One of the few useful features of the iPhone’s “News” application is a link that pops up every so often and offers “stories that have nothing to do with politics.” As a society, we have presumably arrived at a worrying point if we need this. The problem is not that politics are wicked or pointless, or that the republic once enjoyed a politics-free golden age from which we have strayed. It’s that politics have seeped insidiously into every aspect of our lives — even, or especially, where they do not belong. Much of our modern political polarization is the result of this politicization of everything.
Take, for example, the announcement that the Miss America pageant would be scrapping its swimsuit component. Reasonable people can disagree on the decision’s merits. But the rhetoric used to justify it is revealing. It’s part of a “cultural revolution,” according to chairwoman Gretchen Carlson; it’s the contest’s attempt to “redefine its role in an era of female empowerment and gender equality,” according to the New York Times. The unquestioned and underlying premise is that Miss America and other such organizations must advance the political sympathies of their organizers, and that’s the problem.
Other examples abound. Johnny Carson was a fairly liberal Republican who, throughout his long tenure at The Tonight Show, worked hard to deliver humor without malice and without pandering to one particular political point of view. Now? Nowadays, Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon is excoriated by the media for failing to attack Trump. The most popular television hosts broach politics every night for laugh-lines, from their own liberal point of view. The apolitical, the unifying, is turned political and divisive again. Unless we change course, I fear that we shall go the way of The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who recently warned an advice-seeker against dating a man who may be (egad!) a conservative and (perish the thought!) a fan of Jordan Peterson.
Politics are at best a necessary evil. They exist not as an end in themselves but as a means of strengthening and uniting the civic ties that bind us as a people and a nation. If we choose to center our lives completely on politics, then we forget why we have them in the first place.
This behavior is by no means limited to one side. The NFL players who caused controversy by kneeling to protest during the national anthem last season certainly used their platform to make a political statement, but President Trump’s reaction blew the controversy so far out of proportion that both sides now have gone and politicized sports.
Perhaps most worryingly, we want it this way. After eight years of a president who seemed to think of himself as a reality-TV star, we elected an actual reality-TV star to take his place. We regularly decry divisiveness and the breakdown of America’s social and political order, yet many Democrats cheer the politicization of previously apolitical corners of the media landscape, and many Republicans hail Trump’s politicization of football. In spite of our penchant for unifying rhetoric, we seem to desire more and more division.
This did not begin with Trump. Indeed, over the past 20 years, statistician Andrew Gelman, Pew pollster Drew DeSilver, social commentator Bill Bishop, and many others have noted that we are deciding where we live based on politics. According to a Pew Research Center poll taken in January 2016, Americans are sorting themselves into “think-alike” communities in which they…
…no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas. Many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.
In 2012, David Graham, writing in The Atlantic, noted a study that showed that a growing number of Americans would be displeased if their children married someone of the other party. Featherstone is not alone in this regard. Even a cursory Google search turns up innumerable examples of advice columns that recommend against dating, marrying, or even befriending someone of a different political stripe.
There are no easy answers to these problems — especially given that the current politicization of everything is fairly unprecedented in American history. But the past does offer plenty of inspiration. William F. Buckley Jr. was a friend of John Kenneth Galbraith; Russell Kirk crisscrossed the country in the company of Norman Thomas, and, in 1976, voted for Eugene McCarthy; the friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg transcended their political differences. Even Thomas Jefferson and John Adams reconciled near the end of their lives. These influential figures remind us that there are more important things than politics — personal relationships, virtue, joie de vivre.
Indeed, politics are at best a necessary evil. They exist not as an end in themselves but as a means of strengthening and uniting the civic ties that bind us as a people and a nation. If we choose to center our lives completely on politics, then we forget why we have them in the first place. We cannot love policy-prescriptions, but we can love people, and we ought to realize that when we’re tempted to politicize every aspect of our society — from pageants to sports to film and television to our interactions with others.
Conservatives have long recognized that politics are not as important as culture — that morality, virtue, and imagination are more central to existence than whoever occupies the White House at a given moment. Would that we’d remember that, and that our liberal friends would come to believe it as well.