned. With Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity joining Donald Trump on the campaign trail, can we really expect them to give an honest and critical analysis of his administration? Certainly not. Thus, just as the right is needed to be critical of the left, the left is likewise needed to be critical of the right, and so on — without a counterbalance, power remains unchecked and corruption becomes inevitable. Our nation needs its critics as much as it needs its cheerleaders.

Although a nation full of critics would perhaps swing toward anarchy, a nation full of cheerleaders would most certainly swing toward tyranny. Consider this next time you find yourself flush with indignation because someone has chosen to be critical of something you consider to be sacrosanct: Our nation, as we know it, would not exist had our founding fathers chosen to be cheerleaders instead of critics.

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