[Note: This is twelve percent of an idea. It’s barely even a concept.]
Over the past quarter-century, American politics and our shared national life have slowly but surely descended into derangement. From President Bill Clinton’s impeachment over sexual misbehavior and the Iraq war to chronic government shutdowns and the election of a semi-literate carnival barker in 2016, this decline has only accelerated over time. Safeguards and firebreaks against the absurd and inane in politics and society alike have been dismantled, our national circuit-breakers damaged seemingly beyond repair.
The politicization of nearly everything in national life stands as both cause and consequence of our collective flight from reason. Politics saturates our collective experience as a nation in unhealthy ways. Political polarization likewise serves as the fuel for its own fire, feeding itself as it continuously expands and consumes whatever crosses its path. Taken together, these abstract phenomena have hit critical mass and started a self-sustaining chain reaction that can only hasten our own national self-immolation.
Indeed, politics itself threatens to swallow us all whole. The great American berserk has finally spun out of control, and the gradual-then-sudden transformation of politics into a constant and ever-present life-or-death struggle bears much of the blame. We’ve made politics a way of life, imposing upon ourselves rigid and dogmatic ways of thinking that flatten out our own national, social, and personal lives. Without so much as a second thought, we’ve excised wider and richer notions of life and experience from our public and our private consciences. We now increasingly define ourselves by and through our politics, when in reality no single facet of our lives can possibly hope to do so.
The coronavirus crisis, however, offers a stark reminder of what truly matters in politics: competence and a concern for the common good. We’re seeing all too clearly the disastrous consequences of our abnormal national obsession with politics and its deleterious place in our public life. Counterintuitively, this crisis shows us that politics must be made normal again – not a dominant or decisive part of our national or personal lives. Politics as a way of life has failed, but politics as a mechanism for substantive change can be made to work once again.
That can’t be done without understanding our present abnormalcy. To start with, our politics has assumed increasingly existential stakes over the last twenty-five years. Indeed, every successive national election has come to be characterized as the most important of our lives. Wittingly or not, we’ve cultivated a pervasive sense of existential dread in our politics that drains us as individuals and exhausts us as a society. This chronic state of constant agitation and anxiety achieves little and costs much: we reduce ourselves from individuals with a variety of views and interests to two-dimensional caricatures. Our thinking about society and conceptions about our shared national life have become narrow, cramped, and mean-spirited. In amplifying the stakes involved in politics beyond all reason, moreover, we encourage extreme stances and excuse unethical behavior. As a result, government no longer functions adequately and cannot serve its primary purpose: solving collective action problems with an eye to the common good, determining what we owe one another as fellow citizens, and resolving disagreements about those subjects – or at least constructively suspending them – without recourse to violence.
As a society and as individuals, we’ve invested far too much of ourselves in politics. In seeking meaning and salvation in politics, we’ve paradoxically made politics progressively more trivial. We’ve allowed our baser instincts and impulses to permeate and corrupt our public life, making it more squalid and sordid than absolutely necessary. By making politics a way of life, in short, we’ve burdened politics itself with far more significance than it can possibly sustain and caused the hard work of actual government for which it exists to grind to a screeching halt.
Politics is at its core a profession, not a way of life – and we’ve confused the two at our personal and collective peril. As a profession, politics is no more or less honorable than any other. But as a way of life, it becomes non-negotiable and intolerant; political disagreement becomes one of the deepest personal attacks an individual can face in life. This phenomenon isn’t exactly new: a century ago, the great sociologist Max Weber distinguished between those who primarily lived “for” politics and those who mainly lived “off” politics. In the latter camp, we find professional politicians and party functionaries who make politics their career and source of income. In the former camp, however, we find individuals who involve themselves in politics because they need their lives to “meaning in the service of a ‘cause.’”
Weber presciently and accurately described the motivations of many who take part in democratic politics today, both in the United States and elsewhere. But he didn’t establish that it’s actually possible for individuals to find meaning in politics, in part because he didn’t set out to make that argument. In his own roundabout way and in his own historical context, however, Weber himself understood that politics as a way of life did not offer the route to personal or collective salvation that many of its adherents think possible. When we try to make politics a way of life that defines who we are as individuals, we lose sight of the fact that we bring our own principles and values to politics rather than the other way around. Politics itself cannot bear the weight of the search for meaning that so many place on it today and throughout history.
It’s therefore incumbent on those of us who have made politics and policy our profession to do our part to make politics normal again, undertaking as best we can to ensure that politics returns to its proper role as a pedestrian but effective means of addressing collective problems. Ordinary citizens in a democracy shouldn’t have to obsess over politics the way we do, much less see it as a field of existential battle that’s joined every single day. More importantly, we all have interests and pursuits into which politics cannot and should not infiltrate or impose itself upon. A relentless and dogmatic drive to freight even the most quotidian affairs of our lives with political portent leaves us blind to the more profound joys and sorrows inherent in our shared human experience.
That’s not at all to downplay or gainsay the importance of participation in public life and politics. Indeed, involvement in civic affairs remains a duty for those of us so inclined to see it as such. The ancient Stoics, for instance, held that involvement in public life constituted a central commitment of their philosophy. But as the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in his treatise On Leisure, such participation can be limited by an an individual’s own capacity to contribute to public life and the general moral health of the body politic. Equally significant, Seneca offers a more expansive and magnanimous conception of public service as making oneself “useful to others” – including, if all else fails, to oneself.
Above all, then, politics needs to be conducted in accordance with its proper worth: an important part of social and national life, but not an individual or collective obsession that devours all before it. Even for those of us liable to view political involvement as a duty, it’s far from a categorial moral imperative that supersedes all other responsibilities or preferences at all times. And as Seneca reminds us, there are other ways to meet one’s duties and participate in public life that don’t necessarily involve electoral or formal politics.
We need instead to aim for normalcy in politics even as we approach public policy with ambition and vision. To do otherwise would be to accede to a quite frankly totalitarian demand for an absolute individual moral commitment to politics that’s repressive, alienating, and enervating. The constant mobilization such a mindset requires corrodes the very social bonds necessary for a society to function, and leaves us all exhausted in the end. Indeed, when we infuse everything with politics, politics itself loses meaning and becomes incapable of performing its own basic purpose
Beyond the myriad fixes our national institutions desperately need, we can all take a number individual steps to help make politics boring once again. First and foremost, we must revive the lost art of persuasion – political and otherwise. At heart, this means recognizing our own fallibility and the chance that we might be wrong when we seek to change minds. It also entails an acceptance of disagreement when argument fails to immediately sway our interlocutors. Simply proclaiming our own moral superiority and attacking all those who disagree even in the slightest degree as beyond the pale persuades no one and further rends the already frayed fabric of our national life.
We ought to instead pursue a sort of minimalist agreement in our political debates. The overall aim of our arguments should be to win support for concrete political action and policies, not induce the sort of religious conversion best experienced on the road to Damascus. That requires a willingness to listen to those we hope to persuade, accept the possibility that we may well fail, and assume the risk that we ourselves may change our own minds or modify our own opinions, at least in part. There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed in our efforts to convince others to support our preferred policies or take the sort of political action we seek, but we’re certain to fail if we don’t even make the attempt in good faith.
Moreover, we should do our best to find inspiration in normalcy. That doesn’t mean giving up on big ideas or ambitious projects when it comes to politics and policy. But it does require a strong focus on practicality, in terms of both garnering the necessary political support for a specific policy and then successfully executing it. Often enough, these two elements work together strongly: to secure sufficient political backing for a particular policy proposal, potential supporters need to believe that the project in question can actually be carried out. It follows that we ought to build the broadest political coalitions possible in pursuit of our policy goals – to include even those with whom we might otherwise disagree. That in turn calls on on us to forsake grandiose notions of “revolution” and avoid arrogantly alienating potential partners with our own rhetoric and conduct.
But that attitude only works if we approach politics in right measure. We must neither exaggerate nor underestimate the significance of politics in the wider scheme of things, recognizing it as just one among many important parts of life – not see it lurking everywhere we look. Those of us involved in politics and policy should let people live their lives, to say nothing of living our own lives outside our professional work. Right now, however, we’re drowning in politics because we don’t put it in proper perspective. We fail to realize that politics cannot substitute for what’s truly essential in life: our personal relationships, our philosophical commitments, and the like.
Finally, we shouldn’t ask politics to solve problems that it can’t due to its very nature answer. Politics does indeed need a moral and philosophical dimension; as President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized, citizens should remain “conscious of their individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America” and do their best to help build a society worth living in. But politics cannot provide either individual or collective meaning in and of itself, much less salvation. Instead, politics should focus on its strong suit: advancing the common good in practical and concrete ways. There will of course be constant debate about what that itself entails, but this forthright exchange of views cannot and should not allow itself to succumb to the temptations of bad faith so prevalent in our contemporary public discourse. We must accordingly resist demands to concentrate our energies on a single original sin that political evangelists of various stripes insist explains everything – all the more so when these proselytizers condemn us as wicked for failing to do so.
More than anything else, perhaps, we should understand that the end is not nigh. Our monomaniacal collective focus on politics as a way of life causes us to see even the smallest political stakes as existential. A sense of politics as a life-or-death enterprise prevents us from even hoping to achieve our concrete policy goals. We must instead cultivate a politics of normalcy – not the complacent normalcy preached decades ago, but a boring yet bold commitment to advancing our political views and policy objectives in correct proportion to their worth in our personal and social lives. As important as it can be, there’s more – much more – to life than politics and public policy. If we’re ever going to make our society one worth living in, we must get a grip on ourselves and restore politics to its proper place in our national life.