Do you know people for whom “I don’t talk politics” is a bragging point? Have you ever seen someone hastily deploy the phrase “Let’s not get political” to head off an argument at a party? Does the term “career politician” send a little shiver down your spine? I have to wonder how politics gained this negative connotation, so here’s a fun thought experiment: Think back over your childhood, adolescence, and even early adulthood. Think about the media you consumed (TV shows, movies, radio programs, etc.). Now ask yourself:
What pieces of media have most shaped my view of politics?
Could it be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the optimistic tale of a small town man who faces down big Washington corruption? How about The West Wing, which portrays a highly functional White House that stands its ground on the issues but knows when to compromise as well? Perhaps it’s the bitterly cynical House of Cards or the salacious Scandal or any number of other political thrillers that showcase greed and corruption. Or maybe you’re like me, and your political ideal is Parks and Recreation.
Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, Parks and Rec is an ensemble comedy featuring different personalities with different worldviews coming together to improve their city. The show’s strength lies in its contrasting characters:
the optimistic pro-government Leslie Knope
and the cynical libertarian Ron Swanson,
the ambitious yet underachieving Tom Haverford
and the understated hard-working Jerry Gergich,
the upbeat imaginative Andy Dwyer
and the chronically sarcastic April Ludgate–
the show is full of these contrasts, but at the end of the day, all of these characters respect each other, value each other, and continue to work together no matter the tedium of their tasks. To me, that’s politics, and right now, I wish our federal government looked a little more like Pawnee.
I’m writing this in the midst of the 2018 federal government shutdown, one of the more facepalm-worthy political breakdowns of recent history. Looking at how this played out, we can’t really blame it on the usual Republican-vs.-Democrat politics that led to the last three shutdowns (all of which occurred with a Democratic president and a Republican congress). This time around, we saw breakdowns within the parties as centrists and extremists fought for control. Bipartisan compromises were shot down out of a desire to keep campaign promises and “satisfy the base.” Our elected officials were forced into the uneasy place of treating DACA, immigration, and children’s healthcare as bargaining chips while government employees’ livelihoods were on the line as well.
Of course, the spin has been everywhere. Republican pundits have labelled this the “Schumer Shutdown” pointing to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D- NY), while Democrats have been throwing around terms like “Trump Shutdown” and “S**thole Shutdown” (a reference to Donald Trump’s infamous comments about Haiti and Africa during talks on immigration). I have my personal views about who is responsible, but this post is about a larger issue, so let me put this in neutral but truthful terms: the 2018 government shutdown will go down in history as a time where extremists won and compromise failed.
In the public eye, politics has become a matter of campaigns and contributions– a glorified popularity contest in which billionaire-backed sycophants vie for power–, and looking at the current situation, I can see how people would draw this conclusion. We think of politics in terms of power and influence, so “I don’t talk politics” seems like a noble and humble response, but it has severe drawbacks. “I don’t talk politics” may keep an uneasy peace at the dinner table, but it also leads to ignoring dissenting viewpoints, leaving your good ideas unvoiced, and basically being a bad citizen in the name of civility. Instead, let’s think back to the original meaning of politics and see if there’s a way to do this better:
From the Greek word polis, meaning a community and its people, politics is about banding together to solve our problems. As Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau once put it, “Politics is all of us trying to figure out and debate together what we can do to change laws and improve people’s lives.” True politics involves sitting down with people who disagree and looking for solutions to society’s problems because, ultimately, all of us want our communities, our countries, and our world to be better. That’s why I refuse to “not talk politics”– because I want to work to make things better, and I believe listening to others (even those with whom I deeply disagree) is the surest path to doing so. Only by listening with a solutions-oriented mindset can we know when to compromise and when to draw lines in the sand. We need to hold our leaders to this standard as well, and if our elected officials have failed at this by the next election cycle, they can be replaced with people willing to sit down and talk.
In short, true politics looks a lot like Parks and Rec. In fact, Parks and Rec even had a story arc that dealt with a government shutdown. While this arc lasted several episodes and featured many over-the-top harebrained schemes, can you guess how the people of Pawnee finally solved their budget problem?
If you said “sitting down together and talking,” you’re right.