Ordinary politics involves the appreciation, sometimes grudging, of the needs, interests and aspirations of others. When New York Times columnist David Brooks took on the topic in his Feb. 26 column, he contrasted ordinary politics to a strain of “antipolitics” frequently latent in the land, but growing particularly conspicuous in America this election season.
My first instinct is to write off antipolitical attitudes to plain old ignorance. Arguably, there’s some merit in assuming that those uneducated in the structure, history and traditions of American democracy might form skewed views of voting, elections, legislative bodies and big public institutions. The mental stretch required to understand so many moving parts might prove intimidating, leading to the sort of resistance and denial that opens the door to over-simplifying hucksters, demagogues and frauds masquerading as “the people’s candidate” for public office.
Listening to the purveyors of coarse, crass and often cruel political messages this election season has helped me get a bead on the antipolitical virulence numbing so many Americans to even a semblance of civility. That’s not to say I expect presidential or any other campaigns to be pretty and nice. The stakes are high and the issues facing our country are complicated. I do expect candidates for elected office to fight for the genuine political interests and ideas of the constituents they hope to attract.
But the willingness of so many to revel in shallow troll-spew reminds me of a stadium-sized, made-for-television version of Internet-flaming at its bottom-most. Too much of the most visible political scene has a tinge of commercially appealing authoritarianism. In fact, Les Moonves, the executive chairman and CEO of CBS, recently admitted the degree to which trash-talking by candidates makes for good viewership while, by the way, increasing the rates advertisers will pay for spots sprinkled throughout the more red-meat cycles of the media circus.
Some people choose ignorance and they hunger for authoritarianism in their leaders because it’s easier than grappling with deeper, critical thinking and asserting personal agency. There’s little hope, I fear, of ever reaching – let alone changing – the minds of adults standing up and cheering for what amounts to insults to the greater American collective intelligence. Maybe it’s possible to pull youngsters away from the looming maw of cracker-mindedness with better civics education in their schools, but it’s a slow and multi-generational grind that takes buy-in at a lot of levels to succeed. The surrounding environment of parents, home, community and culture must reinforce what any teacher teaches, assuming of course that the teachers themselves grasp how democracy works and can convey it to their students.
Still as the primary season transitions into an election face-off, I trust the core good sense of the majority of Americans. I trust that they will move us to a certain, albeit semi-tolerant, political middle ground.
I trust they will choose candidates most steeped in the true practice of politics – the ones with the negotiating savvy and the capacity to compromise who will address the needs, interests and aspirations of their constituents. Likewise, I trust that the majority of voters will eventually come around to rejecting candidates spewing bile as a way of driving gaggles of the angry and disaffected goose-stepping to the polls.