Reflections on a Week Away From Politics

I was at my wit’s end.

Politics had taken over my life. The endless barrage of news out of the Trump Presidency had ratcheted up my hyper-vigilance to 11. It was at this point that I came across this Atlantic article, which felt like it was describing my own struggles, translated to a work environment:

Duggan says that managers should help their employees focus on work, and that while support groups or other interventions sound good, it might be a further distraction. “The problem with that is you do a debrief about the election, then you have to do a debrief at the inauguration, then you have to do a debrief about the first week, the second week, and it doesn’t stop.”

Many of us were hoping that the constant campaign ruckus would die down after the election. Heck, people were already sick of the general election back in July! And the same political climate has continued, with no end in sight. Even some of the same features are back: On FiveThirtyEight, instead of tracking the current election polling average, you can now track Trump’s approval ratings average!

Different colors, same feels.

Different colors, same feels.

And yet, as I noticed, very little good had come out of all this attention, both mine and others. The levers of democracy in this democratic republic of ours only operate every couple of years. Sure, we could call our representatives, but I live in Massachusetts. Besides, has anyone ever heard of diminishing marginal returns? They’re already getting dozens of faxes a day, let alone letters, e-mails and phone calls.

About a month earlier, my church had gone through a weeklong fast, taking different days of that week to fast from different good desires, from coffee/beverages to music/sound to our phones. I had forgotten the first day and then gave up, but the message had still somewhat stuck.

Feeling convicted about my politics overdose after church one Sunday, I decided to take a week off of the endless barrage. I logged out of Twitter, filtered my New York Times headlines e-mails to Mark As Read, and clicked the little X to tell Chrome not to offer up FiveThirtyEight whenever I open a new tab. I didn’t filter political posts in my Facebook newsfeed (since I didn’t want its algorithms to think the change was permanent), but generally tried to scroll past them without reading.

And that week was great! I’d particularly been meaning to make blogging a regular part of my agenda. With my newfound extra time, I actually was able to complete my first blog post in months, and my first non-political non-Et Spiritus blog post in about a year and a half. That week kick-started what I hope will be an ongoing weekly post every Friday.

After taking the week — and more difficultly, the whole weekend — off from politics, I logged into Twitter to learn what I’d missed. Flynn had resigned, but I hadn’t actually been able to avoid that bit of news. And that’s about it. (I guess Puzder withdrew from consideration for Labor, but I’d already heard he was getting cold feet.)

Then I discovered that I’d been scooped. Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times had not only had the exact same idea — he’d chosen the exact same week to take off! Well, to be fair, Manjoo didn’t quite do the same thing; he tried, and failed, to consume the same amount of media but avoid Trump. Like Manjoo, I have a few lessons to share, but I hope they’ll be a bit more reflective than just, “Trump is everywhere.”

This is NOT election season, believe it or not

612 days. That’s how long we have until the next election, the 2018 midterms. Okay, there are some random special elections in some states, and you might not be reading this right on the day I posted it, so click that link to see a current count. Keep this in mind when anyone asks a Republican politician if there will be a primary challenger to Trump in 2020.

Need I remind you that most political news gets buried after 48 hours at most? How much a difference is that political post on Facebook about the latest Trump controversy really going to make?

Besides, what about our impressions of Trump’s administration is really going to change from reading a bit more? To prove this point, let me make a few vague general “predictions” and let’s see how well they hold up over the next month:

  1. Trump and his associates are going to continue to pay way too little attention to the Russia business and the news story that never ends will continue to fester but at a low enough level to allow the president to deny any wrongdoing and his supporters to believe him.
  2. Trump will continue to try to win over the undying devotion of his base, fulfilling campaign promises in their eyes.
  3. In the process, Trump will continue to be checked in various ways by judges and Democrats at various levels of government but not seriously challenged by any other Republicans.
  4. Republicans will continue to fail to produce any encouraging signs of a viable bill on a replacement for Obamacare.
  5. The economy will continue churning along just fine.
  6. Liberals of all types will continue to freak out at everything that Trump does.
  7. The president’s war with the media will continue, with liberals rushing to defend newspapers and Trump throwing various barbs in their direction.
  8. The Trump-ward personification of all political disagreement will continue: Anything anyone (particularly a Republican) says that doesn’t agree with Trump’s stance will emphasize that feature.
  9. Due to Trump’s staffing shortage and the generally toxic environment of the White House, leaks will continue to flood out.
  10. Generally speaking, Trump will continue to hang out just beyond the Overton Window of discourse.

Wake me up when one of those isn’t true.

Seriously, look at the bigger picture

If politics was all that mattered and literally our only means for helping people, we might as well just start gearing up for 2018 now. But it’s precisely because politics isn’t everything that we can and should take a step back.

That’s one of the most surprising messages I found when I read Michael Wear’s new book Reclaiming Hope. Wear was Obama’s faith outreach director during his first term, and one of the youngest White House staffers in history. The book was a real page-turner for me as it told his story, from the excitement of the campaign to disappointment with many of the unforced errors of the Obama administration with regards to people of faith. But my point here is the way he opens the final chapter, also called “Reclaiming Hope”:reclaiming-hope

As someone who has experienced firsthand the great successes and bitter disappointments that politics brings, I can say without equivocation that politics is not where you want to place your hope. People who place their hope in politics are idealists who then become cynics, and there is rarely a resting stop on that journey. We need to have a firmer ground to stand upon when engaging in politics than politics itself. (Reclaiming Hope, p205)

 

To be clear, Wear is not advocating a wholesale withdrawal from politics. Later in that chapter, he encourages people to get more politically involved by voting, contacting elected officials, volunteering, and donating. Instead, he is arguing that we need to always keep in mind that our identity is not in our party, politicians, or priorities. It isn’t even in our country, as much as I like the Country Over Party slogan. As Christians, we should answer first to Jesus, and our politics would be all the better for it. As Wear put it:

As I’ve argued, Christians have an obligation to be involved in politics, but we do not belong to our politics. Since our identity is not found in our politics, we are freed up to pursue unlikely alliances, consider other points of view, and love our political enemies. In hope and humility, we can partner with and learn from people of different faiths, backgrounds, and ideological perspectives and across racial boundaries. (Reclaiming Hope, p216)

I can understand holding your breath in the heat of the election season about criticisms of your own position and priorities. But if we don’t take the time to reflect now, when will we ever?

Now that liberals aren’t forced to defend the status quo, can we acknowledge that there are some major problems with this country, both social and economic? I linked to it as an aside last week, but David Brooks’ column This Century Is Broken is an enlightening yet depressing introduction. Here’s a brief synopsis, skipping all of the statistics he uses to back up these claims:

The 21st Century is looking much nastier and bumpier: rising ethnic nationalism, falling faith in democracy, a dissolving world order. […] At the bottom of this, perhaps, is declining economic growth. […] Slow growth strains everything else — meaning less opportunity, less optimism, and more of the sort of zero-sum, grab-what-you-can thinking that Donald Trump specializes in. The slowdown has devastated American workers. […] The hard part is that America has to become more dynamic and more protective — both at the same time. […] In sphere after sphere, Americans have become less adventurous and more static. […] Millennials may be the least entrepreneurial generation in American history. […] There are signs that America is less innovative. […]

Of course nothing is foreordained. But where is the social movement that is thinking about the fundamentals of this century’s bad start and envisions an alternative path? Who has a compelling plan to boost economic growth? If Trump is not the answer, what is?

I don’t have an answer to that line of questioning. As much as I’d like to hope, board games are not going to solve all of society’s problems. However, I do see two encouraging (and perhaps surprising) examples of others taking this time to examine failures in a loving way and strive to do better.

First, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight is writing an ongoing series of articles on the mistakes that the media made in reporting the 2016 election, like assuming that Clinton would have the advantage in the Electoral College. He focuses his energies on the New York Times as the standard-bearer, but many of these mistakes were reflected throughout the broader mainstream media ecosystem. Again, it’s easy to dismiss Kellyanne Conway saying that “If the mainstream media were a real business, heads would roll.” It’s harder to swallow one’s pride, extract the true criticism out of that sentiment, and seek to do better.

facebook-building-global-community

During my week away, I was even more surprised to see Mark Zuckerberg weigh in with a far-reaching manifesto on community, addressing the need for and Facebook’s role in helping people build supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged, and inclusive communities. (Yes, that’s what those five symbols above represent to him.) Rather than simply touting Facebook’s role in changing the world, Zuckerberg was thoughtful and nuanced, even citing many points I usually see raised by conservatives:

In our society, we have personal relationships with friends and family, and then we have institutional relationships with the governments that set the rules. A healthy society also has many layers of communities between us and government that take care of our needs. When we refer to our “social fabric”, we usually mean the many mediating groups that bring us together and reinforce our values.

However, there has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades. Since the 1970s, membership in some local groups has declined by as much as one-quarter, cutting across all segments of the population.

The decline raises deeper questions alongside surveys showing large percentages of our population lack a sense of hope for the future. It is possible many of our challenges are at least as much social as they are economic — related to a lack of community and connection to something greater than ourselves. As one pastor told me: “People feel unsettled. A lot of what was settling in the past doesn’t exist anymore.”

Beyond showing appreciation of the problems of social decline, Zuckerberg’s manifesto makes it clear to me that he has a more stable and big picture look at the problems facing society, and how Facebook can play a small role in that. This is so much more than a belated response to a year of headlines wondering what he was going to do about fake news, among other controversies. It also doesn’t seem to me to be subtly laying the groundwork for 2020 — believe it or not, people can care about the common good without wanting to run for president.

While we should rightfully be cautious about taking statements like this at face value, Zuckerberg seems to be engaging in the honest process of trying to understand what is wrong with the world and what he should be doing to fix it. I hope we all could do the same.

Late night political talk shows as political trauma therapy

I’ve saved my biggest step change since taking the week off of politics for last. Before that week, Grace and I would generally make sure to keep up on all of Stephen Colbert’s opening monologues, Seth Meyers’s Closer Looks, Trevor Noah’s extended interviews, and John Oliver’s lectures with insults just to see what their humor-laden takes would be on each new political development.

Then I took a week off of politics and Grace watched the shows on her computer with headphones on, only sharing with me the non-political segments like this hilariously cute and well-executed segment where Colbert induces a class of elementary school kids to write the plot to a movie, and then turns their ideas into a trailer:

Yet there’s a pretty clear reason why late night is generally trending towards targeting Trump. The daily news out of the White House is traumatizing to so many liberals (and even some conservatives) that there’s a large market for people looking for some kind of release. As a judge on SNL put it, many just “want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of” them.

Late-night political comedy, then, serves essentially as political trauma therapy, acknowledging people’s concerns while giving them something else to think about when they’re reminded of that news. For the many millions of us following every move of the administration, hearing that we aren’t alone does provide some measure of comfort.

Once I turned off the news spigot, though, the draw of political comedy to me all but vanished, and it hasn’t really recovered. I’m not letting Trump news affect me in the same way it used to, and that realization has sapped my need for political comedy. I suppose some day down the road I’ll watch a funny or insightful take that Grace or someone else shares with me, but the need to watch everything they post will likely never return.

At least until 2018.

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3 responses to “Reflections on a Week Away From Politics

  1. Pingback: Crucify Him! | The Christian Rationalist

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