My Constitutionalist colleague Jeff Tulis posted a link to Charlie Sykes’s essay, “Thoughts on our Political Exhaustion.” Tulis commends the article and seems to suggest that we ought overcome our exhaustion by understanding it and hope again for the future: “Out of better understanding may come hope, and out of hope may come action.” While respecting Tulis’s call for us to return to politics with renewed vigor, I’d take the opposite lesson from Sykes’s essay. We’re exhausted from politics because there’s been so much of it all the time. And so much of it occurs at a level over which we seem to have so little control. Americans have always been a relatively apolitical people. To the extent that they are aware of national politics, they have typically engaged in it mostly during the elections every two years. Insofar as the American people can’t really control the regular course of national politics on any meaningful level, I would suggest that this lack of engagement was a good thing. They engaged in national politics only at those points when they had a meaningful opportunity to change course. Beyond that, they lived their lives blissfully unaware of all those things over which they had so little control. Instead of fuming constantly over all of the politicians and events with whom we have only a very indirect and distant relationship, the people were more engaged with their everyday. In the most healthy version of this world, they engaged in politics at the local level within which they could exercise real power. As Tocqueville shows, when the people can actually control the political events around them, they feel invigorated and empowered. They develop a taste for such power and, both within local government and local associations, they are able to achieve real political goods through their active involvement. So far from being exhausted, we were full of energy.
So, I would suggest that our current exhaustion arises from the necessary disconnect between our political senses and national politics. We want to “do something” but there’s so little we can actually do. Absent any real change possibilities, we watch whatever partisan national news we favor and fume over everything we are shown. Exhaustion sets in because fuming without consequences is exhausting.
Transforming our exhaustion into something positive requires not that we reengage with national politics, but that we turn our attention to those things we can control, local and state politics. For this reason, I think these fights over school curriculum are a positive sign. American politics is supposed to take place mostly at the local level, on matters over which the people have a concrete and substantive interest like education. Instead of fighting about the symbolic politics taking place at the national level, people are actively fighting about things that directly affect them and their children. Although some might lament the people’s involvement in these things over which experts claim they have superior knowledge, I think it represents a positive turn in our politics. Some might be unhappy with the results, but at least we won’t feel so exhausted because there’s so little we can actually do in response.