January 1, 1970 (Vol. , No. )

Zachary N. N. Russ Bioengineering graduate student UC Berkeley

If you’ve watched Jerry Springer, Maury, or really any television at all, you may have picked up on humanity’s dirty little secret: we love drama. We are a species that slows down to gawk at car accidents, keeps trashy tabloids in business, and tramples people to death when a soccer ball passes through a metal portal too many times. We short-circuit our reasoning by looking at issues as black-and-white, us-and-them, this-or-that-and-nothing-else. This isn’t a new phenomenon, and it has been exploited throughout recorded history—our emotions and prejudices have been played upon to achieve all manner of goals, from building an army to protecting the status quo.

Remember “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” T-shirts? People found it so important to register their opinions on the romantic lives of film stars they would likely never meet that they went and bought some hardly cheap, fairly tacky attire. You may be thinking, “But that’s stupid! I would never do such a thing!” Perhaps not with shirts, sports memorabilia, or some other branded piece of junk… but what about campaign contributions, donations, books, speaking fees, and single-issue votes? Any trifling dispute can be amplified with overwrought rhetoric and one-sided talking points. Our tendencies to judge, label, and compartmentalize mean that single issues and brinkmanship will always be popular, even if they do ebb and flow as people lose patience for games.

What does this mean for sequestration? Well, the problem is that we’re not in the ebb part of the cycle. Political polarization is again on the rise, having increased almost monotonically since 2002—a recent Pew Research Center study shows both parties have moved away from moderates, and, perhaps in response, moderates have moved away from them. With this polarization comes brinkmanship, the same brinkmanship that threatened default last year and brought about this sequestration compromise. It’s not the worst case we’ve seen—nuclear winter doesn’t loom overhead. But it is significant, and I suspect it’s going to linger for the rest of the decade—politicians seem more interested in scoring points than serving their nation. They will continue drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and defending (or disturbing) them at great cost until their supporters realize that making a point doesn’t put food on the table or keep the roof patched. We can expect to see deep cuts to scientific funding while the politicos make principled arguments over minuscule sums of more-controversial money and hand-waving defenses of the big ones—unless we interrupt these theatrics.

The generation of outrage over trifles can be stopped with a heavy dose of perspective. Perhaps we can refocus the discussion, emphasizing the triviality of the discussions our representatives address while keeping jobs, infrastructure, and the continued advancement of human knowledge in limbo. These things are not of comparable importance or relevance, and we mustn’t allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking they are. These are jobs that may leave and never return, medicines that will arrive years too late—all of this to buy an ego boost and a public relations victory elsewhere. There will always be someone playing on our overwrought tendencies—but let them sell T-shirts, not our futures.

The Pew survey summary is an excellent read, and can be found here:

Zachary N. Russ

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