Is Politics like Football, a Laboratory, or a Temple?

‘Politics’ does not have the best reputation amongst those not involved in it.


In a business context, ‘politics’ is usually a dirty word, often referring to irrational and self-serving behaviour. In communities closer to ‘politics’, like NGOs and pressure-groups, the word often describes short-sighted manoeuvring that gets in the way of dealing with whatever issue that group is championing. And even in politics itself, ‘politics’ may sometimes be used as a derogatory word by those frustrated with how things have been going.


This LinkedIn post by Adam Grant somewhat echoes these perceptions of politics. In a pyramid of ‘rethinking styles’, scientists’ critical and circumspect style of ‘I might be wrong!’ makes it to the top, while the politician’s thinking style ‘They’re wrong! We’re right!’ is at the bottom, only just above that of the cult leader’s ‘I’m always right!'.


Here’s a different way to think about politics: as football, as a laboratory or as a temple.


The first, politics as football, is what ‘They’re wrong! We’re right!’ probably points to. Here, politics would be about group affiliation, a very emotive one at that. We are loyal to our group, our party, our favourite politicians, and their success is ours, and sometimes also their defeats. That sense of community is important for us as a social species. It can clash with our rationality, though. In his defence of rational compassion, Paul Bloom makes that comparison between politics and sports, and suggests we look elsewhere for evidence of our rationality.


But can politics be like a laboratory? Can we use reason and do politics? Yes, and centuries (or millennia?) of human thought have been concerned with that question. Habermas, for example, distinguished two forms of rationality that can also be observed in politics:

  • ‘strategic action’ where actors pursue their individual goals and only take goals and claims of others into account in so far as that helps achieve their own goals;

  • ‘communicative action’ where actors seek agreement based on argumentation and testing of their claims’ validity and merit.


Strategic action could be in service of ‘They’re wrong! We’re right!’: saying one thing but still engaging rationally with others’ claims in an instrumental pursuit of their own goal.


Communicative action, on the other hand, is much closer to Grant’s scientists’ ‘I might be wrong!’. This behaviour may often be more aspiration than reality, but we do see it in politics: from hands-on local debate on whether to invest in a new hospital or renovate a school to international negotiations on banning the use of certain weapons.


Finally, what about politics as a temple? This is where politics gives space for the ‘big questions’ that science cannot answer (yet), but that are still important to humans, such as questions of meaning, purpose, and morality. This does not necessarily mean striving for dogmatic answers of religion but it does mean allowing for uncertainty without pretending that questions that cannot be answered in the laboratory are irrelevant. Bertrand Russell saw philosophy as occupying this space between religion and science:


“Science tells us what we can know, but what we can know is little, and if we forget how much we cannot know we become insensitive to many things of very great importance. Theology, on the other hand, induces a dogmatic belief that we have knowledge where in fact we have ignorance […]. To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” (Bertrand Russell in 'A History of Western Philosophy', p. 2).

It’s a more fundamental form of ‘I might be wrong’: not just getting the facts wrong but also having one’s worldview challenged.



So what’s the recipe for politics? Less football, much more laboratory, with a healthy dose of temple? This is probably where tastes will differ.


A pyramid of ‘thinking styles’ is helpful when it encourages us to think about how we think, and how we should ideally think, especially in politics. But in labelling a ‘politicians’ thinking style’ at the bottom of the pyramid, it reinforces an image of politics that, while not totally undeserved, is also not helpful. It dissuades citizens, who could bring fresh perspectives & ‘thinking styles’, from running for office, and it can bottle up frustration and cynicism toward politics up to a point where a contrarian populist can gain ground with a ‘You’re all wrong!’


So, let’s rethink our stance on politics. After all, we might be wrong about what we think of politics and politicians.