Queen: The struggle to maintain sanity in a politically-charged world (column)
February 8, 2017
Back when I was in college, I was having a spirited discussion with a classmate during a coffee break about my displeasure with a certain candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
I was getting pretty heated, as highly caffeinated political science majors tend to do. As my professor walked by, he took a not-so-subtle swipe at me by remarking that in his experience, people with the strongest opinions are often the ones who are wrong.
It was a valuable teaching moment, if a little embarrassing. It was also a reminder that despite how much we try to convince ourselves that we arrived at our convictions through careful, impartial reasoning, they have strong roots in emotion and tribalism.
Passions masquerading as reason aren't anything new, but a quick look at the state of our national discourse indicates that we aren't exactly engaged in enlightened discussion.
We have opened a fire hose of political news (fake or otherwise), rumors and clickbait, and much of it is alarming or salacious. It also increasingly focuses on the intrigue and drama: who's "blasting" or "slamming" who, and why.
Among my Facebook friends, there used to be an unspoken rule about keeping political postings to a reasonable minimum. (I personally tried to limit myself to one or two a week).
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No more. My news feed has become a never-ending stream of political bombast that shows little sign of abating. All across the information ecosystem we are mainlining political drama with every outrage, triumph or Pyrrhic victory of the day dominating national headlines.
I used to feel that my generation wasn't civically engaged enough, that we needed to be more active observers of politics. Now, I almost feel as if the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
While it's certainly important to remain vigilant about what your government does in your name, at some point you have to wonder if all of these news notifications and compulsive social media checks have us heading to a public health crisis of anxiety and high blood pressure.
Worse still, I doubt it makes us better at advocating effective policies or reaching any trace of consensus. The amount of reality-TV-style politics we're guzzling is probably only poisoning civic participation further.
Stephen Colbert, along with the rest of the bicoastal elite assembled for his live election night show, was in a state of shock when it became clear that the impossible was, in fact, possible.
In a somewhat dazed closing monologue, he ruminated on how all of the "political poison" we'd come accustomed to drinking could have left us choosing between two such divisive candidates.
"So how did our politics get so poisonous?" he asked. "I think it's because we overdosed, especially this year. We drank too much of the poison. You take a little bit of it so you can hate the other side and it tastes kind of good and you like how it feels and there's a gentle high to the condemnation. And you know you're right, right?"
(Set aside for now the hypocrisy of that coming from a man who made a career of feeding us that poison while mercilessly lampooning pols on his Comedy Central show.)
In the context that Colbert described, where information is tailored to specific groups, it's not surprising that utterly fabricated stories about a child sex ring run out of a pizza parlor actually entered the mainstream discourse. The same goes for files of dubious provenance alleging that the Russians have been collecting lascivious blackmail on the president.
He went on to reflect on how national political drama, once relegated somewhat to the periphery, is now so ubiquitous.
Granted, I haven't been around very long. But I've been following politics closely since the sixth grade, and I can't remember a time when it so consumed our daily lives.
On election night, I was talking with a local GOP activist whom I respect very much. He argued that talk of an "unprecedentedly nasty" campaign was a bunch of malarkey; taking a longer view of history, politics has always been filled with nasty rumors and ad hominem attacks.
He had a good point. The first newspapers in our fledging republic were, after all, funded by politicians to publish libelous screeds against their opponents.
But back then, people didn't get notifications on smartphones about daily controversies, and they certainly didn't live in a world saturated with swiftly moving information — and misinformation.
The irony is that our republican system of government was designed to insulate citizens from the messy business of politics by allowing us to delegate it to the small group of people crazy enough to navigate its cycles of crisis and conflict.
A pure democracy — where citizens vote on every single action of government — would be, as another one of my professors once said, "A vision of hell."
But now, we can hardly escape daily coverage of national of politics. It's all generally unpleasant, too, whether you're outraged by the actions of the Trump administration or by the efforts of Democrats to obstruct it.
It's hard to imagine what the scale of the next national political circus will be, after everyone has gotten worked into a lather by several years of high-stakes political drama.
Nobody on either side seems to like this, but what are we to do? We shouldn't abdicate our responsibility to be aware of what our government is doing. But the substance and civility of the information we get has declined while simultaneously penetrating deeper into our lives.
My mom and I have always talked about politics, but now when I call my parents the conversation quickly turns to Washington — and stays there. At that point my dad, who seems miraculously capable of staying informed without getting too worked up, floats away from the conversation.
I asked him what he does when my mom and I start getting each other riled up over the news from the capitol.
Simple, he said. He goes to his favorite chair with a plate of cheese and a good book.
That probably helps, but I can think of another possible factor: He doesn't have a Facebook account.
Jack Queen has been a reporter for the Summit Daily since 2016.
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