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McGough '23: A return to normalcy: repoliticizing America

Sometime recently, you’ve probably heard an elder lament that “not everything used to be so political.” The sentiment backing this complaint is a common one. While many Americans have traditionally kept their daily lives and their politics separate, it is becoming increasingly hard to do so. For some, this adds to a sense that the polite country they once knew is disintegrating before their eyes.

Whether it be vaccinations, the postal service or even football, nothing seems to have escaped the wave of “politicization” that has swept over the United States in the last few years. Even seemingly meaningless distinctions, like the difference between saying “happy holidays” and “merry Christmas,” can provide a hint at one’s political leanings. Once discrete spheres of the American experience, politics and culture are slowly blending in ways that seem impossible to reverse.

Frankly, that’s a good thing. For far too long, Americans have blissfully pretended that some things are simply “apolitical” and devoid of potential controversy. Prior generations allowed civics to become a small and contained affair, idealizing politics and slowly devastating our country’s ability to form a more perfect union. Politicization is a good thing not because it creates controversies out of nothing, but because it sheds light on uncomfortable questions. Now, as some fight to keep politics out of daily life, we must assert the importance of making everything political.

Once upon a time, Americans understood this inherently. For all the praise heaped on the Founders, few seem to understand today what the designers of our democracy knew naturally. Despite all their hypocritical faults, they shaped our state with a radical and revolutionary notion in mind: Democracy should be not peaceful. Instead of expecting that their new republic would perfectly serve everyone, early American leaders intentionally baked critique into the fabric of our society by enshrining the rights of protest and petition. They took the position that if no one is objecting, that is not a sign of a strong democracy but a declining one. If a democracy is quiet, either the people are failing to demand more or are suppressed and unable to speak. Our political system — around which our society is shaped — is designed to encourage open struggle, not to prevent it. 

Maintaining a contentious political system necessitates a contentious culture. It follows the spirit of the Revolution to make political issues a part of quotidian life — that could mean using professional sports as a platform to talk about racism or highlighting transphobia during an Oscar acceptance speech. Sometime after the founding, many Americans lost sight of this design. 

Post-World War II, for example, politics was quarantined from culture as some people became weary of protest movements. By separating politics from culture, this shift sheltered those who wished to avoid confronting their prejudices and to shut down hard conversations — often about race — before they started. In effect, politics became a quiet science for the elite, while protesting and politicization became something that “radicals” did, leaving little room in the dominant American political spheres for “troublemakers.” Politics lost its bite, and serious discussions were relegated from the public square to sleepy Sunday morning shows.

With the election of Barack Obama, however, things began to change. Backlash to the president’s “coastal” cultural attitudes strengthened social conservative movements, like the Tea Party movement, that mixed politics and culture. This arguably led to the election of Donald Trump. In the years since Trump’s election, liberals and progressives have learned to add culture to politics as well, emphasizing “cancel culture” and “purity tests” to politicize everything from plastic straws to Thanksgiving. Putting these two movements together, some observers have gotten the idea that contentious political debates are becoming visceral and inescapable, making daily life less pleasant. More basically though, American democracy is just embodying its true spirit — trading restraint and rhetoric for controversy and confrontation.

Though many a columnist has lamented this shift, the politicization of everything has reenabled us to discuss the full and honest truths of structural deficiencies in the American system. Institutions like policing and Supreme Court confirmations that were depoliticized just a few decades ago have been lifted out of political obscurity and into the mainstream debate. For this, our country is better off — never again will the shortcomings of these systems go unreported or ignored.

Unfortunately, some have taken this moment to politicize core tenets of liberal democracy — for example, challenging birthright citizenship and eroding the sanctity of elections — but there is a silver lining to even this drawback. No matter how far in the past we feel these questions were settled, their reappearance on the political scene is a sobering reminder that our work is never done. All this time, while some thought our country was making real progress, there were always voters and elected officials who were just hiding their vile prejudices by ducking tough questions. Today though, no longer fearing retribution for not being “politically correct,” anti-democratic bigots like Marjorie Taylor Greene are now exposing themselves and putting on display for voters the true depths of their depravity. However ugly it may be, it is a privilege to have a full picture of the real America thanks to the reemergence of true political candor.

Though it may be uncomfortable, we should continue this push to critique and politicize everything about our society. Doing so will allow us to honestly address the problems that have plagued our country for so long. Fortunately, there are some easy places to start.

The first is local government. Today, the vast majority of local commissions and councils run on nonpartisan ballots, which gives the impression that those seeking office are truly objective and will lay aside their biases if elected. But one needs to look no further than this fall’s campaigns for school boards to know that “nonpartisan” does not mean “non-ideological.” Every politician carries ideological convictions with them to their work, and having a D or R next to their name would reflect that reality. To empower voters to make informed choices at the polls, politicize local government once again by eliminating “nonpartisan” elections.

Another pillar of our society, the free press, is also known for its nominal independence. Like politicians though, every journalist and media personality has biases, and pretending that they are all perfectly objective arbiters of truth is nonsensical. Instead of trying to hide journalists’ natural dispositions behind the thin veil of nonbias, newsrooms should ask reporters to be open about their political leanings so that citizens can make informed decisions about the media they consume.

Ultimately, the politicization of everything under the sun serves to empower the American republic, not weaken it. Therefore, we should encourage this trend — after all, we can only improve our country by critiquing it. Be happy that open political discussion is returning to America, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. In the end, we will all be better off for it.

Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at jackson_mcgough@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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