By Jack Werner
People always tell me I’m too political – meaning they’re either offended, worried about me offending others, or annoyed that I’m giving them another impromptu lecture. Or maybe they’re just exhausted, with eyes glazed over. “Do we have to?” “Not again,” which may say more about them than me. My friends evoke the boring etiquette of, “Never discuss religion or politics in polite company,” as though the matter is then simply put to rest. For some time I did start to subscribe to that idea about how to behave politically. I started accept what I’d say is an underlying ideology of what appropriate political engagement looks like.
But now I know better.
Let’s reverse the question for a minute: What if I’m not political enough? What then? My friends would probably laugh at such a proposition: “Not political enough? You mean that socialist and Uncle Bernie lover? Jesus, if anything, that guy should turn it down.” You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows me not laughing at the question. I take that to mean I’m performing a vital public service.
Still, I’m evading the question of why discussing politics is imperative.
I’ll answer in two ways.
First, the lives we lead are inherently political, regardless if you’ve never voted a day in your life. Decisions are being made that affect everything in our lives. The things we consider social necessities – from road construction to the price of fruit or bread – are intrinsically political matters. Do we raise, lower, or get rid of SNAP (food stamps)? Do we subsidize consumer goods we want people to buy and tax those we don’t? The question isn’t even really do we; it’s more like, to what extent should we intermesh the functions of government and the market?
These decisions are political because we live in a social system, or market society, that requires us to make choices. No one tells us what to buy per se. Even when we have to suffer through some god-awful beer commercial, we still have the choice to buy, and thereby support, that product. Hence the idea of boycotting.
We also live in a system that’s both capitalist and socialist and has been since the corporate revolution of the 1890s. That’s right, folks, there hasn’t been some magical free market allocating our goods and jobs since our country went through its industrial revolution. So that from 1890 to 1913, the world turned inside out as Americans at all pegs on the social ladder rethought the all-encompassing political question of their time – sometimes at gunpoint – of how corporate capitalism would look, whom it would benefit, and how much we’d let government and corporations control our lives.
We’re still having that argument.
Over 20 percent of Americans receive some kind of government assistance so that the model of consumer capitalism that we’ve grown to hold dear, replete with its holidays of consumption binging, relies on government redistribution.
Our everyday lifestyles demand that we engage in a market that’s fundamentally indistinguishable from the rest of society.
That, or you go live in the woods with Bon Iver.
But here’s my second, more philosophical argument for why you should be arguing with your friends about politics whenever you get a chance. Political discussion changes the way you think and thereby who you are. It forces us to address the Ghost of Christmas Past – how did we evolve to hold the views we do now from our infantile selves? At what moment, for example, did you decide you were conservative or liberal (or libertarian or socialist)? Why did you decide to elevate some version of truth over another?
Our very consciousness of who we are is political, especially if we consider the politically indifferent and apathetic as people who self-consciously identify with having no politics. That is to say, a lack of commitment is still a commitment in some sense of the word and entails a certain form of (in)action.
Honest political investigation thus makes us uncomfortable because it shows our own fallibility. We quickly realize that the easy answers we find when solving basic math problems simply don’t exist for politics – reality is far too complicated to simply adhere to one paradigm over another, and human history is far too dense and multifaceted for straightforward solutions.
No, if we’re serious and not bemused by the whole idea, we start arguing about politics. We ask Why, or more importantly, Why Not?
Why does the U.S. need a large, overextended empire that often destroys the fabric of other societies? Why not inaugurate a fully funded, public healthcare option as Uncle Bernie calls for? Why not redistribute wealth from our parasitic capitalist class that preys upon working people with unscrupulous credit policies and shadow banking?
So, yes, confront your neighbor on their Trump/Carson/Cruz Sticker or old Reagan/Bush 81’ shirt they flaunt at neighborhood barbecues. It’s only through social interaction that palpable change can occur. Since 1981 the Right has succeeded in changing the financial rules of our economy to spur what they deem “private investment” to help “job creators” because they have succeeded in changing what constitutes legitimate discussion.
They’ve changed how we talk about the economy. Consequently, we’ve been caught in a boom-bust cycle since 1983 that historian James Livingston has explained in detail elsewhere.
But like I said earlier, I know better now.
I’m going to keep loudly arguing about politics because for the Left to succeed we have to follow the Right in changing how we discuss issues. There are dire social and economic consequences of not doing so – cops killing young black men, the 1 percent owning 48 percent of global wealth, the soon irreversible effects of climate change (global warming), etc.
And, well, who doesn’t like winning a political argument?
Jack Werner is the Editor of The World At Large.