Opinion

America's hyperbole habit is the worst thing ever

The risk and roots of our nonstop panic and alarm

Have you heard the news about the imminent end of American democracy?

The president of the United States has been talking about it — how the country has embraced Jim Crow 2.0 and the midterm elections coming up in November could be illegitimate because the Democrats' voting rights bill went down to defeat in the Senate last week.

Republicans, meanwhile, are busy preparing for the imposition of "soft totalitarianism" on the country by woke progressives who control all of America's elite institutions and are eager to use their immense power to ruthlessly stamp out dissent from every sphere of life.

Then, of course, there's the danger of COVID-19, even to those who have been fully vaccinated and to children too young to receive the vaccine, necessitating continued mask mandates even in elementary schools. Or, if you listen to the other side, vaccine mandates are apparently just like Nazism.  

Don't forget the threat of war in Eastern Europe, which could well lead to the destruction of NATO and the unraveling of the entire liberal international order.

And looming behind it all is climate change, which poses nothing less than a threat to humanity's very existence.

No one worries about the whole list, but all of these hyperbolic claims (and many others) are swirling around in our political culture, emanating from the Oval Office and politicians of both parties in Congress, echoed and amplified by cable news hosts and talk radio personalities, in the pages of magazines and academic journals, and, of course, on social media.

Is this the worst thing ever? Not at all. But it's not especially good for the country's civic health (or the psychological wellbeing of individual Americans) to have alarm bells blaring at full volume all the time from every conceivable direction. Yet that's increasingly the way politics plays out in our time, at once exhausting, numbing, and radicalizing us. It's as if we've found ourselves forced into service as participants in an experiment designed to confirm the wisdom of both "Chicken Little" and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

As with most widespread trends, the tendency toward constant hyperbolic exaggeration is overdetermined, with several cultural and economic developments encouraging it at once.

There is, to begin with, partisan polarization, which eliminates overlap between the parties and increases distance between ideological opponents. This makes it feel like the stakes in every election and vote in Congress are unimaginably high, producing a constant feeling of panic and making every political move an all-or-nothing proposition.

That perception of political dread then combines with the fact that the country is narrowly as well as deeply divided. Tiny shifts in support one way or the other in specific states or districts can make the difference between one party or the other controlling the presidency, Congress, statehouses (and hence congressional redistricting), and the judiciary. This too intensifies elections enormously, driving each party and its media megaphones to run what is effectively a 24-hour-a-day "get out the vote" operation 365 days a year, using expressions of danger and alarm as fuel to keep the political bonfire raging.

Then there's the rise of activism as a model of political engagement. Activists fasten onto one issue or a cluster of related issues and put all their energies toward gaining attention for their cause — in Congress, in the media, in the nonprofit sector, in the culture. In some respects, activism resembles marketing in its adherence to the adage that no publicity is bad publicity. And there's no better way to generate buzz than to indulge in a little hype — about a problem that must be addressed immediately and with the activists' preferred solution.

This is how we get every Democrat in Washington, from first-term backbenchers on up to the president, insisting that American democracy is doomed if the omnibus voting rights bill doesn't pass. It's also how politics becomes a series of clashing maximalist demands on both sides of every issue, and how so many foreign policy decisions — from Iraq to Libya to Syria to Afghanistan to Taiwan and Ukraine — are framed as a reenactment of the most portentous geopolitical misstep of the past hundred years (Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler's Germany at Munich in 1938).

On top of these influences come the economic incentives. The United States is enormous, with a noisy, distracting public sphere teeming with competing efforts to win our attention. To be heard above the din — to win ratings, traffic, and clicks — TV, radio, print media, and online outlets need to get noticed. And apparently nothing works better than shrieking loudly about a falling sky.

Finally, there are the psychological incentives, which mostly play a role online, and especially on Twitter — that round-the-clock digital playground for reporters, celebrities, activists, public-spirited academics, populist politicians, loudmouthed bullies, and malicious anonymous bots. In that civic cesspool, the rules of political activism and click-seeking journalism apply to individuals, every one of whom knows instinctively that the most extreme, unmodulated, outrageous formulation of an opinion tends to stand out, inspire likes, and go viral far more than efforts at nuance and fair-minded analysis. Hyperbole is the coin of the realm on Twitter, serving to enhance each individual's effort to inspire adulation and applause.  

The result of these mutually reinforcing trends is bad, even if it isn't about to plunge us into a civil war. (I've been known to flirt with hyperbole on that subject from time and time.) It's no small thing that a significant portion of the electorate resides inside a mental universe of nonstop panic and alarm. Even if it's disconnected from the reality of life in the country, such funhouse-mirror thinking can easily spill over into the real world, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than an accurate portrait of the present. And though I do hope this piece will be heard above the din, that warning isn't hyperbole.

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