It used to be that the American presidential election cycle would slowly rev up in late summer before the November elections. "Silly Season" was the term used to refer to early summer, when the public was not yet fully focussed on the election and the candidates would have to fight for attention with provocative or hyperbolic statements that would be long forgotten before Election Day.
No more. With the advent of cable news channels and the internet, the election season runs around the clock and around the calendar. Here we are, nearly ten months before Election Day, and the media are saturated with news about presidential politics. No sooner than the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary are done than we are off to South Carolina. Can you wait another two weeks before the next all-important primary?
I sure know that I can. It's January, and the Silly Season is already here.
It is not that I dislike politics. Far from it, I worked in the world of political advocacy and elections for more than a decade before I started rabbinic school. As an advocate for the environment, consumer protection and worker safety, I knew that the outcomes of elections had very real effects on the lives of people. Elections are not just about who gets to sit in the Oval Office, Congress or the state legislatures. They decide issues that everyone should care about. Elections determine how power will distributed in our society and how we will enact our values.
Still, as a person who also cares about my spiritual health, I find the extra-extended election season a huge headache. Elections are contests that force people into black-and-white ways of thinking. It pushes us into the belief that, "For my favored party or candidate to be right, the other side must be wrong." In recent years, the tone and temperament of American politics has gone even further than that. Now we think, "For my side to be right, the other side must be stupid, corrupt, weak-willed and evil."
You have to know that this kind of thinking is not good for you. The moment we start branding people as fools and monsters for the crime of disagreeing with our policy preferences, we turn ourselves into the very sort of fools and monsters we fear. I find that I have to make a conscious choice to limit the amount of time I spend listening to political speeches or watching debates because I do not like the way that my mind and soul react to them. Deep down inside, I know that I look pretty silly yelling at a radio or threatening a television screen.
One thing I learned from my years in advocacy is that elections are not the only things that matter in politics. What people actually do after they have been sworn into office matters a great deal more than anything that is said on the campaign trail. Unfortunately, it doesn't make for as good a news story or an image for the television. There's the rub.
The media love the combat of elections and they make us invest our emotions into the ups and downs of the polls, the "winners" and "losers" of the debates, and the angry rhetoric of stump speeches. People who really care about politics, though, spend more of their energy paying attention to how well people engage in the less telegenic arts of governing and statecraft. They know that politics is not just about winning; it's about getting things done.
I would never say, as I hear others say, that politics is only a silly game. It matters. I would never say that politicians are all alike. The difference in the way they do their jobs once elected can make our society more noble and virtuous, or it can lower us to the worst within us. I do have strong political preferences and I think that everyone who cares about our society should.
But… I also know that there is something higher within us and between us than the power plays of politics. Before you, too, start yelling at your television like me, remember to distinguish the spectacle from the reality. Remember that it is possible to learn from people with whom you disagree. Remember to recognize that most people in politics are sincere in their desire to create a better society, they just don't all agree on how to do it. Honestly, that's a good thing.
As this long and wearisome election season starts to rev up (in January!), we can all work to maintain within ourselves souls committed to compassion for people who disagree with us, generosity in our assumptions about other people's motives, modesty with regard to our own fallibility, and discernment in judging what is best for society as a whole.
Welcome to the Silly Season.
Other posts on this topic:
Vayera: The Children of Sodom