Are Politics Still Fun?

It’s worth noting when a public affairs writer of George Packer’s quality announces he’s bored with politics. He does so at the New Yorker at considerable length and with the passion he claims to have lost for the subject itself. A sample:

Since I was eight years old, and the Republican candidates were named Nixon, Rockefeller, and Reagan, and the Democrats were Humphrey, Kennedy, and McCarthy, I’ve been passionate about American politics, as a student, a witness, and a partisan. Politics was in my blood, at the family dinner table, in my work and my free time. But at some point in the past few years it went dead for me, or I for it. Perhaps it was week thirty-eight of the Obama-Romney race (a campaign between “Forward” and “Believe in America”), or the routinization of the filibuster, or the name Priorities USA Action, or the fifty-eighth vote in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act—something happened that made it very hard to continue paying attention. I don’t take this as a sign of personal superiority: I’ve always disliked people who considered themselves to be “above” politics. I mourn my lack of political passion as I would if I were to lose interest in reading fiction, or to stop caring about someone who’d been important to me for most of my life. And I count on getting back the feeling—the intense mix of love, hatred, anxiety, astonishment, and gratification—because life, public life, is impoverished without it. Perhaps it will return sometime before November 8, 2016. But for now—I have to be honest—it’s gone.

The reason is the stuckness of American politics. Especially in the years after 2008, the worst tendencies of American politics only hardened, while remaining in the same place. Beneath the surface froth and churn, we are paralyzed. You can sense it as soon as you step out of the train at Union Station in Washington, the instant you click on a Politico article about a candidates’ forum in Iowa: miasma settles over your central nervous system and you start to go numb. What has happened is that the same things keep happening. The tidal wave of money keeps happening, the trivialization of coverage keeps happening, the extremism of the Republican Party keeps happening (Ted Cruz: abolish the I.R.S.; Rand Paul: the Common Core is “un-American”). The issues remain huge and urgent: inequality, global warming, immigration, poorly educated children, American decline, radical Islamism. But the language of politics stays the same, and it is a dead language. The notion that answers will come from Washington or the campaign trail is beyond far-fetched.

Packer’s lament reflects a mixed conception of the “fun” in politics being generated by a sense of forward momentum on policy ideas and by competitive churn and unpredictability. Thus in his “wish list” of things he’d like to happen in 2016 to revive his interest in politics, he includes both a far-fetched bipartisan ticket (a bad idea, IMO) and a serious lefty challenge to HRC, the former presumably to reduce “gridlock” and the latter to reduce the dull predictability of a campaign for and against a Clinton.

You could certainly make the argument that Packer’s two impulses are incompatible. The most consequential presidential elections in American history have not often been very close. 1800, 1828, 1860, 1912, 1932, 1964, 1980 and 2008 were not nail-biters. Yet some of the most “exciting” contests as measured by turnout were the very close elections of the late nineteenth century when aside from patronage tariff levels were the main policy battleground between the two parties. And in terms of politics being less interesting than those of Packer’s childhood–well, some of that is a deception of memory, probably, and some of it the product of knowing now how much of the “magic” of politics isn’t magical at all. In the twenty-first century, we’ve had one of the three presidential elections in American history to go into overtime; a very close election in which the two parties polarized to an extent rarely seen in the previous few decades; and then the historic election of an African-American after a historic primary against a woman and competitive nominating processes in both parties. Even 2012, which left Packer cold, was relatively unpredictable, if you look at how close the general election contest became after the first debate and consider the perils experienced by the obvious Republican nominee in the primaries facing challengers who might have been wearing full clown regalia.

It is true that the decline in ticket-splitting during Packer’s lifetime has made national campaigns less articulate–it’s now irrational to spend far more time persuading as opposed to energizing voters–while undermining bipartisanship. You could argue the same dynamics have made both parties more accountable for fidelity to a relatively clear set of ideological principles and goals.

As for the “stuckness” of American politics, we all understand what Packer’s talking about–I’ve said it myself frequently–but going into 2016, the objection seems increasingly anachronistic. Depending on what happens then, the Supreme Court is very likely to become “unstuck” in one direction or another, with large consequences for reproductive rights, voting rights, and other hot issues. Climate change policy will either continue on the current course or will be reversed. The same is true of immigration policy. The Affordable Care Act will either become part of the landscape of American life or could well be repealed in one legislative stroke. America will either for good or ill follow a largely diplomatic strategy for its conflicts with other countries or adopt the very different path of bluster, intimidation and war.

So this strikes me as an odd year to be bored with politics. I face infinitely more deadlines than Packer in writing about this stuff, and I do fear that at some point between now and November 2016 I’ll either start totally repeating myself like it’s Groundhog Day or fall down and start bleeding from the ears. But so long as there is a mystery to unravel, a lie to refute, or a consequences to be explained, it will remain worth the effort, and occasionally even “fun.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.