Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Politics of Complacency

In an electoral system like ours, it's awfully easy to get caught up in voting. We make ourselves heard at the ballot box, and thereby shape, as citizens, the direction of our country. There is no need, to our minds, to do anything else. We need only decide which candidate better represents our views - and, lets face it, for most people that decision has been made well before the primaries even begin, thanks to party allegiances - show up on election day, and punch the ballot. Civic duty exercised, it's time to watch CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News (depending on who we voted for) and gloat or agonize over the results.

The notion that there might be more to politics has been lost on us. Oh sure, there are protesters and Tea Parties and so on, but those are usually anything but meaningful political activity. They're, rather, a kind of political catharsis, a release of pent up anger that channel Macbeth, "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Much like the discourse on television, there is a kind of procedural extremism in most political action in the United States. It is not, in fact, the case that most "extremist" protesters actually hold views which are extremely different from the mainstream, but rather that their methods of getting those views heard are more petulant.

In some sense, this kind of protest works, but only because it fits so well into the Keith Olberman, Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, and Glen Beck world of political ranting that we've grown accustomed to. There is, simply put, no outlet for reasonable conversation about politics because there is no model of reasonable discourse within politics. I suspect the reason for this is that we disagree about such trifling issues (people scream and foam at the mouth over a 3% tax hike or cut for people making over $200,000 a year?) that we're trying harder to define our differences than we are to actually persuade anyone to our position.

Because of the structures we have in place, politically, it is much, much easier to say and vote than to say and do. What, exactly, does a politically active or passionate person do? Does she run for office? Does he go to protests? Do he and she watch a lot of CNN together? None satisfies because none works. In the end, the project of political change is far too unwieldy to have any kind of accessible entry point beyond the most bland, culturally acceptable ones. That's why, I suspect, so many politically passionate young men and women voted for Barrack Obama with so much fervor in 2008: it was all they knew to do.

I don't want to get too deep into the President, but I think the way that we, as a nation, engage with our leaders culturally is telling. Consider that the recent healthcare bill has been called, by many, "Obamacare." Consider that any changes to environmental efforts or tax law or are a reflection of Obama. Consider that the same was true for Bush, for Clinton, and so on. We still have terms like "Reaganomics" from the 80s, and, going way back, "The Monroe Doctrine."

There's a great passage from Douglas Adams's Hitchiker's Guide series that comes to mind:

"It might not even have made much difference to them if they'd known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none at all. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it. Zaphod Beeblebrox was amazingly good at his job."

I don't think I'd go quite that far in American politics, but the point is that Obama doesn't have half the power that we attribute to him. To his supporters (and detractors), Barrack Obama isn't even a person; he's a symbol of all that is good (or evil), an embodiment of their hopes and dreams. Indeed, the need to have a single word to connote one's political perspective (the word: Obama) is so strong, that it might not make much of a difference to them if they knew exactly how much power the President of United States actually wields.

It is because we idolize so easily that the election of a President of roughly our ideology turns us into compliant supplicants while the election of a member of the opposing party turns us into ravenous wolves. Consider that Bush's presidency saw protest over protest, about the wars, about the environment, about almost everything. Consider that Obama's presidency has seen a disappearance of anti-war rallies, but a sudden surge of right-wing Tea Parites. The irony, of course, is that the wars continue and the environmental law doesn't change in any meaningful way. Likewise, under Bush, the kinds of issues the Tea Party people are so upset about were being largely ignored or even flaunted, but the illusion that the President represented their interests was enough to keep them docile.

Perhaps this is a broken record, but whenever I am exposed to political discourse, or what passes for it, either because I happen by a television or get an email or read an article online, I cannot help but notice how outrageously narrow the debate is. Complacency is assured in the majority when being politically active means being rabid and passionate to the point of violence about things that we don't care that much about. Complacency is assured when we have a symbol, an idol that we can look to and say, "Everything is all right, our guy is in the White House." Complacency is assured when voting always carries the promise - as yet undelivered - to bring about meaningful change.

The problem, it seems to me, is not that our policies are wrong, but that the very foundation of our political system is rotten, that the culture is irredeemably backwards, corrupt, and stupid. What I don't mean is that there are too many people who disagree with my political views. My political views - like those of any individual citizen in a country of 300 million - don't really matter. What I mean is this: in politics there is too much shouting and not enough dialogue, too much complaining and not enough ideas, too much money and not enough people. The whole structure is built on innuendo, lies, bribes, and ideologies. The whole discourse is determined by wealthy media companies, political parties, and special interest groups that don't care - that can't afford to care - about the big picture.

All of this is nothing new, of course, and I suppose if the emperors are always naked, eventually it doesn't help to point it out anymore. But sometimes I think we get complacent, and we get so wrapped up in what is practical (that is, doing our jobs, watching CNN, and voting once every four years) that we forget that being just a little idealistic is, in fact, a fundamental part of being practical. Without a vision as to how things ought to be, how do we know what to do? Or do we just do what we always have, vote for who we always vote for, and hope for some miraculous superhero-cum-messiah to save us from our corrupt political world? If being eminently practical means being that complacent, and, what's more, that stupid, I'll pass.

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