Thoughts On Our Political Exhaustion
It's the background noise of our world
“I am somewhat exhausted; I wonder how a battery feels when it pours electricity into a non-conductor?”
― Arthur Conan Doyle , The Adventure of the Dying Detective
Let’s face it, the central problem of our times may not be incipient fascism, as much as it is our collective political, and cultural exhaustion. (Of course they are not unrelated, but I’ll get to that later.)
Over my extended break, I re-read Whittaker Chamber’s magisterial autobiography Witness. At one point, he describes a moment when he fell into “a spiritual exhaustion (abetted, no doubt, by simple physical exhaustion, natural enough in the experience through which I was passing).”
“With it,” wrote Chambers, “came an acute sense of what I understand older Quakers to mean by ‘dryness,’ a drought of the soul, a sense of estrangement and of being discarded.”
I’m not a Quaker (though my father once attended a Friends' school in Philadelphia), but I recognized what he was talking about about. I suspect a lot of you do.
Here’s my confession: Over the holidays, I took quite a lot of time off to recharge and reset so I’d be ready for the new year. I really hoped I’d return energized, but, the truth is that I’m tired. I’m guessing that Tim Miller, in the insouciance of arrogant youth, will suggest that’s because I’m old. And he’s not wrong.
But I don’t think I’m alone and I don’t think this sense of enervation is confined to the olds — it’s the background noise of our lives these days and a subtext of all of our conversations.
The world is too much with us, of course, but the real problem it is that it so dumb, so infused with mind-numbing bad faith, and a grinding sense of futility that anything will matter or change.
This exhaustion is not to be confused with boredom, because, if anything we have been been over-stimulated for too long. On social media and cable television, the emotional level has been set somewhere between alarm and emotional meltdown for years now. We’ve experienced endless assaults on the public mind, with the ever-escalating goal of inciting, inflaming, and grifting. We’ve been saturated, pummeled, and battered by it for the last five years.
Over and over and over.
With apologies to George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine all of this imbecility, inanity, and dishonesty stamping on your face—for ever.
The pandemic has made it all worse. For the last two years, we have been dipped in the molasses of frustration and forced inactivity that has magnified the whole depressing process. This last year, our hopes for normalcy were shattered and the disappointment and disillusionment can feel overwhelming. How many times can Lucy pull the football away from us?
Of course, complaints about political fatigue aren’t new. In 2014, NPR devoted a segment to what it called the Politics Fatigue Syndrome, which was characterized by malaise, disgust, and disillusionment.
Since then, it’s gotten so much worse. How? I offer four inter-related takes:
Shortly before her death in 1975, Hannah Arendt marked the nation’s upcoming Bicentennial by noting the overwhelming pace of events.
No one, she said, “was prepared, not even after Watergate, for the recent cataclysm of events, tumbling over one another, whose sweeping force leaves everybody, spectators who try to reflect on it and actors who try to slow it down, equally numbed and paralyzed.”
She quoted Russell Baker’s quip that “anything that is four minutes old is as ancient as Egypt.”
In retrospect, this seems almost quaint, because this was from a Time Before — Before social media, and cable, and a news cycle measured not in hours but in seconds. (In 1975, there were basically two news cycles: morning and evening. Today, the news cycle is roughly every ten seconds — which means that instead of two, there are roughly 8,640 news cycles every 24 hours.)
No wonder we are burned out.
Two years ago, a survey by Pew found that two-third of Americans felt worn out by the amount of news they were getting.
Since then, the zone has been even more completely flooded. There is simply too much to absorb, or put into any reasonable context.
It’s also just so stupid, cynical, and dishonest.
It is frustrating arguing with morons. It is exhausting arguing with dishonest morons.
But here we are, trapped on an endless playground of idiocracy.
We find ourselves in daily “debates” with deplorables who have somehow parlayed their cretinism into a new form of political celebrity: MTG, Lauren Bobert, Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorn.
And it is spreading.
ICYMI, Eugene Robinson asks: “How dumb can a nation get and still survive?” From his piece:
T.S. Eliot wrote that the world ends "not with a bang but a whimper,” but I fear our great nation is careening toward a third manner of demise: descent into lip-blubbering, self-destructive idiocy.
How did we become, in such alarming measure, so dumb? Why is the news dominated by ridiculous controversies that should not be controversial at all? When did so many of our fellow citizens become full-blown nihilists who deny even the concept of objective reality? And how must this look to the rest of the world?
Nothing matters, we have been told again and again.
And, indeed, this week, we are being reminded of the impenetrability of the disinformation. No matter how many times the Big Lie is refuted, discredited, and exposed, it spreads, grows, and becomes a political litmus test.
Why bother to make coherent arguments — marshaling facts, logic, and reason, — when you are trapped in a doom loop of bullshit with trolls?
The needle never moves. The minds of the benighted are double-sealed and impenetrable. The elites are in hiding or just hopeless.
By now it is a cliché to say that the guard rails are gone, but that seems to understate the problem, because guard rails imply a path, which has also vanished. Our political world now seems more like an Escher drawing than a roadmap that any of us would recognize.
All of this leads to the haunting sense that everything will get worse. Defeatism saps energy and debilitates political movements.
Which brings us back to this moment: There are reasons to think that last year’s annus horribilis has been renewed for several more seasons. Predictions of impending awfulness are not necessarily wrong.
But this is where we have to make a choice.
The success of anti-democratic authoritarianism depends on our exhaustion.
As I’ve mentioned several times before, optimism and hope are not at all the same things. As the late Rabbi Sacks reminded us: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.”
1. The Good Coup
It is interesting that Navarro believes that this version of events clears Trump of any responsibility for the violence on January 6. He writes in his book that he, Bannon, and Trump were “the last three people on God’s good Earth who want to see violence erupt on Capitol Hill” because “it was this violence that finally put an abrupt end to any hope the president had for taking back an election likely stolen from him.”
In other words: He, Bannon, and Trump were in the middle of executing a legal coup, which the violent coup attempt foiled. Therefore, he, Bannon and Trump couldn’t possibly be responsible for the violent attempted coup. Which is a defense, of sorts.
What Navarro is arguing is that he had a good coup in mind. The rioters were trying to do a bad coup. He’s the good guy. The rioters—and, funnily enough, Mike Pence, whom Navarro accuses of “betrayal”—are the bad guys who got in the way of this good coup. Navarro describes The Green Bay Sweep as “a well-thought-out plan based on sound, constitutional law and existing legislative precedent.”
“And all it required was peace and calm on Capitol Hill for it to unfold,” Navarro said.
2. Conservatism and Fascism Are Not the Same Thing
Why am I quibbling with Stanley’s logic, or lack thereof, if I agree with his conclusion that the Republican Party is increasingly authoritarian? Because it’s impossible to detect or stop authoritarianism without having a clear understanding of its meaning. Stanley isn’t exaggerating the danger so much as he is misdiagnosing it completely. What’s dangerous about the modern right is not its social-policy agenda but its refusal to share power or accept the legitimacy of Democratic election victories and majoritarian governance.
The idea that conservatives can’t pursue their policy goals democratically is dangerous. Treating all conservative politics as undemocratic is paradoxically to reinforce that poisonous belief.