This is not the republic I came to see; this is not the republic of my imagination. … I see a press more mean, and paltry, and silly, and disgraceful than any country I knew.
– Charles Dickens, letter to William Charles Macready, 22 March 1842
In yet another foray into prognostication, Foreign Policy magazine’s CEO and editor David Rothkopf is “sensing” low voter turnout in November – “a national yawn at a potential turning point in the history of the country.” (Journalists “sense” things over here; research and analysis apparently went out the window.)
Not being in the business of casting runes over my fellow citizens’ behavior, I’m not going to speculate with or against Rothkopf. But since his article echoes plaintive notes from others regarding my shunning of politics, I will promise everyone that I will be at the polls in November.
I’m just not going to talk about it.
If that makes Rothkopf’s, other journalists’, and countless campaign staffers’ and pollsters’ jobs a little more like cooking from scratch and a little less like nabbing a Happy Meal, so be it.
For me, talking about U.S. politics ceased to be either educational or emotionally satisfying in 2010, when the majority of U.S. citizens began to drench themselves and their neighbors in levels of abuse and vitriol hitherto not experienced by the average American.
I have friends who reproachfully contend that such political rancor is nothing new, and who point to the virulent animosity between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the deadly duel of former treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and Vice President Aaron Burr, and the kicking and punching match of the 1858 Congress when President James Buchanan asked it to admit Kansas to the nation as a slave state. And when it comes to the politicians themselves, my friends assuredly have a historical point.
But in dwelling on the antics of the public figures, they rather miss the adjective pertaining to me, and to others like me.
None of these historical disputants had the reach into private citizens’ space that television, talk radio, and Internet media and communications technologies have fostered. So it doesn’t matter that those politicians went after each other hammer and tongs, down to slurs about parentage or firearms demonstrations or wigs being yanked off representatives’ heads on the floor of Congress (a sight many of us would relish).
Once upon a time, not everyone was forced to hear about it – much less re-enact it at work, at home, and online.
Today, even people who assiduously avoid the heavily politicized television channels, who start seeking the Spanish-language Univision at the first sign of a political story on the local news, who mute all campaign advertisements, who never listen to talk radio and hurry past the front page of a newspaper (online or otherwise) – even such as these are likely to encounter the Facebook diatribe or snide meme, the boss’s temper tantrum over Congress or the president, captivity in a waiting area where the television is tuned to yet another CNN pundit, the unasked-for email deluge that arrives because of a one-issue petition signed in 2008, or an Internet troll’s comment about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney at the foot of an article on salmonella outbreaks.
It takes considerable effort to avoid politics in the United States. And that effort becomes almost Herculean in an election year.
A number of us have begun to make that effort. Yesterday saw the announcement of a third American Facebook friend that she will no longer discuss politics with anyone; the other two of my friends have held firm to this course, declared earlier this year. Social media techniques to screen out the chatter include hiding news feeds, modifying or removing friend subscriptions, blocking posts shared from certain groups, never responding to political issues – and simply leaving Facebook.
Academics have worried about the meaning of such withdrawal from public discourse about political issues. In Valparaiso University’s The Cresset after last summer’s U.S. debt ceiling debacle, Professor Peter Meilander of Houghton College noted the media “pervasiveness [that] exaggerates the importance of every small event” – and that their attention had no positive effects on governance. As citizen abhorrence of party pronouncements grows, and many desperately seek ways to “tune out,” he fears that “real power will [come] to be exercised not by the people at large … but rather by those who enjoy going to meetings – the activists, the busybodies, the ones who like deciding how the rest of us will live our lives.”
Public conversation may be so exercised. But not necessarily power.
Meilander and I are in agreement that American life has become too geared toward politics. Most damaging, the 24/7 news and social media cycle has personalized the busybodies’ “sausage-making,” turning much of public discourse into nothing better than an exchange of slurs and self-righteous pronouncements – on one’s debate partner and on wider groups of Americans.
This personalization has been at the heart of my own withdrawal from political discussion. “Policy” discussions that required insults toward everyone – from immigrant groups to chain restaurant patrons, from Muslims to Christians, from welfare recipients (sometimes overtly identified with urban African Americans) to rural residents (sometimes overtly called “white trash”) – escalated to the point where conversation was futile and the company, right and left, disgusting. As far as I could see, none of it had a thing to do with improving government, attempting civic cooperation, or addressing national development in a lagging global economy – much less with getting a single fact straight.
But I did not see it as “my fault” for not liking to be around these people. Nor do I.
If the nastiness seemed endless, coverage of the deterioration of civil discourse grew utterly suffocating – a constant reminder of how badly certain citizens were behaving. That this was accompanied by ponderous pronouncements of the remainder’s moral obligation not only to endure the outbursts but continually to engage the perpetrators “lest they be isolated” was, frankly, insufferable – not to mention a warping of the meaning of “compassion.”
It is one thing to hope better for those who are behaving in a vile manner; it is quite another to feel you are responsible for their behavior. The latter calls for objective, non-blaming examination of one’s own actions, which need not lead to the conclusion of one’s own guilt.
If there’s a lesson in all this for political media and eager-to-share public servants – beyond my high school teacher’s recommendation to “censor yourself three times before it comes out of your mouth” – maybe it is that government is not what we, the people, are supposed to worry about every day. You are supposed to be ensuring conditions for our lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – not for our pursuit of you.
And to Meilander and Rothkopf and those who worry about public disengagement I would say, “tuning out” does not necessarily mean dropping out.
What we, the people, do take on, as our right and our responsibility, is the choice we make in the voting booth. The act of casting a vote speaks louder than all the voices on this cacophonous planet; it is the purest and most effective “freedom of speech” of each and every citizen.
And we are under no obligation to discuss that choice with anyone, before or after: not to help pollsters forecast outcomes, not to give candidates fodder for persuasion, not to appease the boss or the neighbor or the magazine editor who is having a hard time with his article topics – not even to reassure our friends.
We, the people, are allowed to shut up and vote.
We live in a diverse and exciting world, full of natural and human wonders, amazing personal and cultural histories and practices – a constant to-and-fro between the unknowns of one another’s pasts and current lives, and the imaginative potential of the future. To ignore all this in favor of a tight focus on “being right” in political argument, to let anxiety rather than exploration take up the bulk of our energy and time on earth, is, to my mind, a tremendous waste.
While visiting the United States in the spring of 1842, Charles Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster that “dollars and politics [are] the only two subjects [Americans] ever converse about, or can converse about.” He found us to be terrific bores.
Looking at much U.S. media as the 200th anniversary year of Dickens’s birthday approaches its close, I am inclined to agree.
But I have hope.
I applaud the efforts of individuals and groups to change the tone of public political discourse and to approach the issues sensitively and constructively, with respect for and awareness of one another. Two groups, the Public Conversations Project and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, stand out among those attempting to guide Americans away from lock-step nastiness in addressing political issues. Writer John Backman, blogging at The Dialogue Venture, is an individual exploring the same effort, whom I am pleased to have encountered through a mutual friend online. I recommend resources such as these for those who wish to delve again into U.S. political discussion. And perhaps, someday, I will too. But likely not this year.