State of Disunion

We’re Living in an Era of Political Whims

No matter the issue at hand, our newscycle and politics have become far too short to provide the substantive information the electorate needs.

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I can’t pinpoint when exactly the politics of the United States fell out of time. Surely it happened sometime after Bill Clinton campaigned to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” which implored us to think about the future, and it must have manifested after the singular tragedy that was 9-11, which we promised to “never forget.” And it’s doubtful we left the ordinary course of time during Barack Obama’s historic election, when even the world recognized how unprecedented it was for the United States to elect a Black man for the nation’s highest office. But whenever it did happen, it is undeniable that our political discourse has lost all sense of history or future. When we speak about policy, when we discuss our responsibilities to each other, when we imagine accountability, there is rarely a yesterday in U.S. politics, and almost never a tomorrow.

Take any issue of the present zeitgeist—triumph or tragedy—and rarely will the repercussions be discussed in terms that extend beyond the next news cycle. We passed an infrastructure act worth $1.5 trillion and the media focused on the fact that it was bipartisan in nature. We rarely review how it will reinforce and improve the dismal decay of our decades-old infrastructure approaching the end of its life cycle, or whether it will prepare us for the climate disasters both ongoing and yet to come. We remember the Iraq War, talk about what the country has become, bemoan what could have been, but set aside any inspection of the fervor, lies, and mistakes that have led us into the catastrophic conflict or offer any clear-eyed assessment of what we learned about the limits of military intervention. We add ahistorical hyperbole to trends from polarization to income inequality, as if our political reality is born anew each day rather than existing as an extension of linear time. There is no continuity to our issues or understanding, only broken, isolated clips of reality.

Turning news and politics into things to be consumed rather than processes we engage in has warped every facet of our governance. Without the perspective of times gone and times to come, we frame entrenched issues with the temporary language of emotion. Policy isn’t created; it’s felt. We enshrine tantrums into edicts, and shape frenzy into statute with little to no regard to what it will do beyond satisfying a collective need for validation. So it was in Wyoming, more than a decade ago, when they passed a right to individual health autonomy to thumb their noses at Obamacare—and now find that the same law may (rightly) prevent them from banning abortion.

Pick an issue and discover a politics of whims. Governors and legislatures whip up education policies that never ask how ill-informed children are supposed to grow up to become driven, engaged, educated adults capable of competing in an increasingly globalized economy in another 10, 20, 30 years. We fling off masks, curtail financial and structural supports, and abandon mitigations to an ongoing pandemic, still yearning for a world that is now four years behind us, while refusing to confront why the systems of Before broke or what it will mean to build an After. Elected officials and party operatives who participated in, permitted, or covered up an effort to overturn the decisions of voters to install a dictator are not only on the ballot or in power, but rallying around the would-be dictator again. There is no cause, no effect; there is only the game and those willing to play it.

We are not stewards of a moment in our history, agents of an era responsible for handing over a baton; we are warring contingents and generations, fighting a pitched battle over who will reign at the end of history. Unlike previous cohorts who would imagine what would change—for good or ill—should their efforts succeed, we are a nation of blank slates, our politics gripped by survival mode.

If you have ever faced grueling circumstances, you are familiar with the sensation of constantly being in fight/flight/freeze/fawn while exhaustion at maintaining the reaction waits just behind the adrenaline. There is no time to step back, to evaluate, to contemplate what happens next. There is only withstanding the moment, a permanent present, over and over again, until it seems like the moment is all there is or ever was. Decisions are rapid and selfish; emotions are high and all-encompassing; review is a luxury, and so is time.

For an individual or a family, survival mode is an unyielding test; for a country, it is bedlam. Without time, norms, systems, perspective, a nation is little more than a mass of unrestrained id. It is, in effect, mob rule. The impulsivity, the impatience, the helpless desperation of survival multiply viciously at scale, and if we look around, it is unsurprising that this is what we see. We have a politics consumed by its need to react and remain without taking the time or space to ask why it should survive.

For the fever to break and rationality to resume, the political culture of the United States must return to continuity. We are only here for a moment, our present constructed from past decisions, our future built atop our current choices. We cannot continue neglecting where we have been, disregarding where we are headed without ultimately disintegrating. Because a nation that stops imagining what happens next is one that cannot endure to get there.

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