Every election season, there's a particular kind of column that inevitably comes out. It's the column that says you should just stop caring about politics, stop paying attention, and instead focus on your family and your community, because politics is maddening and corrosive. This is not that column.
Instead, this column believes that while politics is frequently maddening and corrosive, it's also important and, at times, noble. We should all pay attention to it and be involved in it at least to some degree. Particularly this cycle, when the Republican frontrunner is an unprincipled con artist and the Democratic frontrunner is an unprincipled con artist.
So you should, indeed, pay attention, perhaps particularly this cycle. But you should do so while remaining sane. Here are six ways how:
1. Don't run for the hills yet.
Donald Trump is quite something, isn't he? While I believe Hillary Clinton's lack of principles makes her unfit to be president, I don't believe she might institute a fascist state or decide to nuke Belgium because the ambassador was rude to him. The stakes in this election are pretty high, and there's no knowing how things will turn out at this point.
It's tempting to throw up your hands before the corruption, the fecklessness, the coarseness, the reality TV sensationalism, but all these things mean you should be more engaged, not less — but in a special way. So that the images flooding into your eyeballs don't turn you into the kind of street person who tears out their hair while laughing in a high pitch at passersby.
2. Empathize with people you disagree with — especially Trump supporters.
Empathizing with people is always a good tip, particularly if you're trying to preserve a modicum of sanity in politics, and particularly this cycle. This is especially true when it comes to Trump supporters. Yes, more than a few of them are gross racists, but you're kidding yourself if you think that's the only thing that's going on. The same South Carolina that launched Trump into orbit has a governor who removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol and enjoys Soviet propaganda-like approval ratings.
Trump supporters have legitimate beefs, as my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty explains very well here. Populist insurgencies don't emerge if there isn't something real underlying them.
3. Be on social media, but breathe.
Some people say you shouldn't be on social media because it's toxic. It can be. But it doesn't have to be. It's where a lot of the action is, and you can learn a lot. But you can also get into maddening fights with people where you lose your humanity. The most important thing is to breathe. I mean that very literally. When you feel yourself getting angry, pause and take deep breaths. Close your eyes. And then return. You'll have much better discussions. (The second most important thing is to not be on Twitter while you're with other people.)
4. Spend time with your children (or other people's).
The best antidote to everything terrible about politics is children, because they're wonderful (at least some of the time) and they typically don't care at all about politics. Make a deliberate effort to spend more time with children because of the political race. I'm dead serious. Inform your friends of this. If you don't have children of your own, invite friends, family, neighbors who have small kids to your house. Politics is a necessary and, again, noble part of life, but children remind us that it's not the most important part. And as we head into a race where both frontrunners' personal lives have been epic public failures, children also remind us that families are the basic unit of society and that politics should serve families, not the other way around.
5. Read more books.
Everyone has commented on how Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle has made politics dumber. If you want to follow a race, you should follow it, and that means giving your attention to that stuff. It's just inevitable. The problem isn't the blocking and tackling of the campaign, the problem is that sometimes it's hard to get perspective and context from it. Even most political analysts (yours truly included) will give you month-to-month context on the latest tweet, even though many political trends (like the decline of the American white working class) play out over decades. So you should read more books. And I don't mean books that will give you an escape from the race (although that's fine too), but books that will put it into perspective. I think you'll learn more about this race if you read Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines, Charles Murray's Coming Apart, and Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat than if you read a thousand blog posts from Nate Silver (no offense). You should probably throw in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, while you're at it.
6. Be thankful.
At the end of the day, there's probably a 90-percent chance that Donald Trump won't turn America into the Fourth Reich. And that's pretty good. It's become such a cliché that we don't pay attention to it, but Americans really are extraordinarily fortunate to live in a country where political disagreements are hashed out in public debates (yes, even when those public debates include boasting about genitalia) rather than with guns in the streets. This is something that most people in the history of mankind, and many people today, couldn't dream of, and it's something all of us who have this privilege should be thankful for — which is why we should fight for it.