Politics, properly understood, is an unsatisfying thing.
We used to consider politics the grueling work of winning elections and governing by consensus. It used to be the thankless art of crafting narrow legislation, which would be narrowed further amid the negotiation process necessary to get the thing passed into law. It used to be the pursuit of incremental reforms to address a problem around the margins. In other words, politics used to be limited to the realm of the political. No longer.
What we call politics today observes no rational limits. Politics looms over the brands you patronize, the food you eat, the commercials you watch, and the television programs they interrupt. It affects whom you choose to associate with, where you decide to put down roots and raise a family, and how you conduct yourself in public. None of this is politics, but it is political. That’s a distinction with a difference. Not everything that is political can or even should be addressed through the mechanisms of government.
Certainly, the litany of political grievances Americans now carry around with them like Jacob Marley’s chains is outside the government’s purview. But the politicization of everything serves a useful purpose for politicians. Expanding the terms of political engagement to encompass nearly every aspect of daily life does create a sense of urgency around which a coalition can be mobilized, but those voters are being mobilized in the pursuit of unrealizable ends. You cannot reform the culture from Washington—indeed, our system was designed to thwart the ambitions of those who would radically redefine the social contract from federal office. Anyone who tells you that it can be done is setting you up for failure.
And so, when policymakers promise to use the levers of political power to achieve that which is out of reach, it gives way to a sense of fatalism. Those newly minted cynics are likely to respond in one of two ways: either succumb to despondency and drop out of the political process or become radicalized in the pursuit of their objectives. You don’t hear from the despondent anymore—they’re long gone. But the radicals are still around, contributing to a general sense that American politics has become a contest between competing radicalisms.
As politicians have appealed to this tactic to win the support of their voters, they’ve not only promulgated an untruth about how politics in this country works, they’ve also created the conditions in which all politics becomes deeply personal. It has become increasingly difficult for Americans in the political arena to see any moiety between their ideas and their very identities. We’re not talking about inviolable first principles anymore, but marginal policy preferences that should be and once were subject to negotiation.
The terms of the debate around most political issues has become unhealthy. Endorse the impeachment or censure of the president, for example, and his supporters are likely to say they regard such a thing as an assault on their very right to have their voices heard. Oppose the expansion of Medicare to include all Americans or endorse stricter voter-identification requirements, and you’re likely to be accused of wanting certain segments of the population to either die or be disenfranchised. This is all good stuff for capturing votes, but it’s not great for our civic hygiene.
And when we inflate the stakes of nearly every political engagement to the point that it takes on existential dimensions, we create the conditions in which paranoia thrives. Americans are besotted with conspiratorial theories of everything. Whole alternative media ecosystems exist only to reinforce the notion that large segments of society are being persecuted by unseen but omnipotent forces. There is always an element of truth in these assertions. Black Lives Matter protesters are not without evidence that there are bad actors in American police forces, some of whom are capable of profound cruelty. Trump proponents are right when they accuse some in the professional bureaucracy of violating long-observed standards of law and decency in their efforts to oppose the president. But it has become common for aspiring office-seekers to amplify these isolated episodes of malfeasance into a vast plot in which whole American institutions are implicated in corruption on an untold scale. Voters take these assertions to the logical conclusion: America’s institutions aren’t the solution, they’re the problem. And this only accelerates the cycle of fatalism, disengagement, and radicalization.
The result has been a great winnowing. Those who can divest from this unrewarding and psychologically taxing spectacle already have. Those who can’t or won’t are all that’s left—a chorus of uncompromising zealots for whom nothing is out of bounds in the pursuit of their agendas. The only option available left to you, then, is to radicalize yourself. How else can you compete on the same terms as your adversaries? Thus, the radicalization and counter-radicalization reaches the point of critical mass.
And that is where we are today—on the precipice of a self-sustaining chain reaction. The good news is that it is an illusion we have all talked ourselves into. And it remains something we can still talk ourselves out of. But that won’t be the case forever. There will come a point when the existential crisis we’ve convinced ourselves is upon us becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—when the abuses and injustices we’ve told ourselves are systemic evolve into a permission structure to attack the foundations of the system. The events of January 6 give you some idea of how this cycle will end.