The Great American Con

Carnival games, self-governance, and 5 links worth your time

Following the 2016 presidential election, one in six Americans stopped talking to a family member or close friend.

It’s a statistic I’ve cited here before because it seems unimaginable to me. Cutting off communication with someone I love over something like a presidential election?

Who are these people?

My family members and my friends and I disagree about many things, and politics is one of those things. We had plenty of heated arguments in 2016 (and 2020) and we didn’t all vote the same way. But none of us stopped talking to each other! We all felt strongly about our positions, but we felt even more strongly about our relationships and our connections.

Apparently, five out of six Americans made the same calculation. We value our personal relationships more highly than our political opinions. Just who are these people who are so upset about presidential elections that they stop talking to each other?

My current podcast guest, Dr. Tony Woodlief, argues that, while I’m busy patting myself on the back because I’m too sophisticated to be the one person in six who would end an important relationship over politics, I’m missing the real problem.

Focused on the wrong thing

Tony’s new book, I, Citizen: A Blueprint for Reclaiming American Self-Governance, begins with a story. When he was sixteen, to win a prize at the county fair and impress his girlfriend, Tony fell for a con. He avoided obvious cons like “test your strength,” but he was sure he could outfox the man who ran “guess your weight.” On that cold night, Tony looked deceptively thick from all the layers he was wearing, and he was sure the carny would guess the wrong weight.

He was right, but he still got conned. The carny did indeed fail to accurately guess Tony’s weight, but he was successful in separating Tony from three dollars and giving him a prize worth about a quarter.

This con, the Kansas City Shuffle, works because, while the “mark” is congratulating himself on being too smart to be conned, he’s ignoring the real con.

How does this relate to political polarization? While I’m busy ridiculing the extremes of political polarization and feeling superior to the one person out of six who has inconceivably stopped talking to relatives, politicians in Washington have embarked on (as Tony calls it) a “relentless centralization of authority.” While extreme polarization occupies our attention, Tony believes we’re losing our ability to self-govern, and we don’t even realize it is happening.


As we focus on the theater of national politics, we’re ignoring opportunities to act closer to home. Most of us aren’t at the extremes of the political spectrum, but it’s good business for politicians of all parties to keep us preoccupied with the people who are.

I hope you’ll listen to the podcast for Tony’s account of the “Great American Con” and his hopeful blueprint for restoring our ability to self-govern. This week’s links include an article Tony recently wrote on this topic, recent research on polarization, and several essays on the importance of federalism and self-governance.

5 links worth your time

  1. We’re not in ‘a Cold Civil War.
  2. Which of one Pew’s nine political categories do you identify with?
  3. Here’s why federalism will give us all more control.
  4. We overestimate how many of our political opponents hold extreme opinions.
  5. The whole system fails if we don’t have both virtuous leaders and a virtuous public.

Photo by Christopher Boswell on Adobe Stock