Political engagement. It’s an American tradition.
I recently attended the 2018 Davis County Republican Convention, which was, at turns, inspiring and disgusting. And when it was disgusting, it was less because of the positions are taken or not taken and more because of the general nastiness…all among supposed friends and colleagues. Politics has been compared to sausage making, and, while I get that political progress ain’t pretty, there’s sausage making and then there’s just plain meat destroying.
Some of what passes for political engagement, I want no part of.
For years, I imagined I was politically engaged. I read RealClearPolitics and the Salt Lake Tribune every morning. I kept track of the latest posts on Facebook. I debated endlessly with others about important topics like immigration reform, healthcare policy, free speech, judicial independence, racism, political philosophy and a whole host of other topics. I like to think that I thoughtfully considered others’ viewpoints. I consciously forced myself to regularly read articles I assumed I would disagree with in order to understand alternative perspectives. I followed the state legislature and blogged about political goings-on (just like I’m kind of doing now). I even participated in campaigns and party conventions as a delegate and volunteer.
But I was only superficially politically engaged. I was really politically obsessed. And there’s a big difference.
Representatives are politically engaged. Lobbyists are politically engaged. Bureaucrats are politically engaged. Each of these groups may, of course, also be politically obsessed — and their obsession is as harmful, if not more harmful than that of the unengaged — but of necessity, they are politically engaged. However, the endless political armchair quarterbacks — of which I am one — aren’t really engaged with politics, we’re obsessed by it.
Or, if I’m to put it less charitably (but perhaps more accurately), we’re obsessed with ourselves, and have found a ready platform from which to gain an audience from among folks who would otherwise look at us and say, “Why should I listen to that guy?” Politics is low-hanging fruit in the sense that anyone can generate a following by championing a cause. It doesn’t take any particular competency to do that.
I’m going to offer it as my generally irrelevant opinion that we’d be better off without our collective political obsession. It’s primarily our political obsession that creates the divisiveness we all bemoan. It’s our political obsession that does much to hamstring the ability of representatives to get work done. It’s our political obsession that tends to lead us to act and react in ways that undermine the very things we profess to care so much about.
We treat politics like a sporting event as opposed to a business meeting. We carry signs, paint our faces, tailgate, insult the other team, revel in our team’s victories and our opponent’s defeats, and lose our tempers or gloat over outcomes that likely have very little impact on us personally — except that we’ve tied them so close to our own self-esteem they feel like glorious, individual validations or bitter, personal defeats. And, as a consequence, many of our political rivalries, just like our sporting ones, become zero-sum, win-at-all-costs fights to the death.
I don’t know what it is about those of us who are politically obsessed. Are we trying to save our friends and neighbors from themselves? Are we all just trying to build a base for eventual election? Are we trying to make the world in our own image? Are we just gunning for validation in the form of likes and fawning comments?
I think each of those things may play a part, but I’m convinced it’s not all selfish. I think most of us really care, really want to help, and really we think we can. But maybe we don’t know how, or we don’t have a platform. So, we wade into the war and start swinging away with our weapons of logic and wit, justifying the casualties as “the price of freedom,” or “the price of fairness,” or “self-defense,” or whatever our justification de jour is.
And here is the takeaway — I think that when we simply obsess, or when we let our obsession drive our engagement, we end up doing more harm than good. We sabotage our own priorities and the whole process.
Could it be possible that American politics could stand for — and even benefit from — LESS engagement? To even suggest such a thing is to violate a basic democratic (little “d”) article of faith! But if we’re talking obsession presented as engagement, then, perhaps, I think so. Or, at least it’s worth considering.
I, for one, am going to take a good look in the mirror when it comes to my own political participation, and try and convert some of the obsession into true engagement, or else, just into more productive, non-political activities. The world doesn’t need my opinion (other than this post, haha). Engagement is helpful. Obsession is not.
I’d invite my fellow obsessors to join me.