I appreciate Laura Field’s thoughtful response to my argument for less politics. She suggests I understate the scale of problems society faces today. That may be the case. There is an equal danger in overstating them and, in particular, in overstating their relationship to politics.
Laura correctly notes that my premise, and our disagreement, depends on what we mean by politics. She agrees we need less Trumpism but more engagement with problems like inequality and racism that made Trumpism possible. I certainly agree we need less Trumpism, against which I have been outspoken since he descended the gilded escalator in 2015. I also agree his rise exposed real problems that require attention.
Where Laura and I may disagree pertains to the relationship of those problems to politics, at least on a modern understanding of political life. If, by politics, we mean an Aristotelian engagement with the common good, I agree with her. If, however, we mean advocacy for action by government–and specifically the national government–I am less convinced. Certainly climate change is a matter for national policy. I am less convinced that ills like “general malaise” are. Solutions to many such problems–including racial healing and civility–must be the fruits of a Tocquevillian space that operates somewhere between radical autonomy and government coercion. Politicizing them in the sense of referring them to government also risks polarizing them. If we escalate that politicization straight to national government, the stakes become even higher and the opportunities for local variation that accommodates local difference become even fewer.
Laura’s incisive comparison to the civil rights movement is instructive in several ways. She quite correctly notes that people drew a personal sense of meaning from it. But that sense of meaning was from actual, personal engagement in the movement’s work, not from chimerical attachments to distant personalities onto whom inchoate hopes were projected. The risk I was trying to identify was not drawing meaning from political engagement but rather drawing so much meaning from it–basing one’s sense of self so wholly on the personality of the president–makes insurrection palatable.
The civil rights movement matters in another sense. If a genuine crisis of society or of conscience requires our engagement on that scale, of course we should draw meaning from it. But if we reverse the flow and start with a quest for meaning that we can only satisfy politically, the result is inescapably a constant search for crises and a concomitant dilution of the most serious ones. Whether the problems we confront today are ordinary challenges of governance, which I suggested, or rise to the moral gravity of the civil rights movement is, of course, open to reasonable debate. But the sense of purpose must derive from the work. A quest for purpose cannot itself drive the scale of the work.
There is another important sense in which we need less politics–one I stand by, and one that requires more than a breather. There is a proper place for the political in our lives. Climate change is a good example. So is the pandemic. But when every nook and cranny of society is suffused by politics, we should not be surprised when the stakes seem impossibly high. Examples of this abound. Our choices of neighborhoods, friends, partners and commercial products have become political to a degree that seems unprecedented. The New York Times recently ran a feature that asked readers to guess, based on a picture of the contents of a refrigerator, whether its owner supported Joe Biden or Donald Trump. I hit around two-thirds accuracy. What used to be the silliness of Super Bowl ads now includes regular doses of moral preening by corporations on political issues. Over-politicization may also have contributed to the pandemic: Whether one wore a mask very early became a political statement rather than a simple act of consideration toward others breathing the same air.
Is there, as Laura aptly put it, “no (fully) safe harbor” from the kinds of challenges the legacy of Trumpism leaves? My claim that there should be one is entirely compatible with the observation that democracy is in crisis. Just over three weeks ago, an attempted insurrection exposed a violent authoritarianism that still simmers in the body politic. That is an existential threat to constitutional self-government. It requires urgent attention, which is among the reasons I favor a trial for Trump even if it is fated to fail. But one of the surest ways to inflame the desperation on which this authoritarianism feeds is to encourage the sense that everything in our lives hinges on the political.
The other night, it dawned on me that I hadn’t thought about the president of the United States all day. It seemed oddly novel, which speaks poorly of my allocation of mental energy in the four years prior. It was also nice. And it might contribute to healing.