First of all, I wanted to link to this Bloomberg op-ed which looks at politics through the lens of language, something I’m obviously interested in myself. Professor Glickman, to his credit, employs a historical angle as well. It’s a fascinating look at what happens when you define a concept only in the rosiest, soft-focus terms, and then claim it’s going to be stolen away from you.
It’s an odd segue, but Glickman’s observations – especially about the lack of a “positive definition” and the “language of fear and loss” – dovetail surprisingly well with one of the biggest concerns of this year’s election: not polarization, but exhaustion.
In the United Kingdom, politicians on both sides of a debate have a higher figure they can turn to. Since the prime minister and his party act as head of government but not head of state, there is always a symbolic figure that rises above politics and works equally with whatever government is in power for the good of the nation: the monarch. That is, at least, the ideal, and if monarchs throughout history have not lived up to that best-case scenario, then it is good that the role of the monarch today is largely that of a figurehead who is supposed to represent the nation at its best.
Here in the US, we have no such figurehead. Instead, our ideals are abstract and not easily defined. Freedom, equality, justice – they are all good things, but it’s difficult for us to define precisely where these ideals begin and end, and which should be upheld as a primary focus should they conflict with one another. This makes it easy for politicians to cloak their positions and policies in the rhetoric of patriotism even if those policies are not in themselves representative of American values. We’ve all seen it: the restriction of civil liberties passed off as the Patriot Act, the constriction of aid to the poor and hungry called an expansion of freedom, the destruction of families paradoxically called a defense of the family unit.
The upshot of this linguistic confabulation is that people who hold principled, ethical positions will find themselves tarred as traitors, idiots, anti-American collaborators, and worse. There are vast swaths of the American public who do not know the difference between fascism, socialism, and communism, but are convinced that they are all bad. Morally evil, even. When pushed, the most strident among them may not even be able to tell you why. But, as Prof. Glickman notes, political rhetoric makes it sound like our nation is one reform away from Stalinism.
From this morass has risen a dangerous group – the apathetic nonvoter. Even the most politically engaged among us know one or two of these lonely souls: they have tried to learn a little about politics and have been blasted as ignorant and uninformed and now refuse to even try. Some of them claim that both parties are exactly the same and our votes literally, existentially, do not matter. Others say they are uninterested, or are happy that they know nothing about politics.
This is not merely an attitude of some kind of internal failing. These people do not lack the capability to make an informed choice. They are, by and large, exhausted with the process, the pettiness and the name-calling. It doesn’t make any sense to be completely unconcerned with future leaders – at our jobs, we care about who our new bosses will be. Often the ‘apathetic’ person isn’t apathetic at all, but simply afraid of how his or her beliefs will be dissected or ridiculed. They are unsure of reception and skeptical of the way that the system is constructed.
I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that, left in power for too long, any party will forget what it stood for and soon settle into a comfortably autocratic routine. That’s why voters matter. We need people who are paying attention, who will force the parties to be diligent and stand up for their constituents. Nations do not shift dramatically under a new president (short of civil war, which I hope we never need to face). Instead, the body politic moves incrementally, toward policies that make sense in the context of the world we live in today. We need to decide, every few years, which direction we want to move. This applies equally to people who have not had the time and inclination to deeply investigate every aspect of policy, and people who are afraid that their beliefs will not be seen as “consistent” because they don’t exactly match up to one of the candidate’s.
No politician is perfect, seen through our own beliefs. But neither can we voters afford to be so pure, or so uncertain, that we can’t bear to dirty our hands through contact with any politician. Every few years, we need to get involved and cast our vote for the person we believe will run our country best, or at least the one who won’t run it worst. If we don’t vote because neither candidate exactly matches up with our politics, we’ve made it that much easier for the worse leader to take power.
Believe in something. Work for something. And when the time to vote comes, vote for the person who best embodies your ideals. Don’t hold out for one who matches them exactly. It’ll be worth it in the end.