We like to curse “politics” and “politicians,” and no doubt some of the bastards deserve it. But the simple truth is we’re social beings, which means we’re political beings, and that means politics is always part of the equation. It’s just part of who we are; it’s part of how the world turns for humanity. So look in the mirror: politics and politicians are just reflections of us, of you, of me. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “Our leaders, our government is us, all of us, so if they’re venal and weak it’s because we are.”
The Founders of this country, especially Madison and Hamilton, were clear-eyed about our deeply flawed (i.e. pathetically self-interested) human nature and so they helped design a Constitutional Republic that’s institutions provided checks on individual and/or party ambition. Power was purposely diffused. This process encouraged coalition building, another word for bipartisanship, among legislators as they try to reach a deal. In a liberal democracy, like the United States, where individual rights and the rule of law are sacred, this is a critical element in successful democratic self-governance.
The underlying ideal of liberal democracy is that differences are settled by laws, by process, by ballots not bullets, by elections not war. The southern states broke faith with the ideal in 1861 and it cost the nation over 600,000 lives and the destruction of the southern economy and many southern cities. The underlying ideal, at its core, is the belief that after all the arguments and rhetoric and shouting and nonsense, in the end, we settle the contest by law, by process, by elections. There’s no appeal to the results of a free and fair election. The people have rendered their verdict…for now. Those who lost have the next election for an appeal to the voters.
The underlying ideal means if you want to enact a public policy or a change in public leadership you have to engage in the tough work of persuading the voters. That IS democracy in action. Intimidating and threatening election officials, lying about election results, enacting voter suppression laws, aren’t acts of people trying to persuade, but of those betraying the underlying ideal for their self-interested ideology, for raw power. These acts are anti-democratic and are meant to be so.
I’ve struggled with maintaining a positive attitude given incredible breach of faith in the underlying ideal by many on the political right these days. Nothing good can come of it for them, their constituents, or our democracy. And yet! I do believe there are enough people devoted—on all sides—to the underlying ideal that we’ll slowly work our way through these turbulent times, preserve our great democracy, and, I pray, our continued faith in the underlying ideal.
Bruce Catton has an excellent quote about politics and democracy that I think says it very well:
Politics works at a high price and operates at the lowest common denominator of what exists in the hearts of the people—which means the hearts of you and me. There is cowardice there, often enough, and meanness, and petty selfishness, and politics has to take them into account. Yet those same hearts contain courage and nobility and faith, and in the last analysis the good outweighs the bad. We live by politics. We do various hopelessly inefficient things, we waste enormous amounts of strength and energy, we compromise everything but the underlying ideal—but because at bottom there is an underlying devotion to that ideal, we keep on living.
I’m not sure about you, but my daily dose of news can be quite depressing. I find myself more and more reaching for the TV mute button. Generally speaking, political scandal and sensationalism are what sells, or attracts viewers, and so our media outlets just keep up a steady barrage. And we can’t get away from it either. Our morning shows give us the bad news over coffee; our 24 hour news channels keep our blood pressure elevated throughout the day; and then, for our commute home, the array of vitriolic talk radio programs stoke our road rage. All this negativity has become a major kill joy. So the question becomes, for any discerning mind wanting to stay informed but avoid stroking out, choking someone out, or dying from alcohol poisoning, how might we manage this?
I recently read about a guy named Erik Hagerman, who decided he was done with politics and all the bad news. He decided, literally, to cut himself off from pretty much all the news, starting the day after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. The crassness and depravity were just too much for him to bare. So for over a year now, Hagerman has been successful at staying joyously uninformed about what’s going on in the world. And, yes, he feels great! But he’s also officially clueless. So you understand, Hagerman lives by himself and has no children, so he’s got tight control over what he takes in, a situation, if you’re thinking about a similar project, to bare in mind. But then, we must ask, I think, if Hagerman’s way, a total black out of bad, unwelcome, or disturbing information, is really a good idea to follow?
I too have sometimes wished I could live as if the outside world didn’t matter, but alas that option isn’t realistic or very smart. Consider this: Hagerman bought 45 acres of land on the site of a former Ohio strip mine that’s been reclaimed by mother nature. He wants to restore this land and sees his efforts as “penance for the moral cost of his [news] Blockade.” His mission is to care for this land, restore it, and then leave the nature preserve for future generations to enjoy. Great! I love the idea. How green of him. But let’s consider the potential costs to Hagerman by not staying informed, and not being able to connect the dots. So Hagerman is working away on his land and not paying attention to the news or the political climate of his nation or county, and then suddenly he discovers, via construction vehicles, that a petrochemical plant has been approved next door to his land. His life’s work is suddenly looking pretty grim, ruined actually. While Hagerman was burying his head in the sand, his neighbors were rallying local votes and paying off politicians for the approved purchase of their land so they could get rich. Hagerman is now a victim, in large part, by his own making. Responsible citizens must be active, least they be unexpectedly victimized by forces (other people pushing their agenda or interests) working to impose their will at our cost. That is just how the world works, and is exactly what can happen when you don’t stay informed, be an active citizen, and, critically, vote at election time. Voting may not save you, but by not voting, and not understanding the issues when you vote, you’re surrendering without any fight at all.
But let’s back up for a moment. The reason our news outlets have so much disturbing news is because, well, there actually is plenty of disturbing news folks. With that said, there is obviously the spin that various media outlets put on the news—politically speaking. That’s the source of much anger and discomfort, I realize. But it’s not true that all media outlets put the same amount of spin on their news coverage or commentary. There actually are news outlets, journalists, and editors who try hard to preserve their intellectual and journalist integrity. You just have to pay attention and be open-minded enough to see that. But here’s a hint: If you think your favored news outlet, especially your preferred TV news outlet, is the best, most accurate one out there and all the others are bias, you’re probably living in a bubble, which makes for a good chance that you’re misinformed on a variety of issues. The question you need to ask yourself is: Do I care about seeking the truth and solving problems, making a better future for me and my family, while also reasonably protecting my interests, or am I just going to be a cheerleader for the politics (and tribalism) I uncritically prefer, regardless of the ruin it may inflict on me, my family, or my country? So many, it seems, prefer the bubble, the tribal identity and loyalty. And that’s one big reason why our current politics is so dysfunctional. We each, remember, have played some part in why this is happening.
So instead of the Hagerman way, or the passive acceptance of your own bubble, I suggest you adopt a deeply critical mindset about news and information in general. You probably think you’re doing that now, but for the most part you’re probably not thinking critically, you’re just rearranging your prejudices. We rarely take the time to step back from the words, the salesmanship, and truly examine the ideas thrown at us; to ask ourselves important questions and follow, honestly, the twisting path of its implications. Remember, that just about all communication is an argument of some type. Whether it’s a TV commercial or a talk show or a politician, all of them are trying to get you to buy something. Just like, hopefully, you wouldn’t squander your money on things you don’t need, don’t uncritically accept—or buy—what anyone or any organization, business, or political party is pushing. They know your weak points and they exploit them. They know most of you don’t have time to research the issues, and they’re counting on you being impulsive, a party loyalist, a tribalist hearing the whistle, and not necessarily knowing what your long term interests truly are. We’ve all heard the saying that “we need to have the courage of our convictions,” and this is indeed an important virtue. But I would argue that it’s equally important, if not more so, that we have the courage to question our convictions. This is a much rarer virtue from my experience. It takes a higher courage, which, unfortunately, seems in really short supply right now.
So first, my suggestion is that you don’t tune out from it all, but that you adopt the attitude that every organization, every politician or news station, to some degree, is always trying to sell you something. So, like a good consumer, you stay tuned in to the market, but with a critical distance from all the attempts to incite you, to provoke you to buy. Some of the goods are clearly junk or nickel plated nonsense. It’s easy to recognize, if you’re paying attention to the sales job and you know your own mind. But some of it is more pernicious and hard for us to discern, because it’s packaged to appeal to our emotions more so than our good sense or intelligence. Good salesmen know that capturing your emotions will often shut down that critical, often skeptical, debate going on in your head. Do your best to check your emotions and see their arguments and heated rhetoric for the simple sell job it is. Your job is to always ask yourself if what you’re hearing—being asked to buy, believe, or vote for—is truly the best thing, the higher thing….if, of course, that’s what you’re truly about in this life. That’s a question only you know the answer to.
Second, try hard to understand what your true interests are. I know most people think they know what their interests are, but my experience has confirmed over and over this is simply not true. Simply put, unless you can connect the dots you don’t know where they lead. And if you don’t know where they lead you’re just as likely to be supporting something that actually hurts you rather than helps you and your family. Try to connect the dots and do the best you can to see if the path those connections are making best serves you, your family, your community, and your nation. How many of us have discovered AFTER digging into the details of something, we’d long thought was benefiting us, our family, or our society, had actually been screwing us all along! That lesson applies not just to money and services, but to ideas and politics.
Stay engaged, know what’s happening, be deeply critical of information, be honest with yourself, and know what your true interests are. This is a duty you owe yourself, an obligation you owe your family, and your nation.
The sad state of American politics, especially the degraded state of the Presidency, has made this quaint little story about personal character, as told by John Maxwell in his book The 21 indispensable Qualities of a Leader, very pertinent to our times:
A man took his young daughter to a carnival, and she immediately ran over to a booth and asked for cotton candy. As the attendant handed her a huge ball of it, the father asked, “Sweetheart, are you sure you can eat all that?”
“Don’t worry, Dad,” she answered, “I’m a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside.”
That’s what real character is—being bigger on the inside.