Earlier this year, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that a pervasive feeling of powerlessness among many people in our society has raised the public’s general sense of anxiety. He reported that a Pew Research Center study found that 64 percent of Americans believe their “side” has been losing more than winning. That number includes majorities of both major political parties.
Those impressions, of course, can’t be true.
But such impressions have given rise to the polarization that holds much of the nation’s political world in an increasingly tighter grip. The political system devised by our founders – one in which its various components seek to balance or compromise disparate interests to produce an acceptable result – seems to have less and less support with every passing day.
In a more recent column, Brooks spoke of an “antipolitics” tendency that is gaining increasing currency across America. Its practitioners want “outsiders” who “delegitimize compromise and deal-making” and are “willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power.” To them, the interests and opinions of others have no legitimacy. Those in the antipolitics camp want total victories for themselves and their doctrine. Such a stance offers no recipe for positive discourse on the important issues of the day.
Sadly, rather than helping knit society together, the explosion in technology and its myriad applications in modern communications too often has enhanced the ability of people to surround themselves by – and seek the viewpoints of – others of like mind, especially when it comes to all things political. That reinforces entrenched ideologies and dilutes exposure to the entire spectrum of ideas from which reasoned and compassionate views are developed.
Brooks further noted, in his more recent column, that the antipolitics movement now in such favor is the culmination of trends that have been building for the past 30 years: “The desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.”
All of that represents the path that the founders rejected, said Brooks.
As the antipolitics tendency grows, both on the left and right of the political spectrum, normal political conversation breaks down. Americans who feel unheard are quick to embrace a presidential candidate who shuns compromise, negotiation and restraint, offering instead a panoply of promises that raises ridiculous expectations.
A return to the path devised by our founders will require both patience and a rebirth of respect for dignity and civility – qualities that are currently in short supply with traditional politics in retreat and authoritarianism on the rise.
To reverse that trend, Brooks calls for “more collective action, fewer strongmen and greater citizenship.” Politics, he says, is not about turning to an authoritarian tyrant who would impose his will on others “by clobbering everyone in his way.” Rather, it is, in Brooks’ words, “an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own.”
That’s the path our founders envisioned, and it’s a path to which we must return.