Nothing is beyond the gaping maw that is politics. Not fast food. Not movies. Not church. Not sports. Not the family. Not the backyard barbecue pit. There is no respite, no place to exhale, and no shade for cover from the sun. Gone Fishing? PETA will have something to say about that. Take in a round of golf? Don’t you know only the racist patriarchy willingly dons plaid pants? NASCAR? They are so fiercely anti-anti-Trump they’ve colored their helmets a very particular shade of fly-away orange. Football? Hah! Can’t you see that the middle and upper classes are sacrificing poor souls on their altars of entertainment? Oh wait, that was last week. Now football is the literal battleground for both race relations and Trumpism. It is the veritable perfect storm, a smash-up of culture, money, entitlement, and meddling politicization–and that just covers the owners and the president.
This is the culture war with an endless supply of ammunition. The Western Front in 1915. We are all, both sides, hunkered down in our preferred trenches, surrounded by agreeable mates, and fed a stream of pablum that never challenges, even briefly, a treasured belief. Care to think differently? Poke an eye over the parapet, just to see what the other side is up to? Do so at your own risk. The snipers, the kind that fling rounds filled with 140 characters, they are deadly accurate. Perhaps more frightening are our own trench-mates–they don’t brook a disparaging word. They are always ready, with bayonets filed to a steely point, to maintain political orthodoxy.
We are figuratively, and sometimes literally, at one another’s throats. Why? We have been lulled into a constant state of readiness.
Our beliefs, before the triumph of ideology, used to allow for a healthy separation between most of life and the political realm. Our liberties were negative, which meant the absence of government. My speech was free because I could tell government to buzz off. Our faith, friends and family were the point of life, and civil society, those “little platoons” to which we belonged were distinctly separate from the state. Our bowling leagues and book clubs were politically diverse and recreationally bent. They provided healthy social space. In the mobile, digital age in which we find ourselves, those spaces are shrinking.
Where do we go for social succor? Church? One of the great tragedies of the last half century has been the disintegration of most Protestant denominations. “Community” churches have arisen for local flocks, and these are vital green pastures, but they are often disconnected from larger groups, and they appear to be politically, socially, racially, and culturally monolithic. As much as I long to see our churches ramble over the ramparts, waving white flags of peace, not surrender, they are too often a product of, not a challenge to, the trenches in which we find ourselves. Gilead’s Balm has, for the moment, run dry.*
Sports? Not at the moment. I think this explains the venom surrounding President Trump’s decision to attack NFL players protesting during the anthem. Regardless of your feelings for Trump, his decision to throw gasoline onto near-dormant embers takes away, at list temporarily, one of the places we often go to be free from politics. Fans bond over their teams, not their politics and not because of the players’ politics. By throwing politics into it, and essentially forcing teams to take a position for or against the President, another chance to transcend our divisions goes by the wayside.
For far too many of us, beyond the narrow confines of family and a skeletal network of friends, the largest groups to which we collectively belong are political. Our ideological and partisan predilections are re-enforced by our sources of information and our social media habits. Our tribalism has grown, powerfully, as we seek to define our boundaries and sand away any and all of our rough edges. “You got a set of square pegs there? Not for long. They’ll be round soon enough…” Scrape. Buff. Presto.
We have, in the process, let politics become not only polarizing, but totalizing. We seek to align, with ruthless precision, every nook of our lives with a set of political ideals. “Did that owner donate to Trump? I. AM. DONE with that team!” “Did that actress support Hillary? I. WILL. NEVER watch another film of hers!” “What! Google fired an employee? Time to boot up ‘Ask Jeeves!'” “You’re kidding! Chick-fil-A has the temerity to disagree with me? I. AM. OUT!” If we take this approach to our food, clothes, and search engines, should it surprise us we take this approach to people?
This is not, friends, the stuff of a democratic republic. Neither the American right nor the left should approach politics with these levels of intolerance, nor should they support the use of the state, either directly or indirectly, to suppress those with whom they disagree. While I think this tendency has been more evident on the left (think of college campus unrest and disinvitations, the ruthless defenestration of Brendan Eich, and the relentless approach to the Little Sisters of the Poor, as well as florists, bakers, and candle-stick makers), the “new” right, whatever that is, seems happy to use The State to achieve its own cultural ends. NFL players want to kneel? “Fire Them!” Carrier wants to ship jobs overseas or to Mexico? We’ll see about that. Trumpism, whatever it is or is not, carries with it a profound willingness, at least rhetorically and sometimes coercively, to pull the levers of politics to erode freedom.
These are the trappings of illiberal government snuggling up to totalitariansim. Perhaps more than anything, we need to recapture a robust conception of limited, republican government. Only by admitting, together, there are parts of life beyond the reach of government can we move away from the abuse of political power.
Keep this in mind. For all of us who find ourselves shell-shocked, reeling from the latest fusillade, but willing to pummel our opponents if needed, our constant state of readiness IS good for someone. Having the population on a knife’s edge benefits those who wield the knife. Riled people donate time and money. If we, all of us, are convinced that every bill, every appointment, every nominee, every candidate, every protest, and every election is the hinge of fate for the future of our nation, we have played into the hands of our parties and our political leaders who desperately need our support.
Tribalism is pretty good for the chief. If by defining “us” our leaders turn us against “them,” their own futures are secure. They use our passion not for change or policy but for their own perpetuation. This is true of the right, left, Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Conservative, Progressive, NRA, NEA, and anyone else with their hands out, begging for your bile. They are thirsty for you.
*Certainly, one can argue the Roman Catholic Church is in a position to serve as a cultural unifier, but it has been buffeted by its own set of scandals, and papal leadership has done little to still political waters, sometimes choosing to roil them instead.