I began this blog shortly before the election, that is two months ago. I am not the only one, I am sure, who feels like it has been two years, not two months.
Today I want to complete the thought about hatred of politics before moving on to other things. Perhaps Trump will be good for someone like me by pushing me to attend to lots of other things in this world. Certainly, I fully intend to avoid being Trump obsessed. The media’s all-Trump all the time posture has done its part in helping to insure I will not be Trump obsessed. The coverage is so fatuous, so imbecilic, that it has proved easy to tune out.
Anyway, here’s my thought. Politics is about, on some very basic level, how we can manage to live with one another. Human life is unsustainable without cooperation. We are social animals and, thus, have to develop ways of being together. That is our glory and our curse. The frictions of our close proximity to intimates, the neighbors, and to strangers are all too familiar. It’s hard to get along with people—maybe because of the very fact that we are dependent upon them.
In any case, one way to define politics (as my last post already suggested) is that it attends to the ways we can manage to live together without descending into violence. Such violence is an ever present possibility and all too often a reality. But I want to say that ordinary, mundane, quotidian politics, with all its frustrations, compromises, and less than ideal arrangements, offers our alternative to violence. We rub along as best we can, having to decide again and again if this injustice, this slight, this inequity needs be swallowed—or if not swallowable, how far are we willing to take the fight for what we deem fair.
So mundane, everyday politics is a pain in the ass. It requires the constant vigilance that we are told is the price of freedom, requires always being on one’s guard against others trying to take advantage, and then having to gin up oneself to once again enter the fray. When there are so many other ways that one would like to be occupying one’s time.
And, then, if we move from this everyday, mundane politics, there are two further sources of disappointment, of hatred of politics. The first is utopia. If politics is about the ways we arrange to live with one another, it is all too easy to imagine alternatives that are better than what we currently have. People are just so god-damned ornery, uncooperative, selfish, inconsiderate etc. etc. The everyday is never as good as we think it could or should be. So getting bogged down in the tiresome negotiations that characterize our getting along with others always pales in comparison to the better society we can imagine if people would only be more agreeable. Daily, lived, politics will never be as good as it should be—and so we will always hate it. It’s so difficult, so time-consuming, and the results are always so imperfect.
On the other side of utopia is violence. Within all of our political arrangements, even the most benign, there is the place of violence, the place where physical force is exerted against bodies. The police and the prison. Enforcement of the law. So even for those who love politics, who are attracted to both its theory (how to build cooperative institutions and social arrangements) and its reality (the give-and-take of negotiations and compromises), there is always this haunting by violence, this fact of a fatal flaw in the pursuit. This tainting must afflict our attitude toward politics, must insure an ineradicable ambivalence. At least for me, it is why I keep coming back to the issue of violence, why that issue feels like the one I have most inadequately addressed in my by now voluminous writings on political questions.
I do want to make one, final, unrelated point. There are those who love politics because they love the thrill of electoral contests. Certainly, our media plays to the “horse race” side of politics while under-reporting the details of actual political negotiations. Given the winner take all nature of American elections (as contrasted to proportional representation schemes), the thrill of annihilating your opponent can be attached to winning an election. So the very attributes that would lead one to be a “political junkie” in relation to electioneering are exactly the wrong attributes for doing the day-to-day work of politics—which is finding a way of enabling people in a pluralistic society to get along and even to manage to accomplish some things collectively. That’s why the Republican Party strategy of “if Obama is for it, we are against it” is so distressing. It turns politics into perpetual contest, with no attention to what it might be good to do, but only attention to thwarting one’s opponents at the polls and in matters of policy. And, as others have noted, that strategy generates hatred and disgust of politics—which serves the end of getting people to tune out, thus allowing the robbery of the public good that many Republicans aim for.
I feel rather condemned by this paradox. To hate politics today is to cede victory to the Republicans. They have worked hard to make Americans hate politics—and that hatred provides cover for their rearranging our society to benefit only a very small elite. So the obvious response is that I should fight against that hatred; I should keep my head in the game. But it is so dispiriting, so ugly, so soul-destroying. The temptation is not to touch this pitch, to save oneself since the general conflagration appears unstoppable.
I am going to address another version of this worry when I turn to discussing Christopher Newfield’s extremely important book, The Great Mistake, in my next few posts.