The effects of the political discourse of the last two years — from the start of the presidential campaign in 2016 straight through to this moment — has been depressing. Literally.
By this I mean, in a clinical sort of way, that I’ve rarely seen so many of the people I’m surrounded by so miserable about politics. According to The New York Times, a gym chain with 130 outlets has decided to ban cable news from their workout areas. Apparently they told the Times that “cable news coverage is not conducive to a 'healthy way of life.' ”
What? Politics makes us sick?
The usual numbers of people are “apathetic” about politics; this means they do not care, and that’s certainly supportable.
Political “ennui” is a shade less so; it means that people have become convinced that nothing they do matters much in the political world. This is never true, but there’s always a hard core of the listless at the margins.
I’m not actually talking about either of these groups. They aren’t miserable, or if they are, it's not due to politics.
The folks I’m targeting are the “angst” crowd — the people who are so worried and depressed about politics that the best they can manage are lame uselessness jibes and knee-jerk mumblings and mutterings about “rotten politicians” and “crooks” and “liars.”
Even the elites of the elective political class are fleeing the field. Rep. Darrell Issa, longtime San Diego Republican, is one of the many retiring folks who are absconding from inside the Beltway — not for harassing people, not for malfeasance, but for exhaustion.
Issa barely won his last election, and the news on the street was that he would be facing a tough battle this time as well. But he’s never backed down from an election fight (he has served California’s 49th district for 18 years). He’s booking it out of D.C. because he’s had enough.
In all, 18 GOP House incumbents are headed for the door this time around, and while an impending Democratic swing may be part of the issue, I simply do not buy it as the major cause.
For one thing, the Democrats’ ability to foul things up in the best of circumstances is legendary. Even with the most unpopular president since George W. Bush, the probability of the Democrats taking the House seems still distant. While a few were caught up in various scandals, most of these folks are simply sick and tired of failing.
While the Age of Trump may be partly to blame, what may be more deadly is the centralization of power in the House among a few connected leaders.
One problem of polarization across the board is that it demands political purity — both in the electorate and in the legislative bodies.
There is now a “party line” demand made on both voters and representatives that chafes badly in an American system designed for political flexibility — especially in the House, where members must serve their district constituents first, and their parties later.
This illness of party purity has led to voters abandoning the polls.
In the recent Alabama election, GOP voters were expected to pull the hammer for a class-A waterhead inimical to their interests and offensive to their morals. Many didn’t, but not because they voted for the other guy. They wrote in a football coach instead.
Voters are becoming surly. They are expected to back ridiculous policy issues (see “border wall”) that have almost no appeal to them as constituents, and hold none whatever for them in their role as self-interested citizens with problems of their own. All in the name of “party unity.”
Representatives’ constituent interests are expected to take a permanent back seat to the whims of congressional leadership — a recipe for political suicide back home. When former Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor went whining into the wall, it was for exactly this sort of “loyalty” to his “leaders.”
Democrats face the same problems. As a minority party, they can’t expect much, but they aren’t getting anything at all from their party. Nancy Pelosi has held an iron grip of death on the Democrats' priorities for more than 12 years, as the agenda of the progressive wing of the party has withered and scattered. Democrats are as angst-ridden as their GOP counterparts, just quieter.
What’s needed on both sides of the aisle is a massive shakeup — a turn to the positive — to service — a real, deep-rooted rejection of the ‘politics of anguish” that seems to have engulfed us.
We can either elect a new crew of people who are ready to throw out their “leaders” (on both sides), stop playing chicken with President Trump, and start over — or we face a 2019 session filled with Congresspersons elected with this attitude.
I can see them now, sitting around wearing dusty berets, smoking Gauloises, drinking Pernod, and bleating pathetically about their wretched existence.
R. Bruce Anderson (email@example.com) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.