Politics of Me

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Beneath our strident political discord there is actually common ground on which all sides implicitly agree: our politics is a politics of me. The political arena has always been a contest of competing self interests but we have taken it to a new level.

These days the loudest expression of this comes from a resurgent right wing that challenges many of the things we do to protect our communities as infringements on personal liberty. Conservatism once meant respect for institutions and traditions. It now markets itself as the guardian of your right to do what you want, as long, of course, as that doesn't involve getting an abortion or marrying someone of your own gender.

But a self-centered politics doesn't just express itself in the angry assertion of individual prerogative. It can also turn inward. After all, if you are the center of the universe then your actions have great consequence. This is why progressive politics feels like it has imploded on itself. What was once a movement is now a lifestyle. You express your politics through the choices you make as a consumer: the kind of car you drive, the food you eat, the neighborhood where you live.

But this inward focus has had other repercussions. As Americans we have grown up being told that we can be anything we want. But this means that when the dreams don't come true, and the job is lost and the house foreclosed, we often feel more shame than anger. And while accepting personal responsibility for outcomes is important, we misread things when we see our current troubles as a collection of individual errors and misfortunes and not as a systematic failure. We have internalized when perhaps we should have been mobilized.

And this in turn explains how our political debate has shifted so far to the right. Politics, just like nature, abhors a vacuum.  So while the rest of us are picking out organic produce or at home licking our wounds, the political stage is dominated by people declaring that government of me, by me and for me is how we're going to do things around here.


With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.