In a few more weeks, on the heels of a final Presidential decision by voters, and after the punditry and handwringing recedes, we may get a breather from the spew that has shredded this election season’s political discourse. This is neither the first nor last battering that will be visited on democracy’s dented carapace, but rather another in a long series of assaults born of ignorance, profit-seeking, appeals to outrage and delight in cheap and cheesy titillation.
Those who pitch their political wares from such a low view of the world are regrettable, but expected features of the human landscape. They often rise higher than their deserved station on the back of moxie, materialism, vanity, and cultural division. This election cycle we have experienced a species of this parasitic ilk that personifies incivility. We’ve borne witness to a kind of acting out that sunders civil discourse and rejects a shared sense of mutuality and reciprocity. Instead of a striving vision for a common future, we’ve received a “gonna-tell-it-like-is” tough-guy, sneering and dog-whistling to the very darkest beliefs and urges in those who see themselves as losing out to everyone else.
Highly visible figures, especially those inclined to preen in their own perceived exceptionalism, tacitly approve and effectively uncork ideas and actions in people who occupy the more impulsive margins of society. They stir the latent anger, rage and pent-up hatreds of society's discontents, too often at the peril of people who prefer to behave – and live alongside others who behave – in more civilized and tolerant ways.
Community grows at the epicenters of tolerance and civility. Chaos threatens when those willing to pull the strings of a distorted public imagination grant their adherents permission to act in concert with base, even violent instincts, no matter the cost or collateral damage to others. There's nothing inherently wrong with alternative views, outright protest, angry demonstration, competing ideologies, and even nonviolent rebellion that challenges the status quo. We see these in all forms and permutations, often contained in the places where American civil society and nonprofit organizations offer a social safety valve to blow off steam and channel discontent productively. Problems arise, however, when putative leaders ignite righteous passions and then turn their backs on or disavow responsibility for the consequences of the rebellion they incite.
Unbound, the “tell it like it is” mantra becomes “do as you please, it’s okay.” That’s when people end up getting wounded, further disaffected or abandoned. Surely a large part of the American electorate, called to take up electoral arms, will suffer political abandonment in the months and years ahead. Those who have chanted racist, sexist, anti-immigrant and other vicious incantations will resort to simmering and stewing, some feeling validated enough by their so-called democratic engagement to abuse and damage civility even more. Others will see loyalty and devotion rewarded by their crass commodification as the next audience for a low-brow television series or as customers for more worthless crap hocked their way.
The degree of abuse visited on American democracy this election season has left civility punched in the face and momentarily knocked senseless on the street. We’re owed a refund, I believe, but it’s one we are never likely to collect because professed leaders obsessed with merely their own grasping, groping needs think not a jot about what happens next, nor do they care for the collective who.
It is up to those who care about strengthening democracy to see demagoguery for what it is, to name it, to call it out and, in so doing, to sustain the vigilance and struggle that counters chaos and strives toward civil society.