My (German) dad, who’s a lot smarter than I am, patiently puts up with my claim that not everything in American politics is currently as nightmarish as it seems from the outside. And it’s a fact that a lot of valuable work is done away from the headlines and the outrage.
But if all you had was a media’s-eye view of what’s happening in America, you’d likely have an extremely skewed idea of the state of the nation. From the outside looking in, the obsession of the press with Trumpian scandals and banal palace intrigue is nothing short of ridiculous. And then there’s the constant drumbeat of fear, the mad scramble for something to feel oppressed about, the sense of gloom and impending apocalypse that rules social media. Is it any wonder that if the commentary on America were all you had to go by, as is typically true of us Europeans, you’d conclude that the country was going to hell in a handbasket – as is typically true of us Europeans?
The truth, of course, is that the scandalmongering and outrage so common in the media poorly reflect the reality of life in the States. I speak from experience: Even in DC, if you are working and keep your head down, politics is hardly the dark all-enveloping cloud Twitter users treat it as. For the vast majority of us, following politics is a game, a distraction.
But it seems that recently, the game hasn’t been a lot of fun for many people. Why, then, do we continue to play it? Why not . . . divest from politics? There’s a strong argument that we’d get more mileage out of spending time on things that lead to obvious improvements in our lives. Learn to speak a foreign language, you boorish Americans. Go to the gym. Work harder. Put in Mark Bennett’s terms, attention is currency. Why spend it on the rantings of academics, political journalists and other half-employed bums?
The easy answer is that we love to argue, and the instant gratification of sticking it to some twerp on the internet outweighs the pleasure of reading Camus in the original French. Maybe so. But the tragedy, I think, is that we’re arguing about the wrong things. Hear me out: It’s at least possible that if the time and energy we put into disagreeing with others went into disagreeing about things of substance, the whole procedure wouldn’t be such an empty and unsatisfying waste.
Yes, this claim flies in the face of a common criticism of American political discourse, that it’s become “too tribal” and we ought to return to the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite, journalistic neutrality and “the most trusted man in America.” Nonsense! Apart from the fact that that era is an illusion – and as anyone who’s ever looked at an eighteenth-century newspaper with an article by “Publius” knows, political journalism in the States has always been partisan to the hilt – it’s never a good idea to struggle against human nature. Leave that kind of reform to the communists and the utopians. If we love to argue so much, why not try to harness that instinct for good?
And there’s the rub. The fare we’re served up by our politics is, currently, strictly empty calories. How tragic, when there are so many meaningful issues on which we could be making progress, if only by hashing them out with our political opponents! Instead, topics that, unlike the idiotic back-and-forth about Russian collusion on Twitter or the constant salvoes against the president in the New York Times op-ed section, are of some actual importance go ignored. Worse, when real problems do get a mention, they’re too often turned into opportunities to shout for or against Trump – no understanding of the facts required.
Take immigration. You only have to ask Mario Machado, or Vox’s Dara Lind, to learn how simpleminded it is to claim that Obama was “soft on illegals,” or that Trump’s deportations are an unpresidented break with the past. Yet, as with MS-13 or the “children in cages” fiasco a few months back, the thing that all too often matters to today’s partisans is whether an immigration issue can be pressed into service against a hated president. The problems with immigration policy run far deeper and date back longer than any one man, whether he be Trump or Obama, and can’t be solved by shouting a slogan like “Abolish ICE.” But that’s what today’s discourse amounts to, because it encourages the quick attack over engaging with the other team’s ideas.
Or take criminal justice reform. Until the president recently began to feud with the Koch Network, the Koch brothers were the bête noire of shallow social-media progressives. Now, at least from what I’ve seen among this type of thinker, up is down and black is white! And yet, well before this latest Trumpian outrage, the Kochs had joined forces with the Center for American Progress and the ACLU to help bankroll a concerted reform effort. How many of these shallow shouters knew this, or chose to find out about it, instead of relying on kneejerk tribal categorization to do their thinking for them?
It’s not that partisanship is bad. It’s that we have bad partisans – people who are very much out of step with the best of the noble tradition of arguing about politics in America, people who put identity over facts and lashing out over thought. Certainly, nobody could accuse the Federalists and Anti-Federalists of being apolitical. Yet it was the thoroughness of their engagement with the other side’s arguments that made their exchanges a classic of American thought.
Becoming a better partisan would likely do you as much good as learning to read French. The only downside is that we’d have to relearn to think about opposing viewpoints, instead of condemning them because of the identity of the speaker. What a wonderful, and classically American, world that would be.