COMMENTARY: It’s all broken. It’s OK to admit it.
We all — every single one of us — have played an active role in its breaking. And that’s more important to admit.
I will try to assure you that these are not the ravings of a liberal still stinging from the rise of Trump. Hell, I’ve had an inkling our entire political system was in disarray for more than a decade and my side has had some historic wins over that period.
But, regardless of whether my team or Donald Trump’s team wins an election, the fact remains: The basic underpinnings of our entire political system is a hot mess held together with spitballs, chewing gum and dark money.
There have been volumes written about the symptoms of the problem — the erosion of civility and the dehumanization of opponents as both “libtards” and “cuckservatives,” a media culture that turns up the volume and raises the stakes, turning every single issue into a wedge issue — but none of these get to the heart of why the system is so wrecked.
The answer is not an easy one — and therein lies the whole point of this article.
Politics is hard. Politics is boring. It should be. The gears and machinations that move our government’s policies are laden with complicated details that require close attention. Sadly, in our current InstaChatFace world, we have become a political culture of scoring quick, pointless political points and firing off thoughtlessly cruel takedowns.
Let’s take Social Security as an example of this complexity. I will readily, but sheepishly, admit that I did not learn Social Security was a “pay as you go” system until I was in graduate school back in the late 1990s. I never gave it much thought — and that’s embarrassing for someone who made politics and public policy his career. What’s pay as you go, you ask?
Well, it means current workers pay for the benefits of the current retirees. So, when someone says “I paid into social security and I want my money” they’re not being entirely accurate. Sure, they paid into Social Security, but that money is going to current retirees who, in turn, paid to support retirees decades ago. You might say tomato, tom-ahh-to: What does it matter how people refer to the program?
It matters. How we talk about things colors our entire political discourse. How can we have a reasoned discussion about how to thoughtfully administer Social Security if only a minuscule percentage of the population knows the details of how money flows into and out of it? And spare me your comment-section snark — it’s a fair assumption to think that if someone doesn’t get the “pay as you go” concept until grad school then 95 percent of average voters probably don’t either.
One more example: this whole hubub about the Obama-era methane rule and Trump’s effort to stop it (as a job-killing regulation). Terms like “job-killing regulation” are an effective messaging shorthand but they do a great disservice to an important policy discussion we should all be having. In this instance there’s public land we all, as citizens of the United States, own. We lease some of that land to oil and gas companies so they can provide gas for our cars and power plants (and make a handsome profit for themselves).
However, the gas they drill, because it’s on public land, is also publicly owned. Should oil and gas companies be allowed to flare off publicly owned resources, such as methane, into the atmosphere without compensating the public? Or should they have to devise ways to recapture or otherwise use those resources? This “devising of the ways” is what the Trump people and Republicans would say is the job-killing part because those requirements would ostensibly force companies to choose to not drill.
Regardless of your opinion on this, can we not agree that it would make sense to know some more of the details of the issue before we fire off a Tweet bashing our opponents, calling them un-American or dehumanizing them with some quick political shot?
Again, politics should be boring. But with cable news outlets needing to sell ads, all issues have been boiled down to a football game of who’s winning, who’s message is resonating and what the four- or six-paned face boxes are yelling at each other on my TV screen.
We have largely become a politically illiterate nation that loves to talk about politics and fire off shots from the safety of our red and blue cocoons of confirmation bias. That’s fine if we want to go ahead and have a divorce and live in two separate nations. Hell, it’s what my book is about.
But, if we want to reverse this damage, there’s a lot of hard work to be done. Here are a few tips:
- How about this: If you come across something to share on social media that bolsters your world view, take a timeout and give yourself at least 60 seconds to do a separate search to verify that your posting has a basis in fact. This will hopefully prevent some of the Wacko Alex Jones Pizzagate wing-nut garbage from percolating.
- Actually take some time and dig into how our government actually functions. How about: No one posts on politics until he or she can give a quick summary of how the legislative process works. I know that sounds like I’m being an elitist snob, but I don’t go around telling gardeners that geraniums are best planted in full sun and must have a soil ph level of 3.5. For some reason we all think we know how the government works and, by golly, we will exercise our rights to free speech to tell those jerks in power to lay off my body, guns, rights or what ever else it is we want the government to lay off. All I’m saying is: Put in the work to understand how government functions before spouting off on it. You might be surprised to see some of your precious pre-conceived notions challenged. Part of the problem here has been a systematic dismantling of civics education in the schools coupled with decades of government bashing because it’s a faceless easy target that — maybe from time to time — has rightfully deserved a little bashing here and there.
- While we’re at it — take time to challenge your pre-conceived notions. I know it’s hard, but try to look at actual government and policy issues outside the sphere of cable news, partisan language or social media. When you remove polarizing language and focus on the actual issue at hand (its history and origins), you might be able to see the issue in a new light — or, God forbid, from the other side.
Our basic lack of understanding of issues, and of the mechanics of government, and our fall-back to divisive partisan themes (I have been guilty as charged on both accounts), fuels the increasingly crazy rhetoric and gives rise to demagogue politicians.
Love Trump or hate him, you must admit he is the embodiment of our ill-informed, cable-news-watching, “look at me” dumpster fire of a political culture.
I have sat across the table from many conservatives — disagreed with nearly everything they have said — yet still have been able to cobble together workable solutions. The greatest art of our government can be found in the give and take that makes no one happy but results in workable public policy. The cutting of deals where all sides get something (but not everything) has become an art that seems to be as dead as Latin.
If we can all actively work to push down our penchant for quick-fire insults and falling for a media trope that constantly tries to paint one side as winners and the other side as losers, then maybe we can get something done.
I said “maybe” because, sadly, much of the damage has already been inflicted. Bitter partisanship is entrenched and there are countless moneyed interests ensuring our national “must-see TV” show keeps rolling along. When everything rides on such a high-stakes electoral TV show, it’s hard for good people to put aside their weapons and approach governing from a place of collaboration.
That is why it’s incumbent upon all of us to learn more about how our country works, to start interacting with people of different beliefs on a human level, and to tune out the vile dehumanizing talk that will only take us to darker places.
It won’t solve all the problems our politics face, but it’s a start.
Chris Cervini is a New Mexican and longtime political operative now living in Texas. His first novel, Adelaide Uncolored, about a future United States divided into two separate nations, in on sale at Amazon.com. Agree with his opinion? Disagree? NMPolitics.net welcomes your views. Learn about submitting your own commentary here.