The State of Politics

Story Maridith Geuder

If politics were plastic surgery, it would be in need of — at a minimum — a facelift. If it were an automobile, it would be in the body shop for a complete overhaul. If it were an essay, any editor worth her salt would send it back for a complete rewrite.

You get my drift. Something’s rotten in the state of our current political discourse.

Politics, even at the local level, has never been for the faint of heart. My father was a county sheriff, and I know the best and worst of local politics. I worked one long, hot summer as a field director on a statewide gubernatorial campaign, and I know the warts of state politics. If the 18-hour days don’t wear you out, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the human heart will throw you a curve every time.

In politics, you must anticipate anything. I speak fairly rapidly, for instance. In south Mississippi once, a drawling, would-be constituent asked with a polite edge to his voice, “You’re from up North, aren’t you?” Startled, I quickly replied, “You’re right. North Mississippi.” In my own state, I was perceived as a foreigner.

How do you answer someone who complains that your candidate wears brown shoes with a navy suit? Or respond to someone who says he can’t vote for your dad because he may clamp down on drugs? There’s always some skeleton waiting to be dragged out of the darkest closet with a real or imagined past sin. And in politics, the imagined often has more power than the real.

It’s not for the thin-skinned or the defensive. But politics today has reached a new level of corrosive, destructive invective. Political candidates aren’t just opponents; they’re gladiators in a sophisticated coliseum of fight-to-the-death. They’re cheered on by a squad of talk-show hosts and pseudo news commentators who surely don’t have the luxury of believing every outrageous claim they blithely propagate.   

There’s no longer reasoned debate. Instead, there are carefully crafted talking points. Instead of real positions, we’ve substituted labels that are Pavlovian triggers for “good” and “evil.” We’re living a modern morality play in which real people are reduced to abstractions.

The politics of a generation ago wasn’t a nostalgic Mayberry of Gomer “ga-a-aw-lees.” But it was this: People with honest differences could be on opposite sides and still sit down together in church and do business together and break bread. They were still part of a larger community.

Our larger community today is fractured. “How do you define politics?” I asked my Twitter followers. The answers are sobering. “Dishonest, preying on ignorance.” “Exploitive, self-serving.” “Red Team vs. Blue Team nonsense. Both teams and the crowd lose.”

Surely, we can expect more of ourselves. Surely, we can send the current model back to the drawing board. It’s time to revisit the vision of John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address. His words resonate today:

“So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. … Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

To that I say, “Amen.”