Caught In Our Own Thought Bubbles

Americans are sorting. Regionally and ideologically. It’s natural to seek your tribe…your clan…your kind. But it is dangerous too. Unchallenged thinking is an insidious toxin to personal and societal growth. If I learned anything from 8 years in Portland City Hall, it’s that Portland is an ideological bubble and our political leadership is trapped in an even smaller bubble.

I have always considered myself a political liberal. I have never voted a Democratic Party line but that party aligns with many of my values. Initially, City Hall was more a political place for me than an ideological one. Sure, the lefties ruled, but there were no real litmus tests. Randy Leonard and Sam Adams were transactional politicians. Deal making, the essence of the compromises needed to govern effectively, was the rule.

With the change of faces in City Hall, the politics became more and more left leaning. It is useful to understand that Portland politics is a very small game. I saw the same faces in City Hall over and over, both lobbying us and in council meetings. I used to say that about 200 people, both professional lobbyists and citizen activists, ran Portland. There are traditional business lobbies but in Portland there are a dozen politically potent non-profits for each business interest. We even fund such interests in the form of narrowly drawn, deeply entrenched neighborhood associations.

While I can comfortably say that I saw no overt corruption in my time in government, what was true is that a limited number of people and organizations have instant access. And, with very few exceptions, the voices heard are flavors of liberal.

The longer I was in the job, the clearer it became that my more centrist view of government and politics was an outlier. I have spent a good portion of my intellectual life studying political polarization. I wrote a MA thesis in the topic. In order to do that honestly, I had to be familiar with conservative ideology and media. Political extremes repel me. I even changed my voter registration to non-affiliated. In meeting after meeting with outside parties, I never heard anyone question liberal tropes on social, financial, environmental, racial and political issues. It just wasn’t done. To out oneself as having questions came with a political cost.

I found myself needing to begin to draw personal lines in the sand against the dominant dogma. I spoke up for fiscal responsibility when the public’s money was being tossed around. I defended law enforcement officers in an environment where reflexive cop bashing has no real downside. From the first day in City Hall, I believed it was my job to make sure my elected had a spectrum of advice to consider when making decisions. Even when I am not in agreement with a position, I can speak fluent conservative. I know hearing a different perspectives made for more refined policy positions.

In a subsequent essay, I will consider the most powerful lobbyists in the City, the bureaucrats. Even in cases were I knew, folks from the bureaus had different political views, they kept their heads down. Career survival depends in fidelity to the dominant dogma or silence.

Even if you are a liberal, happily in what you define as a liberal city, you should be worried about homogeneous thinking. I lost track of the times I heard people criticize conservatives as close-minded. They simply didn’t see the irony that at both ends of the political spectrum contrary views are ignored, if not discriminated against. The hypocrisy of knowing without doubt is rarely visible to the extremes.

While they would lose every vote 4-1, I always fanaticized about how the decision making would be different on City Council would be different if there was only one moderate voice. Look at your news feed about what is happening in Washington today. How is that always preaching to one’s respective choir working out for us now? Bubbles are mostly great echo chambers.




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