When Politics Smothers Everyday Life

When Politics Smothers Everyday Life
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
When Politics Smothers Everyday Life
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
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Partisan politics has crept into every corner of American life. Every topic, from jokes to films, is now refracted through that lens. It’s a revoltin’ development, as one sitcom character used to say, and it’s time to call it out.

Most issues do have a political dimension, of course. But seeing everything that way leaves no space for other topics, no room for play or humor or friends with different views. It intrudes on the private world of family, friends, and voluntary associations. People need that space to flourish. A tolerant, liberal democracy should provide it.

I saw this suffocating environment up-close and personal this week when I posted a funny comment by Louisiana’s Sen. John Kennedy. His earthy metaphors and odd juxtapositions make him one of Washington’s most quotable figures. In today’s hyper-divisive politics, however, even the most innocuous quote can land you in the briar patch. I felt a few of those thorns when I posted his comment.

What did Sen. Kennedy say? “Trusting Russia, North Korea, and Iran is like trusting a Jussie Smollett police report.” What’s wrong with that? Not a thing. It’s funny, fair, and memorable. But when everything is partisan, you can always find something wrong. If nothing comes readily to mind, blame the speaker for something else. He’s from the wrong political party. He supports the wrong policies. He’s the wrong race. He’s the wrong gender. This sour perspective, says Sen. Kennedy, is “why aliens won’t talk to us.”

In case that line had you furiously logging onto Twitter, he meant extraterrestrials, not migrants. I’m with the ETs and spaceships on this one. So are most Americans. I’m not trying to click my heels three times and make partisan differences magically disappear. Our country faces big, difficult issues. The partisan divide often has roots in real policy differences.

But what makes that divide so dangerous is that we split along the same party lines on issue after issue. That undermines a crucial assumption of the nation’s founding, set down right there in the Federalist Papers, which argued that our large republic would be stable because the various “factions” would cut across each other. That’s not true today. A citizen’s views on, say, immigration, are likely to predict his views on guns, abortion, taxes, healthcare, school choice, public-sector unions, and centralized government. Not always, but often, and it’s true all across the country. The differences are amplified by the two parties, which use them to mobilize their base voters.

The result is predictable. We keep cutting the national pie along the same line, deeper and deeper, time after time. If we keep at it, we’ll cut through the metal pan. We compound the danger by interpreting everything, even anodyne quotes, as yet another reflection of partisan politics. That’s true even for benign comments like Kennedy’s about America’s worst enemies. It’s worth remembering that sometimes a funny observation is just that, not a partisan dig. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. It’s not always an invitation to talk about the perils of smoking, the masculinity of cigar lounges, or the wisdom of regulating e-cigarettes.

There is something badly askew with a social world when every damned thing is considered political and refracted through a partisan lens. If you’re a politician or lobbyist, that lens is understandable. If the next election is a few weeks away, then everybody talks politics. But if you live in Toledo, Topeka, or Tampa and the next election is more than a year away, it ought to be unusual.

Today, it’s commonplace. That’s not because people love politics. It’s because they hate it, or, rather, they hate “the other side” and no longer trust the institutions that bind us together. The notion that our political adversaries are the loyal opposition, that they rotate in office by free and fair elections, and that our leaders are constrained by the rule of law—all these core elements of our constitutional democracy are under profound stress.

We are too divided to talk calmly, respectfully to friends who hold different views. In fact, most of us live in communities where everybody shares similar views—or we shut up for fear of being ostracized. One way of talking across this divide is Sen. Kennedy’s. His substantive points are strong, but he doesn’t hit below the belt. He’s not hostile or personal. He takes the edge off even the most serious issues with humor, just like Sen. Sam Ervin used to do. It was Ervin who reminded us that “rain falleth on the Just and the Unjust . . . but chiefly on the Just, because the Unjust steals the Just’s umbrella.”

Kennedy’s wit and originality are rare in an age of bland talking points. Sometimes, he uses old Southern chestnuts, like saying President Trump “is a hard dog to keep on the porch.” Other comments are more pointed and creative. He wouldn’t trust any Middle Eastern country, aside from Israel, “any more than he would trust gas-station sushi.” Talleyrand or Metternich would have said it more elegantly but not more accurately.

Still other observations capture the issue so clearly they are quoted by both sides. When Facebook users’ personal data was transferred to a dicey political-consulting company, Sen. Kennedy said the malfeasance approached “the foothills of creepy.” Exactly.

Kennedy is firmly in Trump’s political camp -- he’s a Southern Republican -- but he also sunk one of the president’s judicial nominees with incisive questions during a confirmation hearing. His conclusion: “Just because you’ve seen “My Cousin Vinny” doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge.” The nominee withdrew the next day.

So, I expected smiles when I posted Kennedy’s latest comment about not trusting Russia, North Korea, and Iran. How naïve of me. The post got laughs, but it also got pushback. What makes the criticism troubling is that it came from smart, well-informed friends. One asked how I could even quote Kennedy without rebuking him for his pro-Trump positions. Another implied that invoking Jussie Smollett’s utter lack of credibility was racially insensitive, which, if you think about it, is backwards. The African American actor is the guy who staked his reputation on racism, specifically on the odd story of two rednecks in MAGA hats who attacked him on a Chicago street (at 2 a.m. with the temperature near zero), yelled racial and homophobic insults at him, then wrapped a rope around his neck. Those “assailants” turned out to be Nigerians. Smollett knew them – and, according to police accounts, he paid them to carry out the entire charade.

In a sane world, using this guy as an example of an untrustworthy witness would be something we could all agree on. That’s all Sen. Kennedy did. It ought to be possible to say, for example, "I enjoyed playing golf today," without Democrats and Republicans immediately thinking, "That awful president plays golf, too." (Democrats say it now; Republicans said it for eight years.) Even the way your political opponent sits on a chair is fodder for attack. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn doesn’t like the way Trump sits. Zorn said, with an apparently straight face, that the way the president spreads his legs made him conclude that someone must have told him it looks effeminate when you cross your legs or even have your knees together. This insecurity about his manhood, avers the columnist, explains why Trump “always looks . . . like he’s perched on the toilet.”

Good grief! Seeing everything, from golfing to sitting, through a tendentious, partisan lens eliminates the open space we need to talk with each other, not only about politics but about everything else. It squeezes our lives down to a single dimension and suffuses that dimension with hate and contempt. It’s a short step from such loathing to suppressing opposing viewpoints, which is exactly what’s happened on so many college campuses.

The good news is that this lens of “all politics all the time” is unsustainable. People want to fire up the backyard barbeque without having to discuss its effect on global warming. They want to grill a burger without having to talk about climate-friendly agriculture and vegan diets. They want to watch an awards show without listening to political harangues. Most of all, they want Debbie Downer to go home and let us enjoy a burger and beer in peace.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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