Our Fixation on Politics

Politics need not be endemic, but it would be a lie not to acknowledge that the incumbent president has fomented this. His outlandish speeches and presence in general made him a reality star. Now, as a politician, the antics magnetize the news media and galvanizes the public. The media, and the president, understand that his personality and stunts garner views and attention, leading to increased revenue. News organizations have drawn markedly higher profits under the Trump presidency, as our appetites for the newest scoop remain insatiable.

The reason why we cannot divorce ourselves from politics is not, as some might think, because we are more interested in politics itself. What has actually happened is quite different: the politicians themselves are more interested in attention from us. The president thrives on the attention he receives, both from his base supporters and the “haters and losers.” 

After a tumultuous decade during the 1990’s, Trump rebounded by licensing his name to properties and gimmicky commercials. Finally, in the early 2000’s, he converted his gaudy persona into a reality television career. As an over-the-top real estate mogul, Trump enshrined an aura of success and confidence that remained with him as a candidate. 

During the primaries, he linked together issues less focused on substantive solutions and geared more toward eliciting responses, both good and bad. By staying relevant in the news day after day, to avoid Trump in casual conversation would be to exclude oneself from human interaction. He so wholly consumed the political conversation over the last two years that politics became indistinguishable from popular culture writ large. 

President Obama pursued different means, but the end was not entirely different. By utilizing social media and grassroots organizing to a degree not seen before, Obama quickly catapulted to cult-like status for liberals. The former president is still idolized as the pinnacle of Democratic leadership, while that young voter base who propelled him to victory laments the end of his tenure to this day. 

Democrats, in the Obama era, heralded the president as a harbinger of progressivism. The well-known liberal tendencies of Hollywood and the arts in general emerged in full force — actors, actresses, sports stars and musicians constantly orbited the president, appearing at fundraisers and even his birthday party. Democrats thought they had won for good, all the while only riding on the high of an ephemeral victory.

The nasty underbelly of the Obama presidency was the Tea Party movement. Rigidly conservative, and about as far-right as you can be and still win in the United States, the Tea Party vociferously opposed the Obama agenda. Often, that wing of the Republican party stood at odds against their own colleagues, as Ted Cruz exemplified by crusading for the government shutdown in an effort to defund Obamacare. 

Other opportunistic voices crept into the political ether. Then-citizen Trump called into anyone who would have him, accusing the president of falsifying his birth certificate and his academic records. None of his wild accusations were substantiated, then or now. The only successful result of his pandering to the so-called birthers was his ascent into the political world as a voice contra Obama. 

Moving to the primary season in 2015, Trump managed to carve out a consistent portion of the Republican primary electorate by differentiating himself on policies like immigration and border control.  He developed a following that rivaled, if not surpassed, the acolytes of Obama. Now, one year into his presidency, that fierce adherence remains. 

That adherence speaks to the reason politics is inescapable. Trump disciples have overcorrected in propping up their own idol as a cultural icon, which he clearly enjoys, and the rest of us have lived with those consequences. Because of this, we have no choice but to remain engaged in politics and the scandal du jour. 

Gore Vidal, in a 1975 interview, commented that he thought the American public likes crazy people who are very intense as their president because it is exciting. I don’t know that he was entirely wrong — it takes a unique personality to think that you alone should be president, and undoubtedly that chutzpah is a desirable trait for voters.

We often sanitize history and inject a sense of nostalgia when remembering “the good old days.” In fact, we have a history of contentious elections and larger-than-life characters running for office. Historically, though, we did not have the means of staying engaged in the news up-to-the-minute. Nowadays, news is immediate and ubiquitous. That is fine, but at the same time everyone has an opinion on that news as well. Couple that access to news with ardent opinions on politics, and curated newsfeeds that only reinforce our opinions, and you see where the issue lies.

Obviously, we should be invested in government. It is perhaps unhealthy, though, to fixate on the minutiae of the day-to-day. By focusing too heavily on politics, we subtract value from our daily lives. Instead of investing in ourselves and personal relationships, we too often expend effort quibbling over that which we cannot control. 

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Kirk KovachComment