The Politics of Complaint
People complain far too much about politics, and do far too little. This is readily observed by anyone with senses, but why it happens merits some digging into. It’s multicausal, but one big cause is: the government is only set up to take complaints, so that’s mostly what it gets.1 This is devastating to the overall political sphere, and is one of many reasons why smart, kind, ambitious people stay away from it.2
Government does not have to be this way (some parts of it already aren’t), and we can change it.
When many people decide to touch the government for the first time, they run smack into ham-and-maynase—they enter a scenario where everyone is complaining, yelling, and generally contributing to a horrific, immiserated atmosphere of bored suffering. You don’t even need a sign that says “abandon hope, all ye who enter here”; in our culture, adding that to a “community meeting” would be redundant.
The point of this essay is to sketch the effects of complaint-based government, and the remedy.
The Politics of Complaint
A “politics of complaint” is a political system, including the government, that is primarily structured around receiving complaints/demands3 from its constituents.
Receiving constituent complaints is a vital part of governance, because those complaints can contain vital data needed to govern properly, pressure officials into correct action, and expeditiously address problems. In many ways, complaint receipt is properly baked into the political system.
But the architects of political systems need to keep in mind how much of those systems are dedicated to complaint receipt. Why? Two enormous reasons:
If an organ of government is dedicated to complaint receipt (by direct design or inadvertently), it often quickly degrades in quality and loses executive function. Many community forums and governmental processes are like this: the only people who show up are those who want to complain, and they drag the atmosphere of the whole meeting to hell; their worst crime often isn’t even their acrimony, but that they are terribly, terribly boring. As a result, fewer solutions-oriented, non-boring people show up over time, which makes the ratio of complainers even higher, increasing the exodus of non-complainers even more. Standard social evaporative cooling effect. You’ll wind up with meetings where everyone is complaining and demanding that someone do something, instead of meetings where people regularly make and execute novel and experimental plans.
If an organ of government is dedicated to complaint receipt, its leaders will tend to divert citizens, rather than empower them. This degrades the problem solving capacity of both citizens and officials. Public officials—elected, appointed, and hired—develop defense mechanisms against an onslaught of citizen complaints, especially when so many of them are redundant and mean, even if justified. One is passing the buck; they become really good at shoving the complainers off on someone else, just as a means of communications triage. They get used to telling citizens to call this or that number at this or that agency, sometimes knowing full-well that the people at that agency—themselves being overwhelmed with complaints—will stonewall and divert in their own ways. The members of government might think they’re managing their workflow, but if they looked closer into their actual minds, they’d see that they slowly stop thinking creatively about how to solve civic problems themselves (if they ever did that to begin with). They merely become citizen diversion tools, and not great civic functionaries. The upshot: complaint-based systems destroy civic capacity.
No one likes systems that are overwhelmed by complaints. If you’re a member of the public, you don’t want to touch those systems, even if they are vital and need your talent. If you’re a member of the government, you go into triage mode—you don’t think creatively about how to do government, you think about how to manage complaint flow. And everyone is bored all around.
The Politics of Agency
A “politics of agency” is a political system, including the government, that is primarily structured around relentless civic experimentation and execution. It only receives complaints incidentally, as necessary to achieve its primary task.
A politics of agency controls complaint receipt, knowing that most people are not in a position to complain productively anyway, and has other mechanisms for oversight and feedback than a non-representative room full of random people trying to talk over one another.4
Agentic politics also reframes its events and public workflows. Rather than a “trash pick-up,” you might have a “trash party.” Rather than a “town hall,” you have a “town party.”5 There are explicit rules about attending a town party: you can’t come to complain. You have to come prepared to say what you personally are willing to do to achieve a civic or political outcome, and talk to others on the same footing. Everyone enters with skin in the game, ready to be guided by people in a position to execute.
Governmental bodies can operate the same way. In New York City, City Council meetings and Community Board meetings are generally overcome by the politics of complaint—the public has been trained to demand, not to do, and officials have been conditioned to divert, not engage (but they demand and too). Alongside meetings where they collect public testimony (complaints) from whoever shows up, they could have other meetings with agentic purposes. This would mean changing the way they do things, and enforcing new expectations for themselves and the public. In the agentic meetings, they must offer (actual) plans of action, kick out complainers on the grounds of violating parliamentary germaneness, and help the solutions-oriented crowd to plug into civic problem-solving.
The sea-change in the paragraph above won’t happen overnight, but it is one necessary component to achieving the political system that will take New York to a future golden age. We cannot maintain a system dominated by complaint, either in formal governmental structures or extra-governmental civic institutions. It drives out talent, it degrades civic leaders, and it’s boring. Structuring the future of the capital of the world can so straightforwardly be otherwise!
If you want to know why the government is set up that way, that’s a longer story. “The ubiquity of court challenges, the artificial rigors of notice-and-comment rulemaking, zealous environmental review, pre-enforcement review of agency rules, picayune legal rules governing hiring and procurement, nationwide court injunctions — the list goes on and on.” From “The Procedure Fetish” (2021). I think this is a good follow-on piece to read after “The Procedure Fetish” if you want.
Many people first experience government at some kind of public forum, where ham-and-maynase crew are often out in force. Their experience is shockingly terrible, and they write politics and government off as broken, and not worth the opportunity cost of their time that could otherwise be spent in the private sector. This has a negative feedback loop: good people keep exiting and staying away from government, making the ratio of cranks to cools worse and worse over time. The best gardens are tended, etc.
For this essay, “complaint” and “demand” will always be represented by “complaint,” since most complaints are an explicit or implicit demand. Although some complaints are definitely just cranks venting without any goal in mind.
They also never mute themselves on Zoom, and couldn’t do it to save their life or yours.
The Neighborhood NYC and Maximum New York are currently planning one of these.