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Tech nerds are smart. But they can't seem to get their heads around politics.

A nerd who just found out about the filibuster.
A nerd who just found out about the filibuster.
(Shutterstock)

We live in an age of nerds.

Sometimes I try to explain to my kids that I grew up in a time — a dark age known as The Eighties — when reading comic books, playing fantasy-based card games, watching Doctor Who, or being really into computers could get you publicly pantsed. There was a clear social hierarchy, and the way it worked, for boys at least, was that the nerds —the kids who had weird, obscure obsessions, who knew everything about something nobody else knew anything about — were at the bottom. At the top were "jocks," the meatheads who were good at sports and knew where to get beer and had pretty girlfriends.

My kids have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. The coolest kids they know are nerds. Their heroes are nerds. Their favorite billionaires are nerds. Nerds are the ones making the best movies and apps and Vine channels (that's a thing, right?), the ones inventing stuff that changes the world. The archetypes in all those '80s teen movies mean nothing to my children. These days, nerds run the world.

But while nerds have taken over pop culture and technology, there's one area they haven't mastered: politics. To see what I mean, let's start with an unsolicited phone call from Elon Musk, the king of nerds, to one of his subjects.

elon musk

Laughing at the doubters.

(Flickr: JD Lasica)

Wait But Why exemplifies the nerd spirit

One of the purest expressions of the nerd spirit is the site Wait But Why, started in 2013 by Tim Urban, a Harvard graduate and co-owner of a tutoring company but really, by his own testimony, just some dude.

Urban is a nerd. He gets interested in some complicated subject, digs into it until he feels like he really understands it, and he explains it. (To get a flavor, start with the one about procrastination and the epic series on artificial intelligence.) It's a bit like the explanatory journalism that's so popular these days, but in the case of WBW, it is completely untethered from the web-media demands for speed, volume, and topicality.

Urban originally promised to post twice a week. Then it was "every Tuesday." Now it's "every sometimes." He takes his time. But the posts, when they come, are a delight — 3,000, 8,000, even 26,000 (seriously) words, complete with crude but hilarious illustrations, diagrams, and infographics, written in friendly, nontechnical language that still manages to honor the complexities of the subjects.

wait but why

(Wait But Why)

A WBW post is like a feast. At the end, you feel sated, like you just learned the shit out of something, like you get something in a way you didn't before.

Here's a description of Urban's process, from a recent post:

One type of WBW post is the "let’s just take this whole topic and really actually get to the bottom of it so we can all completely get it from here forward." The ideal topic for that kind of post is one that’s really important to our lives, and that tends to come up a lot, but that’s also hugely complex and confusing, often controversial with differing information coming out of different mouths, and that ends up leaving a lot of people feeling like they don’t totally get it as well as they "should."

The way I approach a post like that is I’ll start with the surface of the topic and ask myself what I don’t fully get—I look for those foggy spots in the story where when someone mentions it or it comes up in an article I’m reading, my mind kind of glazes over with a combination of "ugh it’s that icky term again nah go away" and "ew the adults are saying that adult thing again and I’m seven so I don’t actually understand what they’re talking about." Then I’ll get reading about those foggy spots—but as I clear away fog from the surface, I often find more fog underneath. So then I research that new fog, and again, often come across other fog even further down. My perfectionism kicks in and I end up refusing to stop going down the rabbit hole until I hit the floor.

...

Hitting the floor is a great feeling and makes me realize that the adults weren’t actually saying anything that complicated or icky after all. And when I come across that topic again, it’s fun now, because I get it and I can nod with a serious face on and be like, "Yes, interest rates are problematic" like a real person.

I love that. (And it's not that far from how I approach posts, though I don't have quite the luxury of time Urban does.) One of the best things about it is that by coming to a topic as an outsider, Urban can be mostly free of preconceptions and write without jargon. He learns it with you.

Getting to the bottom of something, Urban says, allows you to have a kind of base, a tree trunk of knowledge on which to hang new facts and information.

WBW takes on energy and climate change and gets it almost all right

I bring all this up because WBW recently tackled some issues close to my heart. The impetus was a telephone call from Elon Musk. (How's that for a nerd seal of approval?) Musk wanted Urban to come have a chat, to see if Urban would take on a few topics Musk thinks are poorly understood by the broader public.

The result was a long interview with Musk and three of the meatiest, most fascinating, most satisfying posts I've read in ages. The first is about Musk himself — his history, his companies, and why he has chosen clean energy and space travel as his primary areas of focus. The second, a 26,000-word monster, contains the story of energy, the story of cars, and the story of Tesla, from the basics right up through the present. And the third, another monster, is about humans and space, Musk's space program SpaceX, and how to colonize Mars.

I really cannot recommend them highly enough. You will understand the world better for reading them.

Naturally, I want to focus on the second, which covers energy and climate change. While acknowledging that it's one of those icky, fuzzy, politicized, and mostly unpleasant topics, Urban does a fantastic job of concisely covering the basics of climate change and the need for clean energy. (He focuses, appropriately, on risk rather than what's known for certain.)

He mostly gets the science and energy parts right.

wait but why on climate change

A pithy summary.

(Wait But Why)

The one problem I had with the post is in its treatment of politics, which to me illustrates some fairly common nerd shortcomings on that subject.

Indeed, politics is one area where the general science/tech nerd ethos has not exactly covered itself in glory (I'm looking at you, Larry Lessig). And it's a shame, because if tech nerds want to change the world — as they say with numbing frequency that they do — they need to figure out politics, the same way they're figuring out solar power or artificial intelligence, in a ground-up, no-preconceptions kind of way. They need to develop that tree trunk knowledge that enables them to contextualize new political information. Currently, they lack a good tree trunk, as Urban's post demonstrates.

(Note: There are policy and political nerds, of course. I am one, and work with lots of others. But the overlap between that demo and the larger tech nerd demo is pretty slim.)

The quasi-libertarian anti-politics of the tech nerd

Urban writes, in his post on energy:

This is a highly politicized issue, but this post has no political agenda. I’m not political because nothing could ever possibly be more annoying than American politics. I think both parties have good points, both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things, and I want nothing to do with it. So I approached this post—like I try to with every post—from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense.

There are two broad narratives about politics that can be glimpsed between the lines here. Both are, in the argot of the day, problematic.

The first, which is extremely common in the nerd community, is a distaste for government and politics. Sometimes this shades over into ideological libertarianism (see: Peter Thiel, who wants to build a floating libertarian city), but often it's just a sense that government is big, bloated, slow-moving, and inefficient, that politicians are dimwits and panderers, and that real progress comes from private innovation, not government mandates. None of which is facially unreasonable.

The second is the conception of politics as a contest of two mirror-image political philosophies, with mirror-image extremes and a common center, which is where sensible, independent-minded people congregate ("both parties have good points; both also have a bunch of dumb people saying dumb things"). Urban actually has a visual on it in another post on politics:

american political spectrum

(Wait But Why)

In the next panel, a door labeled "Registered Independents" sits square in the middle of the spectrum. The story in the comic is that independents became Democrats in 2008 because of Obama's promises. Frustration with the Democrats would have led them into the arms of moderate Republicans, except the moderate Republicans let extremists talk over them, so independents are staying with Democrats for now.

I think that these two narratives — disdain toward politics, and the parties as mirror images with rational thinking in the center — are connected. That vision of the political spectrum implies that one is partisan precisely in proportion to one's distance from rational thinking. It defines partisanship as irrationality, as blind, lemming-like behavior, the opposite of approaching things "from a standpoint of rationality and what I think makes sense." The independent thinker takes a bit from this party, a bit from that one, as rational thinking dictates.

Since the loudest voices in politics are partisans, people who have chosen a side, seeing the political spectrum this way is inevitably going to lead to an irritation and disdain toward politics, a desire to wash one's hands of it and proclaim, as Urban does, that "I am not political." But that just won't do.

On other issues, Urban has said that when he really digs in, "what I usually find is that so many of the topics I’ve pegged as 'boring' in my head are actually just foggy to me—like watching episode 17 of a great show, which would be boring if you didn’t have the tree trunk of the back story and characters in place."

I would suggest that American politics is just one of those icky subjects Urban hasn't rolled up his sleeves and dug into yet. He can be forgiven — many political pundits are working with the same moldy frames, to this day. And he won't get much help from his fellow nerds. But it's important.

There are no independents, moderates aren't moderate, and the center is corporate

Let's start with a few findings in political science that have not yet sunk into common knowledge.

First, independents are not independent. In fact, "independent" may be the second most myth-encrusted, poorly understood phenomenon in US politics (the first is coming up). The key thing to understand about independents is that they generally vote like partisans. As political scientist John Sides says:

They tend to be loyal to their party’s candidate in elections. They tend to have favorable views of many political figures in their party. They are not much more likely to identify as ideologically moderate. To be sure, independent leaners are not as partisan as the strongest partisans. But they resemble weaker partisans much more than they do real independents. In actuality, real independents make up just over 10 percent of Americans, and a small fraction of Americans who actually vote.

If the ne plus ultra of rational thinking is switching between parties, splitting votes from election to election, then there are very few rational voters in America. (You can decide for yourself how plausible that seems.)

independent leaners and pure independents

(The Monkey Cage)

Second, the most myth-encrusted phenomenon in US politics is the "moderate." The popular conception of moderates is that they gravitate toward the political center, splitting the difference between the mainstream positions of the two parties.

If that's a moderate, then America doesn't have many of those either. In fact, the relative prevalence of moderates in popular polling is almost certainly a statistical artifact. A voter with one extreme conservative opinion (round up and expel all illegal immigrants immediately) and one extreme liberal opinion (institute a 100 percent tax on wealth over a million dollars) will be marked, for the purposes of polling, as a moderate. What's really being measured is heterogeneity of opinion, not centrism. In fact, most moderates have at least one opinion that is well outside the mainstream of either party.

Moderates also tend to be more disengaged from politics. More engaged voters will tend to follow the lead and adopt the positions of party leaders. People who know little about the landscape of politics or the mechanisms of policy will tend to support positions outside the mainstream, often positions that more experienced political observers will find ludicrous (for good or ill). A voter with deeply informed, mildly center-left positions will code as "more partisan" than a moderate who has ill-informed positions that are all over the map, but that doesn't mean the moderate is more centrist or more rational.

no labels

This is the kind of thing you do when you're confused about moderates.

(No Labels)

Third, in practical coalitional politics, the "center" will tend to be shaped not by rational thinking but by money and power. If there is any space left for bipartisanship in US politics, it is around measures that benefit corporate elites.

The right-wing base has a coherent position on climate change: It's a hoax, so we shouldn't do anything about it. The left-wing base has a coherent position: It's happening, so we should do something about it. The "centrist" position, shared by conservative Democrats and the few remaining moderate Republicans, is that it's happening but we shouldn't do anything about it. That's not centrist in any meaningful ideological sense; instead, like most areas of overlap between the parties, it is corporatist.

The ones talking about ambitious policy to address climate change are mostly out in what Urban has labeled crazy zones. Doesn't seem that crazy to me.

The previous three points show that the American political spectrum is not composed of two irrational extremes with calm, independent-thinking moderates in the center. But there's a deeper problem, which is that the spectrum isn't composed of two mirror-image sides at all. It turns out the sides are quite different.

Republicans and Democrats are different, and the former are more extreme

Last year, Ezra Klein wrote up some interesting new research on enduring differences between the Democratic and Republican parties in the US. Here's how the researchers summarize their findings: "The Republican Party is dominated by ideologues who are committed to small-government principles, while Democrats represent a coalition of social groups seeking public policies that favor their particular interests."

As Klein writes, "The word 'ideologue' is a technical term within political science but an insult within American politics. There is nothing wrong with approaching politics ideologically — and that's particularly true when you compare it to the major alternatives, which are approaching it transactionally or as a pure partisan." So perhaps a simpler way of putting the conclusion is that the Republican Party is motivated by a general philosophy while Democrats are motivated by specific policies they want to achieve.

These motivations, the researchers argue, are entirely rational given demographic realities (more on that in a second), and help explain quite a bit about the workings of modern politics. New policy, even when it's passed by Republican presidents, tends to "expand the scope of government responsibility, funding, or regulation." So it's no wonder that Republicans are more content with gridlock and more likely to punish compromise.

But the differing natures of the two parties often lead to confusion based upon projection: Republicans often assume Democrats are being more ideological than they are; Democrats are often baffled by Republicans' refusal to accept half a loaf in policy negotiations.

The parties are not mirror images at all. They are different beasts entirely. And it's important to understand how they got that way.

dems and republicans

This stock art is an inaccurate depiction of political reality.

(Shutterstock)

In postwar, mid-20th-century America, there was a period of substantial bipartisanship, and it powerfully shaped the way political and economic elites think about US politics. The popular picture of how politics works — reaching across the aisle, twisting arms, building coalitions behind common-sense policy — has clung to America's self-conception long after the underlying structural features that enabled bipartisanship fundamentally shifted.

What enabled bipartisanship was, to simplify matters, the existence of socially liberal Republicans in the Northeast and Democrats in the South who were fiscally conservative and virulently racist. Ideologically heterogeneous parties meant that transactional, cross-party coalitions were relatively easy to come by.

Over the past several decades, the parties have polarized, i.e., sorted themselves ideologically (that's what the GOP's "Southern strategy" was about). Racist conservative Democrats became Republicans and social liberals became Democrats. The process has now all but completed: The rightmost national Democrat is now to the left of the leftmost national Republican.

Crucially, however, the process of polarization has been asymmetrical. While almost all liberals have become Democrats and almost all conservatives have become Republicans, far more Republicans self-identify as conservative than Democrats do as liberal, and consequently the GOP has moved much further right than the Democratic Party has left.

Part of the explanation is that there has been a demographic sorting as well. The demographics that tend Democrat — minorities, single women, young people, LGBTQ folks, academics, and artists — cluster in the "urban archipelago" of America's cities. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has increasingly become the voice of white people who live around other white people in rural and suburban areas, where they have been radicalized by burgeoning right-wing media and a network of ideologically conservative think tanks and lobbying groups.

It is not surprising that small-government ideology appeals to people who view government as a mechanism whereby special interest groups make claims on their resources, values, and privileges. Conservative whites, freaked out by hippies in the '60s, blacks in the '70s, communists in the '80s, Clintons in the '90s, Muslims in the '00s, and Obama more recently, are now more or less permanently freaked out, gripped by a sense of "aggrieved entitlement," convinced that they are "losing their country." (If only someone would come along and promise to make it great again!)

Donald Trump

(Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

As the GOP has grown more demographically and ideologically homogeneous, it has become, in the memorable words of congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, "a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

As the ongoing Republican primary is revealing in gruesome detail, asymmetrical polarization seems a long way from burning itself out.

(A nice capsule version of this story can be found in "Philanthropy in a Time of Polarization," by Steven Teles, Heather Hurlburt, and Mark Schmitt. For a great explanation of why the lurch right has not (yet) caused any widespread backlash, as conventional "median voter theorem" might predict, see this piece by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.)

And that's where we're stuck

The sense among some Republicans that their country is changing isn't irrational. America is fast becoming a majority-minority nation — according to the Census Bureau, a majority of children under 5 are now from racial and ethnic minorities — and that has stark implications for the balance of political power.

Demographic trends are working against the GOP. If they continue, and the GOP continues to alienate growing demographics like minorities and single women, it will become increasingly difficult for the party to assemble a national majority and win the presidency.

However, for various reasons, aggrieved older white men still punch above their weight, politically speaking. Democratic constituencies cluster in urban areas, where many of their votes end up wasted. GOP demographics are more spread out, covering a larger geographical area, thus giving them a reliably large bloc of low-population states in the Senate and a built-in advantage in the House of Representatives. (That advantage was magnified by the gerrymandering of 2010, giving Republicans what is likely an unshakable lock on the House through 2022.)

On top of that, Democratic constituencies don't reliably vote in midterm elections, which gives the GOP a huge advantage in those congressional elections (and in state elections).

So that's where American politics stands today: on one side, a radicalized, highly ideological demographic threatened with losing its place of privilege in society, politically activated and locked into the House; on the other side, a demographically and ideologically heterogeneous coalition of interest groups big enough to reliably win the presidency and occasionally the Senate. For now, it's gridlock.

You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you

What does all this matter? For one thing, it can clear up a mystery that plagues Urban:

A lot of people have written about the hidden cost of carbon emissions, and many of them, on both sides of the political spectrum, have proposed a logical solution: a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

A revenue-neutral carbon tax is revenue-neutral because any increase in government revenue as a result of the tax would be offset by an equal decrease in something else like income taxes. This makes it a politically moot proposal.

...

When it comes to a carbon tax, the only explanation for not having one seems to be the power big oil has over the US government—because to me, it seems like every politician in either party should be in favor of a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Right?

Uh, wrong.

tea party

(Shutterstock)

I see this kind of political naiveté among carbon tax supporters quite a bit. A revenue-neutral tax is "politically moot" only if you envision politics as a kind of ideological grid, with certain sweet spots where all of both sides' criteria are met. It makes sense that every politician "should" support any policy in those sweet spots.

It ignores the fact that the GOP is not a policy checklist but a highly activated, ideological demographic that views Democrats as engaged in a project to fundamentally reshape America along European socialist lines. A coalition that will trust Democratic promises of revenue neutrality about as far as it can throw them. A coalition of which virtually every member has signed a pledge never to support any new tax, ever. (Ezra Klein once asked Grover Norquist about a revenue-neutral carbon tax, actually. Norquist warned that "a Republican Party which creates a new tax would not be long for the world.")

And it's a coalition that draws substantial support from companies involved in fossil fuels and suburban sprawl — though, side note: Big oil is less likely to oppose a carbon tax than big coal.

It also ignores the fact that the Democratic Party is a fractious coalition of interest groups, many of which, especially in key electoral states, are highly invested in fossil fuels.

In fact, the failure of a revenue-neutral carbon tax to gain support beyond wonk circles (and, uh, British Columbia) is the most predictable thing in the world if you have a tree trunk of knowledge about US politics.

Urban is certainly correct that American politics is annoying. As someone who follows it on a day-to-day basis, I can testify that it only gets more annoying the closer you look. But despite Urban's dismissive attitude, it remains quite important to the goals and aspirations he articulates so well.

While it may be true that government cannot force major innovations, as Musk and Urban agree, it is still very much the case that government can help or hinder innovation. Tesla got off the ground in part because of US policy, including an early Department of Energy loan and an ongoing electric vehicle tax credit. SolarCity got off the ground because of policies like state renewable energy standards and net metering, and has gotten some of its biggest contracts with the US military. The incredible surge of innovation in clean energy in recent years has largely been driven by rising deployment, which in turn has been driven by (inconsistently) supportive policy.

Urban supports what Musk is trying to do, which is accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. As it happens, out of America's two major political parties, about a half of one of them supports that undertaking. That half a party is concentrated on the Democratic Party's left flank, over in Urban's crazy zone. Turns out he's in that crazy zone too, but he doesn't realize it.

The US government could certainly do a better job of driving and managing a transition to clean energy. And if Urban is concerned with cleantech innovation, he should look with horror on the paltry resources the federal government devotes to it.

trends in nondefense r&d by function

(AAAS)

But politics is about who shows up. The fossil fuel interests that are threatened show up. Nerds like Urban, vaguely repulsed by politics, do not.

(Actually, that's too sweeping. Bill Gates is showing up. Google is showing up. The tech industry is waking up. But rank-and-file tech nerd engagement with politics remains sporadic and inconsistent at best.)

Showing up means dealing with annoying people, many of whom are on your side. It means unpleasant compromises and second- or third-best solutions. But there's no way a new world can be born out of the old one without the midwifery of public policy. Musk may be several orders of magnitude smarter than most politicians, but politics is nonetheless the eye of the needle through which his enterprises must pass on their way to the promised land.

Time for for more nerdsplainers on politics

There is no subject more ripe for the dissection of an obsessive nerd than American politics. It is ridden with myths and outdated conventional wisdom. And the kind of people who read Wait But Why are among those most in need of tree trunk knowledge of politics.

Nerds want to make the world better, but they cannot do so without allies in the public sector. They should roll up their sleeves, hold their noses, and try to get a better sense of the complicated web of historical, economic, and demographic trends that have shaped American public life. Only when they understand politics, and figure out how to make it work better, will all their dreams find their way into the real world.

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