This is a political season and the weather is bound to get worse between now and Nov. 8. You will see, read, hear, and possibly repeat more applesauce in the next three months or so than you’ve run across in the previous three years: that’s the nature of the process.
It’s a time when you find out relatively little about civics and political science, but a lot about yourself and the people around you. Thanks to Facebook and other social media, you discover just which of your friends and/or associates do not have both oars in the water. You will learn the limits of your own sense of tolerance and brotherhood, and – if you’re fortunate – can still have some faith in human nature after it’s all over.
I’ve always thought of myself as a middle-of-the-road guy, able to find virtue and vice in both liberalism and conservatism. But what do those terms mean today? Some of the self-proclaimed left-liberals such as “Bernie Bros” have shown themselves to be as intolerant as any right-wing ideologue. And what would Ronald Reagan say about a Republican presidential candidate who has expressed admiration for ex-KGB operative Vladimir Putin?
The craziness from left and right has gotten to the point where I can no longer find a place for rational political discussion. The rise of “memes” have reduced complex issues of governance and policy into an unholy mashup of funny pictures and 10-word rants. We don’t debate: we shout at each other across Facebook.
It’s gotten to the point where I steer as far clear of these matters in conversations both online and in person as possible. Make some political comment to me and I will likely respond with a non seqitur like “Maybe, but he/she seems to dress well.” What comes across as an irrelevancy is actually my attempt to get out of the room metaphorically. Nothing good ever comes out of arguing politics, religion or even – sometimes – sports. I’ve been viciously criticized for suggesting that soccer might not be the most exciting sport ever invented.
It all puts me in mind of one of my favorite books, the 1951 classic “The True Believer,” by Eric Hoffer. A self-educated longshoreman, Hoffer wrote one of the great books of the 20th century in his analysis of the nature of mass movements.
Hoffer wrote that the tactics, attitudes and end results of Communism, fascism, even some “liberation” crusades are similar, and often interchangeable. Mussolini started off as a socialist and became a fascist. Napoleon helped overthrow the French monarchy, then made himself emperor.
Why do people lose themselves in mass movements? Why did “Bernie Bros” boo Bernie Sanders when he told them to unite the Democratic Party against Donald Trump? Maybe it’s because feeling you are in a “revolution” carries so much ego investment that the emotion becomes more important than the result.
Hoffer wrote, wisely, that “faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.” Attaching ourselves to a crusade can go a long way toward making us feel we are connected to something wonderful and therefore, by gosh, we must be wonderful!
Humility, therefore, is not a feature of political discourse in this summer and fall of 2016. The louder the trash-talking, the greater the vanity based on our inner insecurities. Wake me when it’s over.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears on Wednesdays.