Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Social Studies

American Politics or Why I Can't Even

How contemporary discourse left me speechless

Posted Mar 21, 2016

Vintage Photo
Source: Vintage Photo

I have been writing about American culture and politics for a variety of publications for nearly two decades. The past few months have left me completely speechless, unable to write even a few lines. To put it into the vernacular of our time, I can’t even.

What exactly has left me with such stultifying writer’s block? I suppose it began with political discourse. I went to a Trump rally back in December to see what was going on. It was not pretty. It was clear that there was nothing funny or entertaining about his campaign or the crowds of very angry and overwhelmingly white Americans he was attracting. But when I spoke with his supporters, I was struck by how much they had felt silenced by “political correctness” and how much they admired Trump for “saying it like it is.” It would have been easy to dismiss their anger as ridiculous, the last gasps of white privilege and patriarchy as it melts into some better future, but I think that would be a mistake. What Trump supporters understand- and so many of us have missed- is just how impossible it has become to say anything in American culture. Whatever passed for a public sphere where ideas were exchanged in the past- no matter how flawed and even f#$@ed up that public sphere may have been- has been lit on fire and burned to the ground. Partly by the likes of Trump and his supporters, but also by Americans on the Left.  

As I emerged from the rally into the other side of political spectrum, the Bernie Sanders campaign (which I support) I was stunned by the absolute hatred of Hillary Clinton. Not that I’m a fan, but I’m pretty sure she did not murder Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres – as some on the left have suggested. Nor do I think we can hold her responsible for the lynching of Black men in America nor suggest she wears the hood of the KKK as was argued in “Hillary Clinton and the White Women Who Lynch Us.”  Nor do I think she’s “worse than Trump” by the many Bernie supporters who now say they will vote for Trump if Hillary is nominated by the DNC. Nor do I think that I’m a secret Hillary troll- as all those on the Bernie side of the internet are accused of being as soon as they try to tone down the misogyny and conspiracy theories being thrown at her.   

How it happened that people can no longer speak to one another about the real and substantive policy differences between the candidates but instead shout down, scream at and even, at least in the Trump-o-sphere, beat up those with whom they disagree is the result of living in highly troubled times.  Most Americans are much worse off than they were in 2000 and between the billionaire-class taking everything and environmental destruction bearing down on us, the entire political sphere has become an emotional bonfire. Instead of even considering the rational reasons for voting for one candidate over another, Americans are choosing leaders in the white heat of anger and longing.  We have devolved from homo politicus, always a highly irrational and emotional creature susceptible to image manipulation,  to homo pissedofficus, a much more dangerous species unable to engage in anything other than labeling those with whom we disagree “the enemy.”

But it is not just the difficult and dangerous moment in which we live that destroyed dialogue in this country. I think this all came about because of a huge shift in American ways of understanding the world more generally, a shift that moved us away from large, structural issues into the far more difficult to solve issues of the personal. This happened on the Right and the Left. 

From Ronald Reagan on, the Right embraced a variety of incredibly wealthy candidates who convinced them that because they wore a cowboy hat or spoke in folksy aphorisms or drank cheap beer, not to mention hated abortion, drugs and gays, they were looking out for the interests of the white working classes.  It’s as if white, working-class Americans finally realized they’d been had, but rather than try to enact large structural changes- like unionizing- have chosen another rich white guy who talks like a sailor and therefore must be “one of us.”

On the Left, social movements began to focus on “microaggressions” rather than macro ones and because the solution to these microaggressions was to “call out” the person saying them, the Left lost its ability to understand the importance of scale. I think the vast majority of Democrats and progressives agree that everyone should have healthcare, access to higher education, that women should be paid the same as men and control their reproductive lives, that there should be no mass incarceration of African Americans, and that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their country of origin or religion. Yet rather than working for these structural changes, we have focused on individual words and symbolic actions, believing that “call out culture” will change the world.  When Bernie Sanders refused to support reparations for African Americans he was called racist from a variety of sources- not wrong, misguided, or even misinformed- but racist. When Hillary Clinton said the wrong thing about so many issues- Nancy Reagan, sniper fire in Bosnia, Libya-- Trevor Noah created an entire segment mocking her verbal screws ups called “This Should Be Easy” and conspiracies of her purposefully lying blew up the Twittersphere. And all this despite the fact that Hillary is rated the most honest political candidate running today, more honest than Bernie.

The sad thing is there are some huge issues before the American voting public: a Supreme Court justice appointment that will determine everything from voting rights to abortion rights, a healthcare system that could be expanded or dismantled, the costs of higher education, migration policies, and mass incarceration.  I don't mean to imply these are the only important issues and that in many ways- like foreign policy- there are fewer differences than we might wish for between the candidates, Right and Left. 

But we Americans have lost the ability to have a discussion about issues because we have started to believe that you’re either with us or you’re against us. We now have a public sphere in which every side is  busy building their own forts from which to lob accusations: racist, sexist, homophobic, murderer, Nazi. And if you’re against us, there is nothing to do but attack.

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