Why Is American Politics So Insane?
Because we’re treating politics like a form of entertainment … which is silly.
There are plenty of explanations for America’s political dysfunction. The rise of social media, the resentments engendered by shifting cultural attitudes, changing demographics, economic dislocations due to globalization … the list goes on. But an oft-overlooked cause of our political troubles—especially partisanship and the bitterness of our public discourse—is that a lot of us are treating politics like we do entertainment.
Politics Is Real Life, But We Don’t Treat It That Way
A few months ago, I wrote an essay in American Purpose magazine (which you can find here), where I argued that the decline of political parties’ organizational strength and the ascendance of televisual media tempt us to approach politics as an “other” realm of life. Much of our political activity is filtered through a screen, and the real substance of politics increasingly occurs in a faraway place called Washington, D.C. Since politics seems so separate from “real life,” we’ve begun to treat it that way—as an “other” realm of activity that does not require that we be on our best behavior.
At work and at home, the stakes of our behavior are high. If you’re a crappy employee, you might get fired. If you’re a crappy husband or wife, your spouse might divorce you. If you’re a crappy parent, your kids might be screw-ups. But if you’re a crappy citizen—if you are ignorant, full of contempt for your fellow citizens, uninterested in working together, unwilling to have constructive conversations and debates—there is no immediate, discernible effect on the health of the nation or the quality of your life within it. You are just one of many millions, after all. Your behavior seemingly doesn’t matter, so it’s tempting to not expend much effort, which … results in poor behavior on a mass scale.
This temptation to not “be your best self” when it comes to politics is amplified by those trends I explore in that American Purpose essay: developments like the nationalization of politics, the filtering of politics through screens, and the withering away of party organizations. Politics has grown so detached from “real life” that we’re tempted to not translate various “best practices”—virtues—of our everyday, real lives into our political lives.
Part of the upshot of seeing politics as a disconnected, “other” realm of life is that we begin treating politics as a form of entertainment. We’ve begun to read, watch, and discuss the news for the same reasons we go to football games and watch movies: to be entertained. And that’s not good.
It’s not good because self-government—politics—happens in the real world and has high stakes (just like your work life and your home life). Politics, or government, is a key means by which we structure our society together. If our politics goes haywire, society can follow suit (and vice-versa).
Real-world success requires responsible behavior. In the real world at work and at home, you’re forced to deal with complexity, make trade-offs, think before you speak, and even think for yourself. If you don’t, you’ll feel the effects. The quality of your life will suffer. That’s true for politics, too.
But not so with entertainment. When we entertain ourselves—whether it be at a football game or while watching Netflix—we’re not called to be sober, reflective, responsible versions of ourselves. We’re supposed to let loose, unwind. When we’re entertaining ourselves, we’re not concerned with thinking rationally or responsibly. Often, we’re more concerned with binding ourselves to our “team,” whether it’s our favorite character in a TV series or the hometown sports team.
If you think for a second, it’s not hard to see how our approach to politics is beginning to resemble our approach to entertainment. We place team (party) loyalty above all else. The content of what our team is standing for or advocating no longer matters so much; the fact that our team is ours and not the other team is reason enough to continue supporting our team, even when it does crazy crap (think about Republicans’ response to January 6th or, to a lesser degree, the reticence of many Democrats to condemn the ridiculous calls to “defund the police”).
Partisanship is just one example of the politics-as-entertainment dynamic gaining steam, but we can see it in the dizzying hyperbole of our public discourse as well. In real life, we don’t get very far by lying to ourselves and making wild exaggerations. But in politics, we’re screaming about “stolen elections” that weren’t stolen and proclaiming that America is a fundamentally, irrevocably racist nation at a time when America is growing less and less racist every darn day—look at data on life spans and educational attainment, for example.
The upshot of the tribalism and hyperbole is a very entertaining but very dysfunctional politics.
Self-government won’t persist for too long if we’re being irresponsible, silly versions of ourselves in politics.
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