By Elliott Potter
Here’s a diagnosis of some of the problems ailing America’s politics right now, though in no way is this comparison meant to diminish the medical ailments that plague millions.
Attention deficiencies, often accompanied by hyperactivity, are shredding our abilities to function as a body politic. The frustrations that come from dealing with contaminants such as loony conspiracies, pervasive lies and destructive tribalism have overwhelmed the civic spirit in some people, while various forms of political toxins have led to disruptive and even criminal behavior in others.
People move from one skirmish to another. Instead of looking for common ground to begin a conversation, they start by sizing up differences. They stop listening. Instead of debating opponents, they degrade them. Or they push them away. They seem intent on turning everything into something political. They choose sources of reinforcement over means to enlightenment.
The parallels to medical attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders are unmistakable, but there is an underlying urge—a drive to win, win, win at all costs—that makes the political maladies less sympathetic though potentially just as destructive.
A Fox News poll this summer showed that the number of Americans who said they were “very interested” in the 2020 presidential race had nearly doubled (57 percent) from the number (30 percent) who felt as engaged in the 2016 election at the same time in 2015.
How has this increased engagement manifested itself? Well, for one thing, we have turned campaigns into a kind of blood sport. Writing for “Reason” magazine, editor-at-large Nick Gillespie compared the current effort to sort out the crowded Democratic field to “presidential Hunger Games.” The same could be said for the Republicans in 2016.
Rallies have become embarrassing to watch. Participants substitute chants for inspirational speeches. They value a good insult over a good idea. The media, once welcomed to spread the message, are now the subject of ridicule and threats; a press badge has become a Scarlet Letter. And if a dissident is removed from the assembly, some people watch with a barely concealed hope that the confrontation turns physical. In one case, a president even offered to put up bail money.
How does political hyperactivity impact us as a nation and as a people? It stands to reason that if sometimes less is more, then likewise more actually can be less. By delving deeper into politics, we could be digging our own graves.
Certainly, we are burying respect that we once had for each other. Various forms of social media overexpose us to people we once liked until we discovered how they really think. We try to separate one aspect of their personality from another, but it becomes damn-near impossible with some folks.
There are times when a large segment of your circle of friends just seems overrun by ignorance. That can raise questions about your own good sense. In the TV series “Justified,” U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens relates a social axiom that seems applicable: “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”
Consider the Saturday morning that news of the suicide of mass sex offender Jeffrey Epstein began to circulate. In mere seconds, an onslaught of social media pundits had added Epstein’s death to the so-called Clinton Body Count.
Never mind that there was no evidence whatsoever to back this up, or that the Clinton conspiracy theory—which claims that the former president and first lady have played a role in the deaths of dozens of former associates—has been debunked to the point of being ridiculous. Never mind that inane conspiracies quickly overshadowed legitimate questions, such as how did federal detention officials allow this to happen? Worst of all, never mind that Epstein’s cowardly act robbed dozens of young women a chance to obtain justice or answers or paths to recovery in a courtroom—and left many legal questions about accomplices unanswered.
Too many people went bonkers and headed straight for the jugular. If it wasn’t the Clintons who murdered Epstein, it was Donald Trump. Baseless speculation became crass jokes. Jokes became memes. Memes, of course, soon magically became “facts.” (The first Clinton speculation on my Facebook feed came from a husband-wife ministry team; they were soon joined by elected officials and law enforcement officers. It was a discouraging morning, to say the least.)
Some may argue that all this is just good, harmless fun. Or that political hyperactivity is much better than political apathy. Or politics is politics; social media are social media—so what else should you expect?
But laughing it off or ignoring the problem will end up making matters worse. Real harm is being done. Practically every election turns into a choice between the lesser of evils. Not only has political discourse suffered, but personal relationships are taking a real beating. No, this is something we’re going to have to address—as individuals and as a collective.
Politics at its best can bring people together for a common good; at its worst, it pits family against family, friends against friends and fellow Americans against fellow Americans in ways that can only bring us down – and perhaps even destroy us.
Coming soon: How can we pull ourselves from the brink of hyperactive politics?
Elliott Potter is a staff columnist and blogger for HERStory. He is a former newspaper editor and publisher who lives in Jacksonville, N.C.