Americans can now be divided into two camps: those who relish constant conflict and those who do their darnedest to avoid it. Some conflict is inevitable in any life, and it’s nothing new. But the perpetual state of war that’s overtaken our news, our politics, and even our entertainment certainly is unprecedented (at least within my lifetime), and it’s stridently unpleasant.
I write this as someone who shifted from the first camp to the second over time. Growing up in New York, I prided myself on being a dissenting voice. I repeatedly approached the liberal administrators at my public high school about establishing culturally, politically, and religiously conservative clubs and publications. They found ways to block nearly all of my ideas, but nonetheless I persisted.
That fighting spirit animated me in college too. While most Americans were busy enjoying peace and prosperity in the ‘90s, I identified offenses to right. When I landed at Harvard University in the latter part of the Clinton years, I became actively involved with the campus’ political scene and joined the campus newspaper, so I could share my unorthodox opinions — in the days before blogging and social media — and regularly dissented from staff editorials.
I defended finals clubs (Harvard’s frats) from administrators’ attempts to marginalize all-male gathering places. I repudiated arguments that female professors required special treatment in hiring and promotions. And I slammed administrators for caring more about library books than undergraduates. I always stood ready to make my case and prove that the campus’ liberal majority was wrong. I saw injustices all around me, both on campus and in the larger world, and wanted to fix them all.
My Turning Point
Watching this, a professor observed that I needed to learn to pick my battles. After initially being miffed, I realized he had a point. A person has only so much time and energy. Do you really want to spend all of it explaining yourself, your beliefs, or your political stances? Do you want to spend all of your time fighting over them?
I didn’t. Not really, anyway.
This realization crystalized after college, when I shifted from interning on the Bush presidential campaign to joining George W. Bush’s administration. I lived and breathed politics. What had been my hobby became my livelihood, and a rather all-consuming one at that.
When I met my now-husband in 2003 and was introducing him to my urban tribe, I mentioned one ground rule: No talking politics on Saturday night. My friends were also campaign-turned-administration people, and after working in politics all week, we needed a break. We never discussed politics or the news when we gathered. We talked about dating or our families, or food or sports or music or movies — just nothing that would have been of interest to The Washington Post. It kept us sane.
Media and Politics Are No Longer Fun
Media coverage and punditry were never friendly to conservatives or Republicans. But coverage, and punditry in particular, has become blatantly skewed toward provocation, rather than persuasion. This is a loss for democracy and our shared humanity.
How often should we be shocked? I don’t want the equivalent of Kathy Griffin holding a decapitated head every day of the year. (Her new un-apology could only happen in 2017.)
I worked on numerous campaigns in my teens and early 20s. I loved the intensity, the pace, and the adrenaline rush of being on a team working for a cause. But if there’s one thing that 2016 taught me, it’s that I have a limit. I can handle only so much excitement and so many scandals. Likewise, I need only so much vitriol from my adversaries and putative political allies. Not all anger is righteous, especially anger driven primarily by wanting to stick it to the other side.
We’ve reached the point where everything feels toxic. The whole cultural ecosystem is polluted.
Politics has stopped being fun. Compounding that problem, opportunities for escapism are disappearing. Until recently, most women I’ve known have tuned out politics. However, that’s increasingly hard, because everything is now politically charged. Parenting blogs. Comedic telenovelas. Even fashion magazines.
Short of moving through life with an eye mask and ear plugs, can anyone escape either the news or the endless furious commentary about our president? Everything President Trump does fuels the endless fight over whether he’s our nation’s savior or saboteur.
I know I’m not the only one burned out by the perpetual outrage and provocation. So, the question remains — what will we do about it (beyond taking time away from our screens to focus on family, friends, and neighbors)?
This cycle of negative news and epic nastiness can’t last forever. We all have limits. At some point, we’ll have to heed them, or we’ll all drown in the poison.