Late last night, while reading a stream of apocalyptic rhetoric about the repeal of net neutrality and the “end of the internet as we know it,” I reached the shattering conclusion that one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies was wrong. The movie is the 2004 Brad Bird masterpiece, The Incredibles. The line comes from the villain, Syndrome, who outlines his plan to make “everyone super,” because when “everyone is super [he chuckles maliciously] no one will be.”
It’s a great line, and it seems to convey an important truth. When you make everyone or everything “the best” or “the greatest” or “special,” then you inevitably end up devaluing the superlative. When everyone gets a trophy, trophies matter less. The same truth applies equally in reverse. Not everything is “the worst” or an “emergency,” and when we pretend otherwise, it turns out that nothing is believed to be. That’s the essence of “crying wolf.”
Except in politics. In politics, when everything’s a crisis, it turns out that EVERYTHING’S A CRISIS!
We keep reading that Donald Trump is a unique danger to American democracy, a threat we should put aside partisan tribalism to defeat. Then, seconds later, we read that giving Americans the choice to buy health insurance will kill people by the thousands. Seconds after that, we learn that an entirely conventional Republican tax plan will not only kill people but also extinguish American democracy as we know it. Finally, we read that the end of net neutrality — a regulatory doctrine that only the smallest percentage of Americans even remotely understand — will extinguish American liberty.
Folks with decent memories will remember another danger to American democracy. His name was Willard Mitt Romney — a corporate raider, slaver (“put y’all back in chains“), and misogynist (“binders full of women”) who actually killed people.
But everyone knows these progressives are completely, totally wrong. Conservatives aren’t destroying this nation. Progressives are. Charge the cockpit or you’ll die, right? One junior senator from Alabama will save or kill millions of babies. The FBI’s like the KGB. The “deep state” is launching its “soft coup,” and it’s time to man the barricades.
For the average American, who pays less attention to politics than to his professional and personal lives, all of this is exhausting. It’s numbing to the point where he can’t possibly determine what’s important and what’s not. So he checks out. He throws his hands in the air and gives up. But for the Americans who care the most about politics and drive our public debate, perpetual crisis is invigorating. It provides meaning and purpose.
A nation’s political culture is always defined by the people who care the most, and the people who care the most in our nation have lost all sense of proportion.
A nation’s political culture is always defined by the people who care the most, and the people who care the most in our nation have lost all sense of proportion. All too many activists, politicians, pundits, celebrities, and ordinary political junkies will look at the rhetoric I outlined above, and nod their heads in agreement with the examples that suit their politics.
The bottom line is that even “normal” American politics are far more broken than Trump’s Twitter feed. It’s debatable whether the public temperature would be one degree lower if Trump tossed his phone into the Potomac. Instead of solemn 86-tweet threads on why Trump’s retweeting British fascists heralds the founding of Panem from the Hunger Games, we’d get solemn 93-tweet threads explaining why lower corporate-tax rates will lead to bodies stacked like cordwood in the streets. And the same “serious people” will nod, tweet “The most important thread you’ll read today” or “indispensable analysis,” and continue to foster the notion that their political opponents are so depraved that they don’t care if people die.
Yes, I recognize the irony of this entire piece. I’m ranting about excessive ranting. But to fight against a political culture that declares everything to be a crisis is not the same thing as arguing that nothing is a crisis. We do face grave political problems. There are genuine cultural emergencies (the opioid epidemic comes immediately to mind). But when the response to conventional politics is something closer to an apocalyptic fever dream than reasoned discourse, then the true political problem is the reaction, not the political action (tax cuts, regulatory reform, judicial nominations) that triggered it.
There’s a range of political emotion. The choices aren’t limited to #nothingburger or endless screaming. Perhaps one of the greatest services any pundit, writer, or reader can provide is not only determining what’s right and wrong — good policy and bad — but also the degree to which a normal person should care and the level of certainty in the apocalyptic predictions. In other words, in our polarized times, finding the proper sense of proportion might be among your greatest patriotic duties. Save your fury for a real crisis. America needs you to be calm.