The political volume seems to have increased recently. This has been true throughout the Obama administration, at least since the passage of health care reform. But the decibel level rose another notch this summer with the debate over the debt ceiling. For a good month, beginning in July and into early August, there was a steady drumbeat of daily news stories—print, radio, television, online—examining in excruciating detail every piece of information, however minute, about possible developments in the ongoing debt negotiations. Was this person trying to signal a possible willingness to compromise? Was that person just playing politics, seeking an advantage for the 2012 elections? Did John Boehner and Eric Cantor not really like each other? Was President Obama being petulant? Would Armageddon strike today or not until tomorrow? The unfolding spectacle was a political soap opera. In the end, of course, Congress reached a typically congressional solution by appointing a commission to resolve the tough issues later on, raising the debt ceiling in the meantime, and averting disaster. For now.
Thorough journalistic coverage of current events and heated public debate are important for the flourishing of a democracy. For political junkies, the escalating drama of the debt ceiling debate was addictive; for partisans, the desire to see one’s own side “win” was irresistible. I admit to being both a partisan and at least a moderate junky. But I have mixed feelings about the barrage of highly repetitive news accounts that I, at least, found almost inescapable. Open the paper, there it was; turn on the radio, the same; sit down in a public waiting room someplace with a television running, and there were the talking heads; open the laptop to do some work, and in came the new e-mail updates with the latest breaking news from the Times or Post. In a well-known free speech case, the Supreme Court once said that onlookers offended by an instance of public obscenity could readily “avert their eyes,” but there was no averting your eyes from the debt ceiling debate.
Part of me finds this entirely appropriate. The debt ceiling issue was a serious matter. The stakes were high, positions were clearly drawn, and the wiggle-room for compromise was slim. Those who belittled the potential consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling were mistaken; public officials who did so were irresponsible. It is true that we could have continued paying our debts for some time, along with Social Security checks, but only by having decided to stop paying practically everything else. I bow to no one in my preference for a smaller government, but this was not a desirable or realistic option. Moreover, though it is always tempting to exaggerate the importance of the current moment, we may well be at a critical juncture in American politics. Either we will significantly cut government spending, or we will move irreversibly toward a larger, European-style welfare state with sustained high levels of spending. Which path we choose will have lasting consequences for the American political system. This is an argument worth having.
Nevertheless, politics is not all of life. Unlike winning, it is neither everything nor the only thing, nor is it even the most important thing. Years ago, in an essay entitled “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen”—one that belongs in any collection of the all-time best political essays—Michael Walzer wrote that “one of the most significant criticisms of socialist theory that has ever been made” was Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that “socialism would take too many evenings.” The promise of socialism, he argued, was that citizens, through increased opportunities for participation in democratic self-governance over a broader sphere of social life, would develop their human capacities more fully. But that very demand for political participation might itself become overwhelming, leaving no room for the pleasures of private life. “When will there be time,” asked Walzer, “for the cultivation of personal creativity or the free association of like-minded friends? In the world of the meeting, when will there be time for the tête-à-tête?”
That is how I felt during the summer’s great debate. Couldn’t we just forget about politics for a little while and get back to real life—to kids, gardens, vacations, baseball? (But not soccer.) Obviously, there was nothing preventing me from heading outside to play with the kids or work in the yard for a few hours. But it’s not quite that easy to escape the political whirlwind. For after those few hours, I inevitably would have gone back inside to check my e-mail and would have found myself right back in the midst of things. Anyone whose work involves being online is necessarily plugged into the twenty-four-hours news cycle much of the time. The explosion of the Internet, e-mail, social media, and the like enables an all-politics, all-the-time existence. This has not, of course, made politics of any greater intrinsic importance, but it has made it much more pervasive. And the pervasiveness exaggerates the importance of every small event, which must be analyzed carefully to explain just how it differs from whatever happened an hour earlier and is thus worthy of separate journalistic attention.
Nor is it clear that this is a good thing. Certainly the media attention did not improve public attitudes toward participants in the debt ceiling debate. President Obama’s approval ratings have sunk to new lows, and his disapproval ratings risen to new highs; approval of Congress is abysmally low. We have all heard the saying, often attributed to Bismarck, that laws are like sausages—it is better not to see them being made. Certainly that seems to have been true this summer. The more we saw of the back-and-forth over the debt ceiling, the less we liked it. That may be somewhat unfair to our legislators, who after all were only doing what those of us who prefer the tête-à-tête elect our politicians to do, so that we don’t have to do it ourselves. In a world of people who prefer not to be politicians, the sausage-making process inspires disgust. (Despite the popularity of “transparency” these days, a less transparent political process might, ironically, be more ennobling.) This dilemma is sharpened by our contemporary digital media culture. The sausage factory is running 24/7, and we can’t get out.
In worrying that socialism might require “too many evenings,” Walzer goes on to suggest that, in truth, there will always be time for the tête-à-tête. People will make time for it. What they won’t necessarily make time for are meetings. The true danger is thus that real power will be exercised not by the people at large, as in the democratic ideal, but rather by those who enjoy going to meetings—the activists, the busybodies, the ones who like deciding how the rest of us will live our lives. How then to avoid the tyranny of the activists? The only real solution, Walzer suggests, is to make sure that we take seriously the complaints of “the irresponsible nonparticipant and... half-virtuous man.” [These critics]
would be men who stay away from meetings, perhaps for months at a time, and only then discover that something outrageous has been perpetrated that must be mocked or protested. The proper response to such protests is not to tell the laggard citizens that they should have been active these past many months, not to nag them to do work that they do not enjoy and in any case will not do well, but to listen to what they have to say. After all, what would democratic politics be like without its kibitzers?
American democracy can survive just fine with Walzer’s “laggard citizens.” Not, however, with indifferent ones, with citizens so disgusted by the process that they cease to care at all and tune out political life entirely. Then we really will be ruled simply by the activists, in the kind of mild, paternal despotism that Tocqueville discerned as the real danger lurking behind democratic equality. We have not reached that point yet. Indeed, Walzer’s democratic kibitzers sound an awful lot like the Tea Party—ordinary citizens who had not been especially active, who had not attended the meetings, but who suddenly discovered that something outrageous had been perpetrated. Walzer’s comments are an admonition for all those media figures who treat the Tea Party with condescension, if not outright disdain, sneering at its extremism, its black-and-white view of issues, its lack of political participation. Better by far simply to listen to what these citizens have to say. It would be a much more alarming sign for American politics if they stopped saying it altogether and just stayed home.
Of course, the Tea Party has made its own contribution to the intense sausage-making that the public at large finds so unappealing. My sympathy for their rough-around-the-edges brand of upstart, “laggard” activism no doubt reflects the (moderate) political junky in me, as well as a high tolerance for the rough-and-tumble of democratic debate. Indeed, as I read back over what I’ve written, I find myself vaguely dissatisfied by my own argument. Worrying that the public might be turned off by heated, partisan politics seems a little too wimpy, too preachy, too... centrist. (For centrists I have little use. Give me an honest partisan any day.) My real wish would be for citizens who are not so squeamish about what goes into the sausage. But perhaps their squeamishness, their distrust of “politics” (a dirty word, of course), reflects an enduring human preference for the tête-à-tête. That preference embodies an appropriate skepticism about the ultimate importance of politics as a form of human activity. Politics is necessary, but not (to correct one of Aristotle’s few errors) fulfilling. When the debt ceiling din becomes too loud and too incessant, perhaps what we all need is to turn off the e-mail and just go outside to play with the kids.
Peter Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College.