Now about two months removed from living in the US and just a few weeks away from a presidential election that has been mind-bogglingly awful, I’ve had the chance to reflect a little bit on the state of my country.
One thing up front: I’m a staunch, unapologetic progressive. I believe we should all have active civic lives, we should all be contributing to things like socialized healthcare, free public education through college, and a progressive tax system to pay for those things. I don’t believe in “every man, woman and child for himself,” but I do believe in self-determination and entrepreneurship. Like one of my friends said once, “Being middle-class is great. I want everybody to be middle-class.” That, along with a firm belief that everyone deserves the same rights and protection, has been the loose guiding principal of my politics for my entire adult life.
I used to be highly politically active before my daughter was born (more than 10 years ago). At the time, I wanted to go into politics professionally. I idolized Toby Ziegler from West Wing. But after two years of volunteering on progressive campaigns on the local, regional and state level, and acting as the PR person for the Maryland Green Party, I realized I didn’t want to make a career solely based on arguing a viewpoint. I had cut back on my activism (among other things) when my daughter was born, and I only bring this up because I have a moderate amount of first-hand experience working in politics, and I don’t consider myself another armchair pundit (though I am literally siting in an armchair as I write this).
I also believe in the power of civil discourse, and I spent three years studying and researching how people talk about politics. I believe we need civil discourse to get things done, that it’s worthwhile for all involved parties to try to build consensus on important decisions. And that’s where I’ll start this critique, because let’s face it: civil discourse in the US is dead. Even when I was more of an activist, I felt that our political discourse was lacking, but compared to what we have today it was a downright picnic.
Blame the media. Blame social media. Blame the politicians. Blame voters, informed or uninformed. Blame whomever you like. We simply don’t listen to each other anymore. We don’t discuss ideas, particularly with people we disagree with. Instead, we fling talking points that we glean from media and other sources at each other. Some believe that social media has completely supplanted the influence that mainstream media once had; I’d argue that it’s a more symbiotic relationship and that there are a variety of sources that set the agenda and feed off each other. We curate those sources to help build and prop up our own viewpoints.
I’m not much of a scholar of history, so I don’t know if there ever was a time when we did listen to each other, to be honest. I don’t know if there was ever a time when political discourse was a noble, collective pursuit. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t or can’t be.
What’s really at stake here isn’t who wins and loses an election or a political fight. Because as some memes have pointed out, our democracy is the real loser.
And it’s not only at the national level, either. A news story from my hometown recently broke where the mayor has banned a journalist from her weekly news briefings. The alleged reason is that the reporter in question has “exhibited verbally and physically threatening behavior, particularly to my staff.” I’ve actually worked with this reporter on occasion (I was a PR flack in my past life), and I can tell you, this guy is a real reporter as well as a nice guy. Sure, he sometimes asks hard questions–that’s his job.
Then there’s this story about award-winning journalist Amy Goodman getting arrested because, apparently, the sheriff didn’t think she was acting as a journalist even though that’s exactly what she was doing.
Let’s be clear: Banning reporters from press conferences held by public officials is a blow against democracy. Arresting them is even worse. The media doesn’t always get it right, but that doesn’t mean that public officials have the right to dismiss them because they don’t like the coverage, or as Rawlings-Blake claimed, the question wasn’t clear enough. It’s intimidation and should not be tolerated.
This is really no better from Trump banning a variety of journalists from his events because he didn’t like their questions. The difference, of course, is that Trump campaign events are considered private events, which gives them some authority to do whatever they want. Also note that his supporters have regularly booed and even threatened journalists they don’t agree with.
And that gets to the real reason why our democracy is eroding: A system that was designed to be open and public, designed to allow people to participate, is becoming privatized while rules meant to prop up democracy are being used against it.
It’s no secret that over the past 20 years (and probably longer), segments of the public sector have been broken up and shifted to the private sector. Some would say that’s a good thing, that it’s better than the government becoming bloated. In reality, though, it’s corruption. And the private sector has amassed far greater wealth and power than possibly “we the people” can overcome.
In some ways, this is the appeal of Trump, of course. This excellent analysis explores where Trump supporters are coming from. They’re basically a swath of the US that’s been “left behind.” They’re mostly people living in rural areas. They’ve been screwed over again and again, and they’re fed up. Can you blame them? The irony, of course, is that the person they’re idolizing and hoping will save them will likely screw them over harder than anyone ever has. There’s no question in my mind that a Trump presidency will be the most corrupt, most self-serving presidency this country has ever seen. Most importantly, it’ll be the most detrimental to American democracy.
I think what worries me the most about this is that the rest of the world looks to the US as a place where freedom can flourish. It’s a place whose ideals and culture are often emulated by other countries, and it’s these exact ideals that have given the US the moral authority to deny dictators a comfortable existence (Yes, I am fully aware that we pick and choose which dictators to support and that our foreign policies and actions are often hypocritical at best, and destructive and counter-productive to our own interests at worst).
We are that “shining city on a hill,” as Reagan pointed out (despite his divisive and racist policies, I agree with Reagan that the ideals of the US serve as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, particularly for oppressed people everywhere). Imagine how happy dictators around the world will be when the US is no longer that beacon. Do you really think a culture of throwing reporters out of events, shutting down discourse, and selling off our public sector to the highest bidders will still be that guiding light?
And that’s where I am, having spent two months or so living abroad. Last week, I was feeling a bit homesick. I was missing my friends and community immensely (and Facebook doesn’t really help with that). But then I started thinking about where my country is, what exactly is happening there right now. It’s really not the country I grew up in, or at least the one I thought I grew up in. It’s become unrecognizable, which instantly made me realize that I’m not homesick as much as I am nostalgic. Which made the homesickness part of it dry up.
I want to end this rambling essay by saying this: It’s too easy to give into cynicism, and it’s too easy to simply complain. It’s also too easy to be caught up in one’s own echo chamber, something I find myself doing more and more. I am guilty of many of the things I’m critical of, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. So, let’s all take a pledge to listen more, engage with people different from us more, complain less and do more.