It is tempting to look for signs of the times in eccentrics and outliers, but ordinary people ultimately make the best bellwethers. I knew the dark, heavy political mood was a real and general phenomenon — that is to say, not limited to those who observe politics for a living — when it caught up with my mom. Mom is a Texas Republican who’s held the same steady nonmedia job for more than 30 years and has never been especially political. Not that she has no political views; of course she does. But politics has never defined her, nor governed her inner life.
Then came an odd encounter at a Disney Store: While my mother was picking out dolls for my toddler daughter, a bystander got her attention to make a crack about a Pocahontas toy being better called an Elizabeth Warren action figure. It took her a moment to figure out what this stranger was saying; she doesn’t follow the news out of D.C. particularly closely and doesn’t make it her business to keep up with senators from other states. But then she recalled, dimly, some mud or other that had been slung at some point, and there was that much less easy contentment in her day, and that much more rumination on the worst parts of American life, which currently seems like a widely shared experience.
The commentariat has been complaining of this condition for a while: the feeling that the political mood (an anxious, belligerent frustration) is seeping into everything, disrupting moments and exchanges and activities that were formerly peaceful. Conservatives have dismissively labeled it “Trump derangement syndrome,” though I think the symptoms are equally distributed among the president’s supporters and detractors; happy people don’t bother grandmothers in the Disney Store to try to take a shot at a Massachusetts senator. Indeed, it seems the president himself is caught up in the tormented present, judging by his agitated, stream-of-consciousness Twitter feed.
The fact this dark mind-set extends beyond politicos and the media suggests to me it is not rooted in any one policy or political tussle, but in something wider and deeper, which makes itself felt whether one is especially immersed in any specific news. It’s a morbid symptom of a democracy with bigger problems than one administration, I think, and it doesn’t bode well for the future.
American democracy tells a certain kind of story about itself and its legitimacy: Our government derives its power and authority from the consent of the governed, which means that our government reflects, to some degree, our national character. Even if you look at the government and see nothing at all you approve of, the contractual story goes, you’re still following the laws and paying taxes, and that is sufficient proof of assent as far as we’re concerned. Thus we all toil under the suspicion that we really do have the government we deserve.
But that our government arises (as national mythology holds) from our own will says something about the government and something about us. If this is the kind of government we want and deserve — one permanently mired in controversy, much of it sordid and exploitative; one that never seems to operate with anything approaching full transparency or honesty; one that mercurially sets its sights on a rotating cast of enemies, blundering from one to another faster than it can dispense with its own personnel — then what kind of people are we?
But then there’s the clincher that turns a typical democratic concern into our current nightmare: You actually don’t have much control over what goes on in government, not because of widespread voter fraud or whatever fantasy but because a few wealthy donors and their underlings have the privilege of setting the political agenda, of selecting the choices you will be offered long before you have the opportunity to make them. A sense of bitter impotence underlies the political mood on both the left and right, I think, for precisely this reason. When you know that nothing you do matters very much, even victory is frustrating; defeat, meanwhile, feels like utter despair.
It is an unlivable paradox, knowing both that you’re implicated in the authority of your government and that you have little say in which decisions you will eventually be credited with, at least in part. Our condition is particularly tense at the moment because the scandals, intrigues and crusades of the Trump administration are so egregious, meaning that people are even likelier to be drawn into the question of: What binds me to this government, and it to me?