For years now, it has been lamented that America is sadly riven with “political polarization”, as debates adopt more intensity, the social landscape appears more heated and primed for a fight, and media is increasingly stretched away from their nonpartisan origins.
Polarization — or the retreat of political stances to the extremes — though no doubt a powerful influence, seems, however, to tell only half the story. In our midst there also appears to be the force of political fetishization at play. Politics has become a totalizing obsession in a lot of people’s lives. A 24-hour news cycle likely facilitated this intensification, encouraged this frantic addiction to political happenings.
The danger is simple: Politics shouldn’t come first in people’s lives. And the warning is simple: Be careful that you don’t put politics first. Politics matters, but it should be put in its proper place. It needn’t be the primary level at which we interact with the world, yet we see that all too often nowadays. If politics is the primary level through which we interact with the world, our society will surely fray.
The Question of National Unity
Naturally, Donald Trump has been a popular figure to blame for allegedly failing to conjure up national unity. He has been inveighed against as the force that blundered through American society and supposedly single-handedly wrecked it, scattering our hopes of the aforementioned national unity. But the problem is not Donald Trump. That’s a silly and a small explanation to espouse. The problem travels deeper than that.
The problem is all of us, as individuals, and our own personal decisions about politics. How ideologically devoted will we be? How much of our life will we let politics invade? Will we contain it or let it run roughshod over everything? How will we rank politics against our families and our communities and our own selves? Make no mistake: each one of us individuals are those that shape society. Instead of casting blame, let’s accept responsibility and consider the ways in which we may very well be influenced by a modern world brined in perpetual digital news and social media commentary. A world perhaps suffering from a breakdown in its philosophical core.
If it is a sense of unity, compromise, and calm we are after, politics is unlikely to provide this. We’re looking in the wrong places if we expect our political leaders to put this at the top of their agendas. But if we’re so accustomed to politics being the locus of our social/communal life, then our outrage at politics’ insufficiency is understandable in this context. It’s no wonder we’re in the predicament we’re in and fulminating against the seeming futility of unity. Hear this: It’s not a failure of politics to unify, because that is not its central goal. We shouldn’t be living through politics. It is a part of us, surely, and we would do well to develop and defend political convictions seriously and carefully as individuals, but it is a part of us that should not intermingle with being a good human being of solid character, above all.
Know this: politics doesn’t necessarily maintain the health of the nation. It doesn’t soothe or smooth and naturally unify opponents. We might decide, then, to cast aside the naïve notion that politics is inherently supposed to do these things.
The Nature of Ideologies
Politics is turbulent. Ultimately necessary, but nevertheless turbulent and aggressive. There are consequences to “fetishizing” — aka obsessing — over our chosen ideological side that it surpasses the other aspects of our selves that ultimately make us respectable, agreeable people. Since the origin of the nation-state, politics has ominously carried the threat of swallowing up our entire identities.
Politics is important but it’s not everything. We shouldn’t seek to live through it. We should be careful not to allow our moral identities to sprout out of politics. Instead, they should transcend politics and sit outside of the political sphere, so to speak.
Politics is essentially a war of ideologies. And ideologies inherently don’t ‘unify’ humans. Instead, they separate them. This needn’t require swift condemnation because humans need something coherent to believe in, after all, and it’s true that conflict hones identity. Of course, it is unwise to advocate for casting aside one’s opinions and convictions — the world would not function without a thriving arena of competing beliefs. But do be cautious that you do not become blindly slavish to your ideology of choice.
After all, ideologies aren’t perfect. The tend to trap, limit and prematurely subscribe belief to its adherents. They exert tremendous power over people and can even obligate humans towards outrage, for example. Though they offer an arguably essential group identity and a sense of safety and belonging, one must inevitably be careful in dealing with them.
Ideologies are really potent, dense things — not things to be messed around with. They’re sharp — sharp and glinting like a double-edged sword — and come packaged with both virtue and vice. It’s no wonder we’re drawn to them. They offer a simplistic view of the world, cutting cleanly through the complexity, no questions asked, and establishing a seductive semblance of us vs. them. In a sense, ideologies grant a person intellectual protection by substituting a preconceived, mass-produced framework for the effort and mental torment of actual, individual thought. Ideologies are like shortcuts and have an air of expedience about them.
Ideologies always run the risk of having a hardening effect on society. It should be a warning to all of us interested in politics not to become drunk on our own ideologies or blindly married to them so that we cannot actually think for ourselves — cannot think for ourselves beyond the structure we’ve adopted that we’re vicariously living through. The danger of politics is that it has an ever-present, sometimes-dormant animalistic vein that corrupts what could be a gentler, less dogmatic thinking process. There’s a very primitive aspect to political ideologies that all of us can fall prey to.
And the danger of marrying your identity too closely to your political ideology is that things can quickly become ugly when somebody attacks your ideology. Because if you’d made the mistake of splicing the two too tightly, anybody who attacks your ideology is, in effect, directly attacking your identity as a person. And so it’s no wonder then that we are, at times, horrified by the vitriol produced in our own society if we consider this effect en masse.
The Total Political Lens
We’ve taken a crayon and colored everything in our entire society the same color. We’ve learned to see everything through a political lens and it’s been damaging. If people are ‘burned out’ from politics, it’s because we’ve recklessly fetishized it, and, yes, colored our entire lives with it. It’s no mystery we’re tired and weary.
Not everything begs to be politicized. Not everything in the ‘personal’ actually is political. We need to interrupt this automatic process of applying a political lens to everything under the sun. Take art as an example: Presently, art exists in an environment wherein it is endlessly subjected to ideological review and the question of beauty, in many cases, is stamped out altogether. In works of art there’s a frantic scouring of political intent going on. Simple reverence of art seems to have evaporated like a mist from our cultural milieu. And it’s a sad thing. Instead of art reverence, there is only the blunting abundance of ideological criticism. We start to see the heights to which we have taken our political fetishization when we consider that it has become our only means of identifying the meaning of something.
And all of this is why I make the suggestion that politics shouldn’t come first in our lives. Even if it is something that matters. I don’t have a perfect solution other than advancing the humble entreaty that politics, like many other things in life, is a force we must learn to live with in a smart, careful, and assiduous fashion.
I, for one, personally enjoy politics. I have always derived a certain invigoration from it and taken a special thrill in watching the theatrics and the energy of the campaign season, for instance. But like everybody else, I need to learn to be careful, to put politics in its proper place. To not let it swallow me up. Because there’s an underlying danger in that.