In the second week of April, with the nation locked up in quarantine and our medical system overwhelmed with the sick and dying, a screenshot made the rounds on one of those screamy finance shows on one of those screamy finance news networks. It was a graphic illustrating the rise of the Dow with a cheery green uptrending EKG line—THE DOW’S BEST WEEK SINCE 1938—while the crawl at the bottom of the screen somberly declaimed: MORE THAN 16M AMERICANS HAVE LOST JOBS IN THREE WEEKS.
This was brought to American’s attention by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which of course means that 46 percent of America immediately dismissed it.
She is a divisive messenger best derided and ignored. So is Mitt Romney. And Hillary too. Not to mention Obama. Marco Rubio goes without saying. Bernie as well—and all of his followers. Chris Hayes and Shepard Smith and—wait a minute . . .
If everyone is the wrong messenger, maybe that no longer reflects on the messengers.
Maybe it reflects on us.
Our disdain for the opposition players seems equaled only by our need to venerate our own contenders, at least ever since JFK showed up on our tellies like a matinee idol, with that sweatless forehead, hundred watt smile, and movie star quiff. And come on. None of our leaders are JFK. Hell, JFK wasn’t even JFK. So no one is gonna convince anyone that Bernie is FDR reincarnated or that Trump is fit to fill Lincoln’s size 14s. We know this.
And yet that’s what we tell ourselves we need.
It didn’t used to be this way. Once upon a time, we knew better than to desire to be intoxicated by our leaders. We understood that they had a job to do, that they were imperfect proxies for our values rather than shining beacons in every possible facet of life. They were sometimes heroic, yes, but also stodgy and competent and human, not necessarily our first choice to come to a dinner party, babysit our kids, or set the moral standard in all conceivable ways.
But these days we’re desperate to have that tucked-in-safely-at-night feeling—that someone sublime and preternaturally pure is at the helm, hand on the rudder, guiding us through turbulent waters.
And the more lost we feel, the more desperate and clingy we get. We’re exhausted and panicked and despairing that not one candidate has ridden to our moral rescue on a white steed, polished and perfect with nary an ill-advised floor vote or potentially offensive joke in his past. And so we bounce around the interwebs in quest of the mythical candidate. At dinner parties we bemoan the lack of this perfect One Who Will Save Us.
Why can’t just a single politician be as decent, moral, and clear-minded as we are?
Well, it’s hard to figure out who that human person might be when our cultural discourse mostly functions to sharpen us against one another, the better to cut everyone down to size. One imagines Alex Jones, red-faced and huffing on hands and knees, pointing beneath the Resolute Desk: “Is that sissy Delano wearing leg braces?” Or BuzzFeed trending: The 10 Must-See Gayest Moments from Closeted Lincoln’s Letters to Joshua Speed!
We pry into every aspect of our would-be leaders’ lives and then are shocked—shocked—to discover that they’re human, just like us. And that mirror is so unflattering that we retreat back to our respective camps to huddle together and reassure ourselves just how virtuous we are.
If we form a big enough mob and pick up enough stones, we might even be able to guard the glass house behind us.
We demand inhuman perfection from our politicians and candidates while also demanding it be conveyed in the most marketable fashion possible. We want Gandhi but we’d prefer him more meme-able. Perhaps we could shoot him out of a cannon, khadi aflutter? “Be the change you wish to see in the world” is catchy, but could he rap it to draw in the millennial vote?
It’s a simple ask of our potential leaders, really. Be pristine but get down in the dirt and fight like they do. Be larger than life, but also a gal I can have a beer with. Be profound enough to lead the world, but meet us where we are.
Okay. So. Where are we exactly?
If you add up the entirety of the New York Times’s digital and physical circulation and throw in the Wall Street Journal for good measure, we approach six million.
There are one billion people on Facebook.
I know, I know, lamestream media and blah blah blah, but we’re talking attention span and interest and some version of vetting. And as imperfect as said broadsheets can be, at least they’re not telling us that Hillary was running a child sex ring in the basement of the Comet Ping Pong.
Oh wait—that wasn’t Facebook. That was Reddit, which clocks a mere 330 million users a month. Compare that to something less important, like say a presidential race: 137 million Americans voted in 2016 in an election that, some might recall, comes only once every four years. This particular one seemed to have some stakes to it as well. In contrast to that quadrennial turnout, there are 145 million users on Twitter a day.
But let’s not get snooty and dismissive and get-off-my-lawn Luddite-y. Technologies and communications change. People need to connect and communicate in different ways. Fair enough. However we’ve mostly agreed on the primary credo for our new mode of engagement: Don’t read the comments. Which means that within the primary means of contemporary cultural and political discourse, we’ve created an environment so toxic that we’ve enshrined an unspoken rule not to engage with our fellow citizens.
Imagine attendees scurrying to the exits after a Lincoln-Douglass debate, hands clapped over their ears, stovepipe hats toppling. Or maybe—better?—they could flee to different taverns where only the not-unfriended could join for a malt liquor and make sure everyone agreed with one another even more.
Are we sure we want to be met where we are?
Because what if where we are isn’t where we should be?
Do we have a responsibility as citizens to move the gathering point to a different place? A place that is more civil, more honest, more compassionate? An environment that allows the possibility of finding real conversations and real solutions rather than one that wraps us up in the cozy blanket of our respective ideologies? To pause before each response, post, and engagement to search within ourselves and ask: “Am I degrading our cultural discourse or leading by example for how we might fix it?”
In short: Do we have a responsibility to demand of ourselves what we are busy demanding of our leaders?
For better or worse, politicians and pundits form the constellation of our current national malaise.
But what if the fault, dear Bruti, is not in our stars but in ourselves?