The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An obsessive’s thank you to those who aren’t consumed by politics

President Biden seeks a few words from Chocolate, the national Thanksgiving turkey, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
4 min

Perhaps it is an odd thing for a political obsessive to say, but in this season of gratitude, I give thanks to all those who are not consumed by politics.

They are the people who spend much of their free time with family and friends; who make, invent and repair things; who create music, play sports, write novels, heal the sick, understand higher mathematics and science; who come up with new recipes, produce movies and videos, choreograph dance, think philosophically and theologically. They offer help to fellow humans in trouble not to make some ideological point, but just because it’s the right thing to do.

Those of us who believe passionately in democracy and the obligation of citizens to join the fray risk leading ourselves and others astray by acting as though we think that politics is all that matters — that attending meetings, knocking on doors, marching in demonstrations, voting and consuming political news are humanity’s highest callings.

I do not want to risk unfaithfulness to my own worldview here: I admire all these activities. I’m a political obsessive because I think politics matters. At a moment when democracy is under challenge, politics demands more of us than it might at other times.

It’s also important to recognize the habit of the privileged to urge everyone to savor private life without acknowledging that, for those left out of material abundance, those facing discrimination, oppression and violence, there is no alternative but to organize, demonstrate, unionize and fight back. The killings at Club Q in Colorado brought home how hatred married to readily available weapons can destroy any semblance of a private life insulated from prejudices and political decisions. We cannot escape politics, and we shouldn’t try to.

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But between a flight from politics and a view that politics is everything lies not some soggy middle ground but a sturdy basis on which to live our lives with, if we’re lucky, some joy and fulfillment.

All of us find solace and just plain fun from activities that are not political, including a night out with friends and family that doesn’t descend immediately into raging conflict over, say, a certain former president. I could fill the rest of my allotted space with expressions of gratitude toward those who have gifted my life with, for starters, friendship, music, books and indelible moments in sports that lifted me up.

You often hear words of impatience from very political people with those who are less than fully engaged in politics. I suppose I’m pretty demanding myself, since I believe everyone should be required to participate in elections as a matter of civic duty. But beyond that, democracy has to mean that citizens are free to back off from other forms of participation whenever they wish, to skip the endless meetings and (I know this is not good for the business I am in) even give up on the news for a spell.

We political obsessives should appreciate how those who don’t always make public life their priority can save us from ourselves. They underscore the costs of reducing everything to the controversies that rage on cable television.

I mourn the recent death of my good and eloquent colleague Michael Gerson for so many reasons. One of them is the way in which this person of deep faith fought against the subservience of religion to politics in our age. As a theologically conservative evangelical, he courageously directed much of his criticism to his own side. But as someone of a progressive disposition, I felt challenged by Mike’s witness to consider how I, too, so often put politics first. Christian discipleship, he insisted, “would not bring victory for one ideological side or to one policy agenda.”

Those who engage in politics when they feel called to it by a particular issue but otherwise hang back remind us that the whole point of an egalitarian, democratic politics is to create circumstances in which everyone can live the personal parts of their lives free from the pressures of deep need, bigotry, powerlessness and coercion.

The political philosopher Michael Walzer, a small-d democrat to his core, warns against an idea of citizenship that always demands “a positive frenzy of activity” and “the repression of all feelings except political ones.” To be genuine, democracy cannot give power only to the militants who go to all the meetings. It must also represent those who, most of the time, prefer to “take long walks, play with their children, paint pictures, make love and watch television.”

A popular chant at demonstrations declares of the assembled: “This is what democracy looks like!” They’re right, of course, and bless them for their engagement. But democracy also involves the less boisterous souls whose right to private, less political lives deserves defense. On Thanksgiving, we political obsessives should express appreciation for them, too.