Anger, Rage, and Fear Lead to Political Exhaustion

According to the polling average at RealClearPolitics, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet is running dead last in the field of Democrats who are vying for the presidential nomination. Nationally, he doesn’t have much name recognition and probably isn’t getting noticed due to his decidedly low-key approach.

But on Tuesday, Bennet tweeted something that has garnered a little bit of attention.

Talk about going against the grain! In an age where every candidate and politician seems to have bought into the idea that any press is good press, Bennet is promising that, if elected, he’ll quietly do his job and you won’t even have to think about what he’s up to.

There is a reason why that might be an intriguing proposition, given our current political climate. Outside the bubble of pundits and political junkies, there are millions of Americans who are simply exhausted by the chaos and tension that Trump’s presidency has unleashed. As an example, in just the last few days I’ve heard from two of my liberal friends that they will be traveling this week to extended family reunions. Their primary concern is the issue of having to interact with family members who are Trump supporters. They already have their guards up for the likely confrontations.

That fact is that feelings like anger, rage, and fear are exhausting to maintain over time. At some point, people retreat from the political arena in an attempt to maintain their own sanity. That is a reasonable response, and it is the very phenomenon that Bennet is tapping into.

The problem is that, in a democracy based on self-governance, disengagement leaves the field of political discourse to nefarious actors who profit from the vacuum that is created. We might remember that, following a time of relative peace and prosperity, a big question during the presidential campaign was which candidate you’d rather have a beer with. The result was that the American public (with an assist from the Supreme Court) elected a president who lied us into war and, while we were still dealing with that, left us mired in the Great Recession.

Seven years ago Barack Obama gave a speech at the Democratic Convention that was summarily panned by the pundits. In an age when we expect politicians to gin up emotional responses in order to inspire engagement, he talked extensively about the concept of citizenship in a democracy.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

It has often been said that, at this moment in time, our democracy is in peril. That’s because it’s true. The remedy isn’t going to be found in a leader who can save us. The only long-term solution is the hard work of citizenship that isn’t dependent on anger, rage, or fear. It persists over and above those emotions as the bedrock for the preservation of the ideal of self-government.

After three years of Trump, it might be appealing to have a president who quietly does his work and leaves the rest of us to lead our lives. But that is the path of tyranny. While I’m not convinced that most Americans are willing to accept the responsibility of citizenship, the alternative is dangerous.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.