Politics naturally divides society into groups. The divisions are very evident: Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, communists and capitalists, and so on. These are examples of division by political orientation. We are also divided, however, by our metapolitical orientation, that is, our attitudes about the political realm itself.
There is a portion of the population that deeply enjoys politics. For them, it’s a form of entertainment. Following elections, news from the campaign trail, Supreme Court rulings, and congressional votes can be exciting. The news media covers election season like ESPN covers the NFL. Perhaps it could be said that politics is the United States’ fifth major sport, with spectators who are just as passionate as fans of, say, baseball or hockey.
On the other side of the spectrum is the portion of the population that can’t stand politics. For them, politics is nothing more than a popularity contest between a bunch of good-for-nothing liars. Who could care? Who could stand to listen to pundits on TV analyze the campaign?
According to these pessimists, it’s all a sad joke and the only reasonable option is to tune out.
What is the purpose of politics? To help promote the well-being of a society. This is the reason government should exist and the focus it must have at all times. The problem with both the attitude of the spectator and the attitude of the pessimist is that their focuses are disordered. They’re detached from the ultimate purpose of politics.
The spectator’s emphasis is on the horse race of politics, not the substance. The spectator is concerned with the latest poll numbers, the most scandalous statements made on the campaign trail, and the effectiveness of a given politician’s charisma. When politics is detached from its original purpose and becomes merely an entertaining pastime, it becomes meaningless.
The pessimist focuses on the apparent ineffectiveness of the government. Rather than focusing on what can be done, they focus on how the government is falling short. Because of this, the pessimist doesn’t consider, or perhaps ignores, what he or she could do to contribute to the well-being of society.
Both the spectator and the pessimist may claim to care about society, but both attitudes can be used as a shield from responsibility.
The spectator may feel that they are doing their patriotic duty by insulting Trump in conversation with friends or bashing Hillary on Facebook. But what difference does it make, really? If the spectator were to look outside the political arena, they would realize the impact they could have as individuals towards the betterment of society. They would realize that by visiting a lonely neighbor, using their talents to volunteer in their community, or going out of their way to help a friend in need, they will be doing much more good than you will by knowing the latest juicy details from Washington.
The pessimist’s distaste for politics is born of a concern for society. It’s a belief that politics is ineffective in promoting and preserving good in society. But this attitude can easily become an excuse for inaction. The pessimist sees a lot that’s wrong around them and puts the blame on the politicians. Politicians are, of course, responsible for many of the faults in society, but that doesn’t lessen our own personal responsibility to do our part to improve the world around us. If anything, a dysfunctional government should only encourage us all the more to work for change.
If the spectators’ and pessimists’ attitudes are both disordered, what then is the appropriate attitude to have towards politics? It is a more balanced approach. It recognizes that politics plays an important role in society, but that it is a means to an end, an important reality the spectator risks overlooking. It is an understanding that the purpose of politics – the only purpose – is the promotion of the common good of society. But it is also an understanding that politics is just ones means of working towards that goal.
Politics is really a secondary force in shaping society. Our family, our neighbors, our culture, and the various conditions that surround us have much more of an impact on our lives than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump ever will. Political participation is one important way that citizens can work towards improving the well-being of society, but it is not the only way. It’s not even the primary way.
The world needs less political pessimists and more individuals who realize that they can make a positive impact in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools. Rather than just complaining about why the government isn’t doing a good enough job promoting the well-being of society, individuals should take action themselves. It’s not a utopian philosophy that expects that everyone will do their part. Humans will never all behave. History and personal experience attest to that. But every time an individual realizes the importance of the ideal from politics derives its reason for existence – namely, the betterment of society – and acts upon it in their own capacity, the world will become a little better place.