Culture & Society

We Don’t Have to Live Like This

The over-politicization of society erodes our trust in institutions and impoverishes many parts of our lives

Image Credit: Chanin Wardkhian/Getty Images

Woke capitalism is the worst capitalism.

That was the note I received from a colleague late Thursday night appended to a message sent from Expensify, the company that handles our employee expense reimbursements. I only glanced briefly at the message; it was late, and I naïvely assumed it was just the de rigueur corporate virtue signaling about voting that is so much jetsam floating on the waves of society.

I could not have been more wrong. The next morning, I read the email. My jaw dropped. This email wasn’t corporate pro-voting pablum. It was explicit: “Anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy.”

Why would a payments company weigh in on a presidential election like this? To borrow from Michael Jordan, Republicans have travel reimbursements, too.

Here’s how Expensify’s letter framed it:

Expensify depends on a functioning society and economy; not many expense reports get filed during a civil war. As CEO of this business, it’s my job to plot a course through any storm—and all evidence suggests that another 4 (or as Trump has hinted—8, or more?) years of Trump leadership will damage our democracy to such an extent, I’m obligated on behalf of shareholders to take any action I can to avoid it.

As I read my other emails and checked social media, it became clear that Expensify had sent this missive to its entire user base worldwide—some 10 million people in all, according to one report. Even by the standards of 2020, this was exceptional. A major company had spammed its entire customer base with premonitions of a civil war if its preferred candidate didn’t win the presidency.

But it was more troubling than just an over-the-top email. Expensify is a financial services company. They have the banking details for our organization, as well as for virtually all of our employees. They know the restaurants we frequent, what airlines we fly, which newspapers we subscribe to, the books we buy (and where we buy them), what conferences we attend and which hotels we stay in. They have our bank account numbers, credit cards numbers, frequent flyer numbers, home addresses and much more. Emailing us about politics was an abuse of that trust, I reasoned. Many of my colleagues told me they felt the same way.

So, I decided to write to Expensify’s CEO to make two points: first, that this email was an abuse of the trust necessary for a client-vendor relationship; and second, that this politicization of everything is deleterious to society.

I’ll return to the story in a moment. But let me first elaborate on these points:

America is rapidly becoming a low-trust society, with profoundly disturbing implications. Successful non-collectivist societies are predicated on a high level of trust, both among citizens and in public and private institutions. Low-trust societies have higher levels of crime and corruption. After all, if you believe nobody else is playing by the rules, why should you? Americans who report low levels of trust in others are much less likely to believe that people obey the law, treat others with respect, pay their taxes and respect the rights of anyone unlike themselves. Low trust breeds repugnant behavior, which further erodes trust, in a vicious cycle.

Trust is critical to America’s social and economic organization, and it stands in contradistinction to the clan and tribe organizations of other societies. As social analyst Aaron Renn writes, “Instead of being reliant upon family trust networks, America instead [has] high general trust overall. While there were always scammers and snake oil salesmen, America was a place where contracts were generally honored (and could be enforced legally when not), fair play was a high social value, people generally followed the rules, and you could rely on basically functional institutions of society.” Virgil Storr and Ginny Choi meticulously review the literature on the relationship between trust and economic growth and find it strong, positive and causal.

To be sure, Americans’ trust in government has been low for decades; what’s alarming now is the decline in trust in other institutions. According to data from the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of Americans believe these groups act unethically some or most of the time: members of Congress, journalists, leaders of tech companies, clergy, police officers and local elected officials. Further, more than 50 percent report believing that members of Congress, local officials, tech company leaders and journalists seldom if ever admit and take responsibility for mistakes.

Gallup data similarly show a decline in confidence in institutions ranging from the judiciary to the media. The military and the small business sector are virtually alone in commanding consistent and high levels of trust across society.

Many factors contribute to this lack of trust. As Martin Gurri says, social media acts as a body cam for elites and institutions, giving the public an unparalleled view both of institutional rot and of human frailties and weaknesses. The willingness, even eagerness, of firms and institutions to take sides in pitched cultural and political battles further exacerbates this decline in trust.

This phenomenon is relatively new. For most of their histories, for instance, large institutions, especially businesses, sought to project images of prudence and probity. Trust was indispensable to their success, even their survival. Sure, they engaged in political advocacy, but it was generally aimed at issues with a direct impact on their business. It certainly was never part of their brand. A missive warning of civil strife if an election went counter to the preference of, say, a bank president would have triggered a run on deposits and the board of directors effecting a swift leadership change.

Which leads to the second point my email addressed: the politicization of everything. Team Red and Team Blue have become efficiently sorted, as if by algorithm, on lines of geography, class, education and religion. Team members are increasingly unable to explain the views of the other team, and team membership is largely driven by hatred for the other team. To be a member of one team or the other is not just to vote a certain way. It also dictates one’s views on exercise, food, religious practice, travel, sports, childrearing, music, movies, books and much more. And, of course, our team now determines what brands and companies we support, so these brands and companies are increasingly hiving off into supporting one team or the other.

This is a tragedy. Markets are positive-sum, culture and the arts are generative, religion is formative, sports are entertaining. Politics are none of these things (except possibly entertaining, though that’s a pathology, not a goal). When we politicize all aspects of our society, we don’t elevate our politics; we drag everything else down to its level.

As Jennifer Murtazashvili wrote in this space yesterday about this politicization of religion, “The more religious leaders focus on political and social activism, the more dispensable they become—not because these things are unimportant, but because when religions focus solely on political and social issues, they become less unique, less sacred and more mundane.” The same holds true in other spaces: politicization denudes these spaces of what makes them special.

The politicization of every aspect of our lives means we can’t escape partisan politics. And since, to the politicized mind, partisan politics is a Manichaean struggle between the forces of good and evil, not to endorse a party line is to embrace its antithesis. Put simply, there are Republican chicken sandwiches and Democratic chicken sandwiches, and the drive-thru you choose speaks deeply to your moral worth.

This is toxic to our commercial, civic and community relationships. Plus, it’s just a terrible way to live.

The Washington Free Beacon’s Sonny Bunch draws the distinction between a political life and a politicized life:

There’s nothing wrong with living a political life. That is, a life in which politics is one of your interests or your job, something you follow and keep track of and educate yourself on and argue about. The arena of politics is important; political decisions have consequences; and passionately arguing for your preferred political outcomes is nothing to be ashamed of.

A politicized life is a different beast, however. It treats politics as a zero sum game or a form of total warfare in which the other side must be obliterated. . . . If you’re not with the politicized being, you’re against him—and if you’re against him, he is well within his rights to ruin you personally and economically. You, the political other, are a leper to be shunned, lest your thought crimes infect the rest of society.

It’s political for a corporate CEO to donate to a candidate for office, or even to advocate for that candidate in his personal life. It’s politicized for that CEO to email his entire client list to inform them that failure to vote for his preferred candidate is tantamount to endorsing the downfall of the country.

Politicization isn’t just bad for society broadly. It’s bad for companies themselves. Expensify has effectively taken the position that only Biden voters are welcome among their ranks; after all, to vote otherwise (or not to vote at all) is to vote for “democracy to be methodically dismantled.” Presumably being anti-civilizational (and pro–civil war!) is a career killer at Expensify. Removing half of your potential employees from your hiring pool isn’t an effective HR strategy. And intellectual homogeneity leads to group polarization, which leads to taking extreme positions. It also leads to groupthink, which (to put it mildly) isn’t conducive to innovation.

After concluding my email, I hit send.

I also posted it on Twitter, where it touched a nerve.

Within an hour, my note had been shared hundreds of times. By Sunday, it had been read, retweeted, liked or shared by over a quarter of a million users. It was quoted in the New York Post and beyond. I received emails and messages of support from friends, acquaintances, even complete strangers—people well known in the media and in Silicon Valley and those who, like me, have no fame to speak of. Some of them were people who work in policy, politics and related fields, who shared my regret that politics has bled into everything. Others were just normal people living normal lives who were sick of being bullied to believe or vote according to partisan dictates.

Of course, not everyone was supportive. One well-known progressive writer snarked that someone with my résumé couldn’t be said to be apolitical. Of course, I never made that claim; he simply failed to understand Bunch’s differentiation between the political and the politicized. Writing about public policy does not imply that you habitually support one party or the other—especially as politics becomes less and less about policy.

Some Extremely Online types jumped in to argue that this wasn’t just politics, this was the most important election ever because their lives were at stake and they would die or be killed if the election went the “wrong” way. I was also told that wishing to disengage from politics when filing my expense reports was a manifestation of my white privilege. Yes, people have actually worked themselves up into believing these things.

Others pointed out various other things that they claim I should be upset about, including some pseudo-scandal involving Goya that I had to look up because I had forgotten about it.

Someone with a blue checkmark stopped by to call me a Nazi collaborator. From what I gather, he spends most of his days calling people Nazi collaborators on Twitter.

One person suggested that the best response would have been to delete the email and move on, as if this were merely a marketing email for timeshares that had made it through the spam filter.

All of which is to say, the people who showed up to argue mostly succeeded in proving my point. So, what comes next? Our finance team is evaluating other options for expense accounting. We may switch vendors; indeed, we likely will unless Expensify can take material steps to address the ways they’ve abused our trust.

But truly, that’s a minor detail. The bigger challenge is rebuilding trust in our society and pushing back on the tide of politicization of everything. Those are monumental challenges, and there are no simple fixes. It starts with making this statement, clearly and repeatedly: we don’t have to live like this.

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