It's Time to Redraw the Borders of Politics: Why Constraints Matter

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It's Time to Redraw the Borders of Politics: Why Constraints Matter

Politics is the art of the possible. But our idea of what’s politically possible is mostly dictated by arbitrary constraints.

The battle over constraints is the real war in American politics. When you control what the constraints are, you control politics. The recent success of the left can be traced back to throwing away the old constraints, and proposing new ones. Therefore, progressives should spend more time redefining constraints.


Constraints dictate most everything in human life. There are natural constraints: for instance, no human being can fly under their own power. Big Science is unlikely to crack that code anytime soon.

Then there are cultural constraints. These are largely created by society. Pop songs tend to be around three minutes long. Why? Because that was the play-length of the old 78 RPM records. Long songs didn’t get on the radio.

The scholar Stephen Kosslyn has a lovely analogy about constraints:

For example, when moving into a new house, my wife and I had to decide how to arrange the furniture in the bedroom. We had an old headboard, which was so rickety that it had to be leaned against a wall. This requirement was a constraint on the positioning of the headboard. The other pieces of furniture also had requirements (constraints) on where they could be placed. Specifically, we had two small end tables that had to be next to either side of the headboard; a chair that needed to be somewhere in the room; a reading lamp that needed to be next to the chair; and an old sofa that was missing one of its rear legs, and hence rested on a couple of books — and we wanted to position it so that people couldn’t see the books. Here was the remarkable fact about our exercises in interior design: Virtually always, as soon as we selected the wall for the headboard, bang! The entire configuration of the room was determined. There was only one other wall large enough for the sofa, which in turn left only one space for the chair and lamp.

Kosslyn defines a “constraint” as “a condition that must be taken into account when solving a problem or making a decision.” “Constraint satisfaction” is the process of meeting many different constraints with a solution. “The key idea,” Kosslyn writes, “is that often there are only a few ways to satisfy a full set of constraints simultaneously.”

Additionally, you can add the effectiveness of constraints through adding more constraints. Say you want to go on vacation. Logically, it should be easy to pick a location: the world is full of places. But the job gets easier if you draw up certain rules: I won’t go anywhere I’ve gone before, I want to see a cathedral…once you limit the choices, the job gets so much easier. To narrow your options, add more constraints.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this.

Constraint is how we think and reason, as Kosslyn writes: “This is how detectives — from Sherlock Holmes to the Mentalist — crack their cases, treating each clue as a constraint and looking for a solution that satisfies them all.” Constraints are a kind of rule, and rules exist for a reason. As Barry Schwartz wrote in his book The Paradox of Choice, we tend to feel happier if we have some constraints: “By deciding to follow a rule, we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again.”


Earlier in this feature, I mentioned artistic constraints. That’s a nice jumping-off place to discuss political constraints. Like writing pop songs, practical politics is not a science. There are no hard and fast rules of politics, any more than there are in music-making. There are guidelines, sure. But there are no iron laws.

There is always a great deal of possibility in music. There are new rules to be broken, new ideas to be tried, and new trends to discover. There are a few commandments: try not to use slurs, have your songs be within this length, on this platform, made using pleasant sounds. Aside from that, there are relatively few limits in music.

So the constraints that operate around music are mostly made-up: we expect rock to sound like this, we expect rap to sound like this.

Politics works the same way. Aaron Sorkin once wrote that “Only two things stop the government from doing anything: money or politics.” And the elite of this country stopped pretending money was the issue a long time ago. So the only force that limits the government from doing anything is, frankly, politics. And like music, politics is generally controlled via arbitrary constraint.

And those constraints are generally dictated by the powerful.

Remember Kosslyn’s headboard? The rickety one, that had to be leaned against the wall? The headboard constraint dictated where the bed was set down. The bed’s location dictated everything else. That little rule wrote the rest of the story.

Kosslyn’s headboard is how centrists and conservatives rule over us. They have gotten the rest of us to swallow ridiculous constraints. And those constraints mandate the rest of our politics.

The centrist constraint is “Everything must be means-tested.” And the centrists have their particular rules. But conservatives have absolutely mastered Kosslyn’s headboard. It’s their favorite tool.

The right is incredibly good at drawing needless and incredibly vicious constraints. “Never raise taxes on rich people” is one of theirs. “National honor” and “Judeo-Christian” and “border security” are others. They’re designing new ones every day. Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Trump’s top immigration goon, tried to add a new constraint this week to our immigration law:

[Cuccinelli commented on] “The New Colossus,” the 136-year-old sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the poem, by Emma Lazarus. But on Tuesday morning, Mr. Cuccinelli, the acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, added a caveat. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge,” he said. That evening, he said the poem referred to “people coming from Europe.”


There’s a way to fight back. The moderates, with their worship of appeasement and compromise as the only political value, have sold their constituents short. By contrast, progressives must create their own constraints, and hew to them hard.

Constraints create creativity, motivation, and focus. Socialized healthcare is an incredibly popular idea—an idea with a supermajority. But for years, it was not allowed a hearing in the media.

But Bernie Sanders kept saying “Medicare for All.” He repeated these words enough times, in front of enough people, until the idea finally caught on. “Medicare for All” was the hard limit—the constraint beyond which Bernie would not move. And this constraint had its effect. Nowadays, even the most conservative Republicans must give lip service to the constraint that all Americans have a right to health care. Now any Dem asking for half-measures is shamed, and mocked. All because a group of activists made universal healthcare into a new constraint.

The urban planner Robert Moses once attributed his success to getting stakes in the ground quickly. Once a marker had been placed, the rest of it would follow. There’s a magic in starting, and there’s power in drawing lines. Even if it’s just a line with no force behind it. Once you’ve drawn a line, once you’ve stood for something, once you’ve made a rule, then you’ve created a constraint. A boundary.

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg discusses small wins. In the late Sixties, gay liberation groups were losing every legal battle. Then, Duhigg wrote, in the early ‘70s,

the American Library Association’s Task Force on Gay Liberation decided to focus on one modest goal: Convincing the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from HQ 71-471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”) to another, less pejorative category. In 1972, after receiving a letter requesting the reclassification, the Library of Congress agreed to make the change and reclassified books into a newly created category: HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism – Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”).

It was a small win. But by 1973, Duhigg writes, the “the American Psychiatric Association finally conceded and removed homosexuality as a category of disorder, and The New Zealand College of Psychiatry Federal Council declared it wasn’t a mental illness—the first such body in the world to do so.” Duhigg is using the Library of Congress win to illustrate the importance of small victories. However, what’s just as important here is the idea of drawing a line. Of creating a constraint. The Task Force decided The Library of Congress will not consider us abnormal. That is unacceptable.

That constraint changed the entire mission. Constraints—whether they’re creaky headboards or library classifications or simple standards—don’t just change the game; they are the game. We must redraw the limits, for only then will we be free.