The joy and sorrow of American politics

While politics has many downsides, it’s ultimately good for our country

Joshua Schuetz
Staff Writer

The 2020 presidential campaign is upon us. Candidacies are being announced, and there is already no shortage of controversy around many of them. 

I have always felt a kind of affectionate ambivalence towards politics. I truly believe that many politicians do care about their constituents, and I also believe that there are an enormous amount of good people in politics, who simply want what is best for their country, state, or city.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to be disgusted by the extent to which modern campaigning relies on the destruction, nay, obliteration of reputations and careers. It is hard not to feel revulsion at the ways in which national politics has degraded our discourse, weakened our commitment to the public good, and destroyed our relationships with others.

The 2016 election was an extreme case, of course, but there was plenty of vitriol in 2018, and there is likely to be even more in the upcoming election, seeing as the president is on the ballot. 

America’s campaign system has many problems. It’s too reliant on the whims of wealthy donors, too based in cliche and insincerity, and too stricken with the whirling up of anger and resentment among voters. It is fueled by dark money, attack ads, rage, incivility, and anti-intellectualism.

And yet, there is also something beautiful in it. There exists a kind of beauty in the town hall, where people genuinely interested in asking a candidate about their positions on education policy or tax policy. It’s even more beautiful when the policies become personal, when someone says “this is what would help me” and a candidate responds in kind. 

Polarization and populism aside, much of politics was once centered on the community, on issues related to preserving the public good. Today, the arguments are more existential, more raucous, more brutal. The culture wars have decimated the American body politic, and the Great Recession finished the job. What happened in 2016 was a symptom, not a cause.

Increasingly, politics has become, at least at the national level, a kind of trench war over the ruins of the American republic. It is a tragedy beyond comprehension. That the nation which defeated fascism and communism should be rent asunder in such a fashion is both appalling and pitiful. 

So why care about politics? Why vote at all? The short answer is that if you don’t vote, then your voice counts for nothing, or at least for less than it might otherwise. Even if engaging in politics is a Sisyphean task, that does not give us leave to shirk our civic duty. And make no mistake, those fools who say that there is no civic duty are themselves part of the problem.

Make no mistake: our system is broken. It is a mess. But it is also fixable, and as long as it remains so, we have a responsibility to attempt its restoration and reform. To do otherwise would be to deny our duty to those who came before us, those who stand with us, and those who will come after us.

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.

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