The Reasons for Political Exhaustion

George might be right that I missed the point of Sykes’s essay, but it seems that he missed the point of my post. It’s all-too-easy to blame all of our political exhaustion on Trump and the Republicans. But, as I also suggested in my other post today, I don’t see how that gets us anywhere. The answer to all of our political problems can’t just be: the Republicans did it. There is a crisis of confidence in our democracy that can’t be solved merely by changing the party in power and re-litigating January 6 so that we can remind ourselves who the bad guys are.

My post was an attempt to think through our founding principles to see if we can find a diagnosis of the problem and then a way to find an answer. The response of some Republicans, including Donald Trump, hasn’t occurred in a vacuum. There must be some underlying difficulty to which they are responding. Moreover, a near-majority of the nation has voted for these Republicans so all of these people, almost half of our friends and neighbors, must be responding to something they are saying.

So the question has to become: what are they responding to and why are they responding to it? Wishing their response away doesn’t achieve anything but to deepen further the divide between one side of the country from the other. I was trying to suggest that Tocqueville’s worry–which was also the anti-Federalist worry–about the nationalization of our politics does much to explain our current situation. The people feel alienated from a government over which they seem to have so little control. As a result of that alienation, they either respond in extreme ways as January 6th demonstrates, or they retreat from politics altogether, as our falling political participation illustrates.

This last point is perhaps worth reflecting upon more. For those of us in the midst of the debates about national politics, we are both enlivened and exhausted by the bitterness of it all. But I suspect that the average American is less exhausted than enervated. As Morris Fiorina persuasively shows in his book Disconnect, there is deep gulf between the partisan and hyper-aware world of political activists and the awareness of the average American. Most people proceed through their day with little awareness of politics. Perceiving that there’s little that they can do to change it, they stay away from it.

I was trying to suggest that federalism provides a solution to this anger, exhaustion, and apathy. At the local level, people realize that they can have a real impact on the political world in which they live. That impact isn’t just symbolic. It’s concrete and has real effects.

George worries about local level politics because the anti-CRT efforts seem symbolic in a way that resembles national politics. Insofar as this debate is occurring at a national level but plays itself out at a local level, I think it’s probably not all that revealing regarding what local politics typically looks like. And, even if it is, I guess I’m not as uncomfortable as George is with this debate taking place. Democratic self-government sometimes travels along paths that we might not like or with which we might not agree. Although we might not always land in what we think is the right place, the path itself is worth it. This debate over the way history is taught in public schools has enlivened our awareness of history itself. If it means that a history of slavery and race isn’t taught then we probably went down the wrong path. But I suspect this won’t be where we end up. The teaching of history is always and necessarily contestable. Even if one side wins now, a different side will win later. And, in the end, by engaging in the debate, the people learn something about history. The people, at the local level, involved in this curriculum debate have likely thought more about American history than they ever had previously. Even if it’s true, as Nikole Hannah-Jones argues, that experts have the best understanding about what the teaching of history requires, parental involvement in that question in the process has a beneficial effect in and of itself.

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