Opinion

When the problem is politics itself

Cynicism and dejection cede too much ground to the worst among us

One of the best classes I took as an undergraduate was a course called "Writing as a Critic." Students moved from genre to genre throughout the semester — one week writing a film review, the next tackling a play, then a record album, then a ballet, and so on. But nothing tested my patience and flexibility like the assignment to review a few episodes of a TV show. This was 1989, network television was the only option, and the show I chose was Doogie Howser, M.D., a "comedy-drama" about a teenaged doctor (played by a young Neil Patrick Harris).

The show was awful in a way that TV series today rarely are: hokey, trite, hackneyed, treating its audience like illiterates. This was before Seinfeld, before The Sopranos, before competition from dozens of platforms forced everyone in the industry to up their game. So I wrote a contempt-soaked rant — but not aimed solely at the show under review. It was a blast at television in general, treating it as a garbage genre, lacking in any merit. Which inspired my prof to deliver a set of comments that have stayed with me ever since.

"When writing a review, it's a bad idea to take aim at the genre to which it belongs," she wrote. "Doing so undermines the authority of what you have to say about the specific example of that genre you're currently reviewing. Why should I bother to read your assessment of this particular TV show, after all, if you think all TV is trash? You've announced from the start that you're predisposed to hate it and everything like it."

I think of this wise comment quite often in my current role as a critic of the genre of performance art we call American politics.

This wasn't always the case. I was so drawn as a young man to the soul-stirring endeavor of politics that I got a Ph.D. in it. I've worked in politics (as a speechwriter). I've written about politics as an academic and as a journalist. But something has changed over the past decade, and especially since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign.

Trump himself deserves a lot of the blame for turning our politics into more of a comedy-drama than it used to be. But he is as much a symptom as a cause. Some complex intermixture of the 24-hour news cycle, the imperatives of digital journalism, the viral way information is shared online, the pathological psychological incentives and mob dynamics of social media, negative partisanship, and ideological polarization have combined to turn American politics into a madhouse.

But this poses a challenge for those of us who stand at least partially on the sidelines, trying to make sense of the mayhem. How are we supposed to render reasoned, proportional judgments of specific people, parties, policies, stories, and events when the genre itself increasingly inspires contempt and disgust?

This doesn't mean that everyone is equally worthy of derision. Most Democrats favor vaccinations, while right-leaning politicians and media personalities mock those getting the "Fauci ouchie," even in the face of sharply rising cases of COVID-19. Most Democrats are trying to pass bills that they sincerely believe will benefit all Americans, while Republicans would prefer to fight an endless series of culture-war battles with the left.

But that doesn't mean only the right is to blame for our political woes. Generously funded left-wing activists regularly stake out counter-productive positions on policy while making statements on "woke" issues that seem crafted to serve as ad copy for conservative fundraising and fodder for prime-time Fox News demagogues. And everyone, from activists to mainstream journalists to professors to political staffers and politicians themselves, speaks in wildly hyperbolic terms about existential threats to the nation, the imminent reimposition of Jim Crow, Kremlin efforts to place a badly compromised candidate in the Oval Office, and governors intentionally causing the deaths of "millions" in order to further their agendas.  

Not even Biden is immune to the epidemic of poisonous exaggeration. Republican attempts to empower partisan state legislatures to override vote certifications by election commissions pose a genuine, serious threat to American democracy. But states passing bills to regularize voting procedures after the highly irregular pandemic election of last November is not, even when the changes amount to a modest restriction relative to what prevailed in 2020. Yet there Biden was earlier this week in Philadelphia, speaking like a left-wing activist, describing all of it indiscriminately as a "new wave of unprecedented voter suppression" that poses the "most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War."

Recall what I said before about Trump being as much the symptom as the cause. That's even truer about Biden than it is about his predecessor. One important reason why we're so prone, across the political spectrum, to hyperbolic pronouncements is that we live in genuinely deranging times.

The country really is very deeply and very narrowly divided. Trump won in 2016 with just 46 percent of the vote and tried to govern as if he'd carried 65 percent. Biden is doing the same from the left despite winning 51 percent in 2020 and barely maintaining control of Congress. The previous president really did foment an insurrection that produced the first non-peaceful transfer of power in American history. The country's military leadership really did talk through (hapless) plans to thwart a Trump-led coup. The left really is pushing a flagrantly illiberal agenda in schools and many other cultural institutions. Right-wing intellectuals really are flirting with fascism.

And that's not even counting the deadliest pandemic in a century; the most widespread protests, rioting, and looting in half a century; a nationwide surge in violent crime; unprecedented numbers of drug-overdose deaths; and record-shattering heatwaves giving us a taste of a world scorched by climate-change.

It's enough to drive anyone mad. And so we are — helped along by those eager to capitalize on the turmoil.

Where does that leave those of us trying desperately to keep our heads, make some sense of the confusion, and chart a safe course through the turbulence? With quite a lot of work to do, I'm afraid. That work involves more than maintaining composure in the face of constant provocation. It also demands that, however unseemly or infuriating any episode proves to be, we not succumb to despair about American politics as such. Cynicism and dejection cede too much ground to the worst among us — those who would take advantage of our degradation.

Instead, we need constantly to remind ourselves that politics has been less putrid than it often seems to be now, and that it might right itself someday soon — but only if those who aim for something higher remain at the ready, eager to contribute to, and exemplify, an ennobled public life.

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