The costs of distraction

7 min readJul 30, 2023


I floated this image on Twitter to test the reaction it would trigger. That reaction was as I suspected. The challenge to express the point latent in the image — a point I think we all must focus — is as clear now as it was before. And just as difficult.

That point is this: The task of governing is to focus attention on the most critical issues first. It is to solve those issues first, and then to move down the list from most important to less important. The task is to keep attention where it matters most, and to avoid distraction where it will only weaken the capacity — the political capacity — to address the issues that matter most.

That statement assumes we can say something about which issues matter most. That assumption is difficult, because it begs the question (in the modern sense of that phrase), “most important for whom?” And that question, in turn, reveals a critical and unavoidable ambiguity: An issue may be “the most important issue” for some, but not the “most important issue” for all.

I know this ambiguity — deeply and personally. My middle kid is non-binary. Crafting and defending a world in which they can flourish as they are is, for me, the most important issue. When I come into their room and find them weeping after reading about some new law targeting them, or us, their parents, I feel the rage of a mother bear defending her cubs.

That rage just grows as I recognize the base and meaningless reasons that we must fight this issue now. This is not like abortion. I believe absolutely in the right of a woman to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. Yet I recognize there are people who honestly and morally believe the fetus is a “person.” And so I get their fight to regulate a woman’s choice. I don’t agree with it, but I understand the moral reason (for them) behind it.

The fight against the non-binary community is not that fight. This issue was forged by and for the politicians. It is deployed for the purpose of generating hate, because hate, they believe, will earn them votes. It is the basest and worst of politics. And its consequence will be that this child I love more than life will suffer in a world where intolerance and hatred have been nourished and fed by people who have no better argument for getting elected than “hate them, vote for me.” Thus for me, trans rights is the most important fight there is. For me, that issue triggers a fury that I know for no other issue that I have ever argued for.

And yet — and this is the critically difficult point to understand and to express and to live — I don’t believe that this issue that is most important for me is the most important issue for us.

We’ve just suffered a season of smoke produced by wildfires. We can expect those fires to return each year for as long as we can see. Why? Because for 30 years, we have not addressed the climate catastrophe in a serious and concerted way. With the consequence that fires will rage annually, the southwest will burn annually. And the mother of all climate risks — the flipping of the gulf stream, said by climate scientists 20 years ago to be something to fear after 2100 (and when they said that then, they were “alarmists”), is now feared as soon as 2025. The climate crisis is among the most important issues that we face. It isn’t mine. But it is ours.

And not just climate: From the 1940s through the mid-1970s, wages and productivity grew together in America. Now, for almost 50 years, that link has been broken. Why and how it has been broken is a complicated story. (Winner Take All Politics and Power and Progress are good starts). But for 50 years, changes in norms and policy have allowed the wealthiest to profit from that gap. Inequality is now at historical levels. That inequality poisons so much of public life. It drives a hopelessness that has overcome too many. Gone is the politics that made common flourishing common. Restoring that politics is among the most important issues that we as a people have.It isn’t mine. It is ours.

And not just inequality. The list of literally existential issues — Empire America, with a budget soon approaching $1T annually, a healthcare system broken for so many, infrastructure that embarrasses , AI-driven technologies that do to our brains what processed food has done to our bodies—these are the most important issues. They don’t drive me, emotionally, in the way equality for my kid does. But I can see—and accept—that what is true for me is not what is true for all.

When my intellectual half looks at these, the most important problems, I see a common source. A root. I see a corrupted politics that makes it impossible for us to deal with any of them sensibly. Corrupted by money. The Koch brothers made climate change verboten in the Republican Party, when they threatened, in 2010, to primary any Republican who even acknowledged the truth in climate change. That ended the chance for Congress to enact real regulation to address this catastrophe; Presidents have tried (and been rebuffed by the Court); only Biden has found a way to pass a law to subsidize the problem away. But who doesn’t fear this is too little, too late? Who really thinks this is enough?

Likewise with inequality: Every change that might restore the golden age of common growth is fought with the endless resources of obscene wealth. A labor movement is fought. The wealthy bearing their “fair share” in taxes is rejected by a former Vice President now running for President. And the Republican Party threatened fiscal default to disable the IRS from being able to collect taxes already owed by the most wealthy. There isn’t a politics to fight inequality, because there is an economy of influence that kneecaps that fight at the starting gate.

Likewise with Empire America — both parties benefit from the billions that get spent to build and spread weapons of death, because both parties are paid by the industries that need that spending.

Likewise with drug costs and health care.

Likewise with the fight to regulate AI sensibly — key Democrats have already shown how effective lobbyist-driven rain can be.

In every case, these, the most important issues are made unsolvable because of a political system that gives to the few the power to veto the changes needed by the many. That insight has driven my work for more than 15 years now. Because Manchin is a coward, it will drive my work for the rest of my life.

But neither that fight nor the issues that winning that fight would make solvable are the focus of politics today. Because that fight, and the existential problems that winning that fight would make solvable, don’t drive engagement in the way the politics of hate does. The machine that edits what we read and watch and argue about doesn’t select on the basis of which crises are existential; it selects on the basis of which fights are most fierce and engaging.

That’s the bit of the picture above that is most misleading. I don’t think there’s a cabal of Mr. Burns’s plotting the distraction that is our politics. But they are quite gleeful about it. I do think the Mr. Burns’s of the world recognize that if democracy got its act together, they would lose the fights they now win by default. But they are happy to see that we don’t get our act together. They are happy that the distraction that is politics today will never muster the will to take them on. They win, not because they are actually more powerful. They win, because the politics of governing sensibly does not pay.

Which brings this back to people like my kid, and by proxy, people like me. People whose most important issue helps drive this division. What should be done with people like us?

What should not be done is that we be lectured to. What should not be done is that we be told to shut up. Or to keep our issues out of view. Or to go to the back of the bus. People who are suffering the injustice of this age — and those who suffer by proxy—should not be told by others that they need to suffer their injustice a bit longer. That this isn’t the time for decency and justice. That there are elections to be won, and our issues won’t win them. What should not be done is that anyone minimize the significance of this suffering, and of the injustice that is being done to these sweet souls, all of them children to someone.

Yet there is a truth that we—all of us—must also glimpse. That unless we can find a way to focus, we are lost. That unless we can find a way to avoid an agenda set by an outrage detector, we will make no progress anywhere. That unless we make politics work for at least existential issues, it will not work for the issues that anyone faces. There is a truth that we all must come to see, and there is a discipline to practice once we see it.

I don’t know how that discipline gets practiced well. I don’t know that I have the patience for it.

Yet I do know that a rage machine is at the center of American politics today, because it profits both the politicians and the media through which we understand politics and the world. And I do know that rage machine is destroying the capacity of our democracy to do anything sensibly. To the great amusement of those who never believed in democracy anyway, and who benefit the less that we, as a people, can do together.

And so I do believe that we need a way to elevate this question to a place of understanding and serious thought: How do we give those who recognize these truths the support they need to fight the most important issues? How do they give us the confidence that they recognize the most important issues — to us? How do we build a politics that is not the politics of distraction?

We need that way. We don’t have it now.