Politics, you might have noticed, has pervaded everything these days. Workplaces, social gatherings, public spaces, culture, entertainment, sports, and of course, the internet, are all becoming increasingly politicized. Things that used to be mostly apolitical no longer are, and things that were previously somewhat political are now hyper-political. Year by year, politics continues its implacable spread, encroaching on ever more areas of life.
Long gone are the days when people adhered to the unwritten rule not to bring up politics in social settings. This is the era where “silence is violence”, where people’s online activity can get them fired if they express the wrong political views — even if it breaks no laws and has nothing to do with their job. This is the era where an increasing number of private citizens have had to essentially become politicians — carefully virtue signaling and pandering, terrified of giving the wrong sort of offense, neurotically guarding their words and behavior in every interaction.
Fifteen years ago, political activists were few and far between — you knew them when you saw them, and they understood what they were doing. Today, activism is vastly more common, and what’s more, most activists don’t see what they do as politics — they now think they’re just being decent people. That distinction-collapse between politics and the rest of life throws open the gates for politics at every turn. After all, it’s not politics.
Time was, there was no common term for what we now label “religion.” There was just the truth and the right way to live and act, as people saw it. This wasn’t because societies were atheistic and secular, but because what we now recognize as religion was the very air people breathed — it suffused every aspect of life so completely that no distinct concept of it was necessary, just as the proverbial fish needs no concept of water. That is where we seem to be headed with politics. It’s not your imagination. Life is becoming politicized. And it’s time we said enough is enough.
Politics Ruins Everything
There are three main effects of hyper-politicization. First and foremost, it’s making us miserable. Frequent news consumption and political involvement are linked to poorer mental health. Ditto online activism. This isn’t anything we don’t already know. We know the atmosphere of any politically charged workplace or social setting that wouldn’t have been very politicized ten years ago is palpably toxic. We know that ultra-engagement in politics and activism seem to go hand in hand with noticeably troubled individuals. We know that too much politics takes its toll on happiness, well-being, and psychological health. We have all felt and experienced this ourselves. This alone should be enough to prompt change, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Politics is destroying the concept of truth. Our views of science, medicine, history, facts, and data now fall along tribal party lines. There is nothing we won’t vociferously disagree on, however petty or ludicrous, simply because our side has one view, and their side has another. We get our information from sources that cater to our biases and tell us what we want to hear, and we dismiss out of hand information sources associated with other political viewpoints. Because today’s political left is now mired in rigidly enforced ideological orthodoxies, most politicized spaces that lean left become clubhouses where outside thought, or even dissident views from within the left, are not much tolerated. This, in turn, leads to every even semi-politicized space that isn’t explicitly progressive eventually becoming right wing. By politicizing everything, we have driven partisan divides further apart.
There are no shared truths anymore — each side now argues from different premises, using different sets of “facts”, derived from and evaluated by different epistemologies. In such an environment, misinformation and disinformation run rampant, bipartisanship is virtually nonexistent, and the ensuing partisan gridlock gets very little done, fueling even more anger, resentment, and grievance.
Politics is making us hate each other. A society where everything is political is a society whose citizens are perpetually balkanized. In a 1958 Gallup poll, 25 percent of Republican parents and 33 percent of Democratic parents wanted their daughters to marry someone of the same political party. 72 percent of parents didn’t care. In 2016, a UCLA political scientist revisited these questions, and found that 63 percent of Republican parents and 60 percent Democratic ones wanted sons-in-law of the same party. Only 45 percent didn’t care. In the five years since, those numbers have likely only slid further.
Ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, 31 percent of Americans believed people who donated to Donald Trump should lose their job because of it. 22 percent of Americans said the same of those who donated to Joe Biden. That’s 53 percent of the country who thinks people should lose their livelihood for privately held political opinions. Indeed, 54 percent of Americans now rate other Americans as the “biggest threat” to society, ahead of economic forces, foreign countries, or natural forces (which includes climate change, weather events, natural disasters, and pandemics!). These staggering numbers are an exclamation point to the reality we all see around us.
Civil war is where we’re headed. Let’s not dance around the issue. To be sure, we’re not at or even near the brink, but make no mistake, it’s the road we’re on. At bottom, civilization is built on trust. It’s all we have. When that trust goes away, this wonderful experiment of ours — living together in massive, interdependent communities of strangers — tumbles down like a house of cards. What we’re left with is where we came from: the jungle.
The Value of Politics-Free Zones
The hyper-politicization of society inflicts persistent injury to our mental health, our ability to understand the world around us, and our relationship with one another. But because these political tendrils have reached into so many areas of life, it’s harder to recuperate and detox from it. We need to be able to unplug, unwind, and get away from the insanity. Ideally, we need to quarantine politics into a clearly delineated corner of our lives, and keep it there. Short of that, we need regular vacations away from it.
Film, television, sports, and other forms of culture and entertainment are more important than we might realize. While it’s true that our sources of entertainment have never been completely apolitical, it’s gotten noticeably worse in recent years. Sports are particularly useful, since it functions as a relatively benign outlet for tribalism and aggression. The reason why having these (and other) sectors of society be reasonably free from politics is that they are not only therapeutic, but unifying. Sports, culture, and entertainment are things that people from all political viewpoints and walks of life can bond over and enjoy together. This helps us forget our differences and reminds of our common humanity.
The moment needlessly overt political messages are injected, or a star decides to use their spotlight for political activism, or an organization that has nothing to do with the armed forces holds obnoxious quasi-military rallies (sometimes funded with Defense Department cash), they lose all capacity to unite. When politics enters into the mix, the audience is immediately reminded about what divides us, who they don’t like, who the bad people are. When politicizing a non-political space, it does not matter how worthy the causes are. There can be no political cause so worthy that it’s worth robbing a deeply divided society one of its precious few chances to heal a little.
Politics is poison. A necessary poison, for many an enjoyable one in moderate doses, but a poison nevertheless. Politics-free zones are the antidote. We ignore this at our peril.
What We Can Do as Individuals
I used to think the remedy for the problems with politics was to embrace a kind of moral code — being civil, not rushing to uncharitable conclusions, steel-manning, giving other views a fair hearing, etc. By comporting myself in this way, I hoped it would lead to healthier interactions, setting a positive example that would inspire others. I believed that if enough people did this, eventually a grassroots cultural shift could theoretically change politics for the better. Ultimately, I thought the problems with politics came from some external source — that if we could only change how we treated one another, that would cure things. I was mistaken. What ails politics is that politics itself has spread too far in society beyond its allotted space. While I still strive toward that moral code, I realize that politics cannot realistically be changed to make it less toxic. What is needed is to scale it back and shrink it.
Politics has become this giant vacuum cleaner that sucks our sanity and trust into the abyss. Its power source is attention. Rather than resisting the pull of the vortex by clinging to the rock of principles, we should unplug the machine, or at least crank down the electrical output from the nearby power plant.
We should commit to spending less time consuming news. 15-30 minutes a day is plenty, and it won’t kill you to skip a day, or take the weekend off. We should spend less time on social media and other political parts of the internet. It makes an enormous difference, as though a spell has been lifted from your mind.
If you’re in a social setting, don’t bring up politics. If someone expresses an objectionable political view, don’t engage it. Steer the conversation in other directions. If you want to change public opinion or policy, become a political activist. But keep your activism within strict limits. Keep it out of your personal or work life. If politics permeates every single thing you do, it’s not really politics anymore — it’s religion.
Ten years ago, the biggest critique of the internet was that it was a mindless repository of silly cat videos — that people wasted too much time online they could have been spending more productively. Would that we could return to those days. Today, we view the internet like a cesspool that’s chewing us up and spitting us out more dysfunctional and divided than ever. We can choose, as individuals, to alter our online content consumption and creation habits to be less political. More cat videos might be just what we need right now.
Historian Timothy Snyder once wrote that “Life is political, not because the world cares about how you feel, but because the world reacts to what you do.” That may be true as a factual claim, especially in the internet era, where every schmuck has more reach than ever before, but it’s dangerous as a prescription for how to live. Politics can never be put into a neat little box and kept entirely from ever entering any other space. But we can have a society vastly less politicized than we have right now. It is worth the effort to try. Indeed, I can think of few goals more worthy. Making everything political is destroying us.
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