The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This election has made Americans angry and sick. Here’s how we can recover.

We can't let politics dominate our lives.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off forcefully in the final presidential debate. (Paul J. Richards/AFP)
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Are you a political junkie who has grown tired of the news? Flip over to Fox — no, not Fox News — and you might catch the network’s reboot of the iconic “Exorcist” book and film franchise. The story, a tale of faith-rattling possession and exorcism, has continued to capture the imaginations of new audiences since the 1971 publication of the original novel and subsequent release of the first film version in 1973.

At the heart of “The Exorcist’s” narrative is the tension between facing evil in the world head-on and the risk of falling into despair. “Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us … the observers … every person in this house,” author William Peter Blatty wrote in the 1971 novel, “And I think — I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity … to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.”

The relentless onslaught of ugliness gripping our American politics does not feel too far afield from the description of possession and the faith-rattling, soul-shaking effects described by Blatty.

The Christian tradition has long used the specter of the demonic to describe humanity’s conflict with that which would undo us. At the same time, ancient theologians and philosophers have discussed how being a witness, bystander, or participant to morally damaging actions wounds our own moral well-being. This election certainly makes a strong case for that point of view.

Recent reports tell us our political culture is affecting our health and damaging our relationships. Roughly 60 percent of Americans told Pew they were sick and tired of the election — and that was back in July. Anger and divisiveness between political opponents has intensified to a fever pitch, and many voters say they lack respect for our country’s democratic institutions and one another. Therapists are increasingly treating patients for election-related anxiety, and in October, the American Psychological Association produced coping tips for the more than half of Americans who are suffering from election stress.

We are, quite literally, becoming politically soul-sick.

As Blatty points out, the consequences of moral injury are profound. When we are this thoroughly demoralized, we begin to doubt our own ability to recognize humanity and dignity in both ourselves and others. We become tempted to paint our opponents as truly demonic, to give into the impulse to destroy rather than redeem. For many Americans who have lived relatively insulated and privileged lives, the sensation may feel new. For those living under systemic racial or economic oppression, soul-sickness may be far more familiar. And a soul-sick politics of despair is a danger to democracy. After Nov. 8 comes and goes, how can we begin to heal?

The wisdom of 20th-century theologian Walter Wink seems especially apropos here. In his seminal “The Powers That Be,” Wink writes: “Evil can be opposed without being mirrored. Oppressors can be resisted without being emulated. Enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.”

Our nation contends not only with fraught politics, but the long struggles for justice and equality that can succeed only as Americans resist cynical despair and instead compassionately seek to see themselves — and not an enemy — in the other. In other words, the only way to move beyond the vast divisions wrought by this year’s political tumult is to place boundaries on the role politics plays in our thinking, self-image and interactions with others.

To speak of politics in this way is to welcome feelings of vulnerability and doubt. We should all know how the game works by now, right? The average American has unprecedented access to political commentators who dissect the electoral consequences of every decision and utterance. We’re deluged with political news around the clock, with every campaign stop, hacked email and shock poll covered thoroughly. We are all political strategists now, and scoring political wins — either on the Hill or on Facebook — has become an end in itself that justifies almost any means.

Yet at the same time polarization has hit an all-time high, and politics have overwhelmed our thoughts and conversations, we have become cynical about politicians. If political gamesmanship is our end, it will be difficult to identify a path toward resisting oppressors without emulating them or neutralizing enemies without destroying them, as Wink suggests. Instead, we need to put politics back in its proper place.

We need boundaries. We do not need to let politics hold sway in our most personal spaces. We might say, “Come over for dinner, politics, but stay on the first floor of the house and stay out of the bathroom medicine cabinet.” And honestly, after Nov. 8, it might be best to keep politics on the front porch for a little while. It’s all right to say: I want to talk about anything else but politics, if it keeps you talking with your neighbor and puts the weight of the election in proper perspective. The personal is political, but we cannot allow the political to overwhelm our ability to see personhood in the other.

Which is not to say that there’s never a time to focus on the political. Our nation faces big challenges, and politics can helps us meet them. The political change we need the most will not result from the decision we make on Nov. 8, but rather from the choices we begin to make on Nov. 9. Politics is not all that makes up the substance of our shared life together as a nation. Perhaps in the wake of this ugly campaign — one that offered so little of value and so much that was vile — we will limit the reign of this politics of despair in our lives. Politics ought to be subject to our values; our values should no longer be subject to politics.

Election Day is quickly approaching, but the moral injury suffered by the inhabitants of this American democracy will not heal when the last ballot is counted. In the New Testament, Jesus describes a metaphorical house presumably “swept clean” of evil spirits only to be repopulated seven times over. Be careful, Jesus seems to warn, not to confuse kicking out the “bad guy” with doing the necessary work it takes to revive your home with the presence of goodness. When the election is behind us, we need to devote our energy to reaching out to our neighbors, interacting as fellow citizens and placing our shared values of human dignity and care at the center of our politics.

When it comes to morality and moral leadership, it is not enough to simply “clean house.” Kicking our demons out leaves only an empty house. If the dream of American democracy is to survive, we need a re-imagined politics that is motivated and nourished by values that supersede politics itself.