Things seemed so much more hopeful back in late 2000, just before what turned out to be an impossibly close election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Throughout that campaign season, pundits and observers weren't overly concerned with hyper-partisanship and extreme polarization, like they are today. The big concern was that, relatively speaking, the American people really didn't give enough shits about a contest that was being hyped as "the most important" of our lifetime. Harvard's Kennedy School of Government created a "Vanishing Voter Project" and Rock the Vote warned second-wave baby boomers and Gen Xers that "Your vote is your voice" and "If you don't vote, it's just like voting for the winner." Even with the contest tightening in the fall, the presidential debates turned out to be "borderline ratings bomb[s]," as viewers refused to tune in.
To me back then, such "apathy" was nothing to be upset about and pretty easily explained. Politics is an ugly, zero-sum game. Who wants to fixate on that? Writing in Reason's December 2000 issue (which came out just before the November election), I concluded that the "AWOL electorate"—voter-participation rates had declined over the past 40 years—was a sign that something was right in America:
The center of gravity in American life has shifted away from partisan politics and into other areas of activity in which individuals (and groups of individuals) have far greater hopes for gaining satisfaction. The big story in American life over the past few decades is not the decline in voter participation but the ever-increasing proliferation of options, of choices, and of identities in everyday life.
At virtually every level and in every way, there are both more options and, as important, acceptance of more options than there were 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago—something clearly evident from indicators ranging from rising interracial marriage rates to increasing acceptance of alternative sexual orientations to increased access to higher education to telecommuting to relaxed dress codes in the workplace.
Well that didn't last long, did it? Sure "the ever-increasing proliferation of options, of choices, and of identities in everyday life" has proceeded apace. Facebook offers more gender identities than Baskin Robbins has ice cream flavors. But over the past decade and a half, politics has come barking back to the center of our everyday life like a pit bull going to town on a chihuhaua. Despite winning just 46 percent of the popular vote, Trump has divided America into a dizzying array of confusing and mutually exclusive tribes. There's the Resistance, of course, but also the NeverTrumpers, and the MAGAs, and the anti-anti-Trumpers, and on and on. In less then 20 years we went from newscasters worrying over low voter turnout to tense debates over Nazi punching. Everything is political today, even what sort of fast-food chicken you scarf down. Witness the pushback against Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's recent purchase of a sandwich at Chick-fil-A (Boost is a cash-back program run by another Dorsey company, Square):
— jack (@jack) June 10, 2018
To paraphrase Chick-fil-A's advertising slogan: Eat Mor Krow, Jack. The entrepreneur's timeline quickly filled up with critics slamming him for, among other things, the sin of patronizing "a notoriously anti-gay company" during Pride Month. Dorsey quickly apologized, tweeting, "You're right. Completely forgot about their background." It's worth noting that it's not exactly clear that Chick-fil-A, though it gives to various Christian nonprofits that oppose gay marriage, is "anti-gay" in any meaningful way. But that debate is secondary to how quickly and extensively so many people now place political values on virtually every aspect of their private and public lives. Yes, there have been low-grade boycotts against fast-food joints (such as Domino's, for the anti-abortion views of its founder), but what was once a Seinfeld punchline is now standard-operating procedure at every office watercooler in the country:
Donald Trump didn't cause the return of politics to the center of everyday life, but he is exploiting the hell out of it. Part of this new normal is surely the fault of social media, so in a way it's only fair that Twitter's boss gets called out. Virtue-signaling, or publicly identifying with a particular cause at little or no cost to one's self, is a feature and not a bug of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. The same hashtag campaigns and filters that show solidarity with, say, France after a terrorist attack also allow for everyone everywhere to be vilified or beatified through association.
But social media is far from the only, or even the most important, cause for the repoliticization of everyday life. The 2000 election, so close that it was essentially settled by a coin toss, introduced an unmistakable arbitrariness into the once-sacrosanct activity of voting for president. We'd all heard the stories of how LBJ cheated his way into his Senate seat way back when, or how Jack Kennedy's father bought him the 1960 election, but we didn't really believe it, did we, or take it so seriously? Even as we were still working through unsettling electoral epistemology, the 9/11 attacks plunged America and the world back into History with a capital H. Beyond all the invasive rules and regulations mandated by Congress and a new Department of Homeland Security, every stray utterance, wink, nod, or lapel pin was studied for occult meaning. Just days after the attacks, President Bush declared that you are "either with us or against us." Donald Rumsfeld welcomed "a new Cold War" that, just like the original one, was predicated on binary, oppositional thinking and clear-cut, uncomplicated allegiances. At the same time, vast swaths of our culture became politicized, just as chess matches, piano recitals, and the Olympics had been during the twilight struggle between the Soviets and Team USA. The results were often sadly hilarious. Who else remembers the time celebrity cook and talk-show host Rachael Ray* was accused of signaling her Al Qaeda masters during a Dunkin Donuts ad by wearing a keffiyah, the "the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad"?
And it wasn't just the right who went crazy looking for the enemy within. The prophet of hope and change, Barack Obama, passed his signature health care law on strict party lines rather than deal with the opposition and was known to symbolically exile large swaths of Americans as "bitter" folks who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." If you're not with us, said Bush, Obama—and Jesus—you're against us.
Whether we recognize it or not, we remain on a sort of Cold War footing that attacks complexity, nuance, and engaged conversation and replaces it with simplicity, slogans, and shouting matches. It happens at pro football games, on college campuses, on cable TV, and, of course, in Congress and legislatures everywhere. Trump is an acknowledged master not just of being divisive but of fouling everyday life with politics.
How long can this continue is anybody's guess. As politics becomes more rancid and ubiquitous in all parts of our lives, the main parties are losing market share. In 2001, 32 percent of us identified as Republican, 36 percent as Democrats, and 26 percent as independents. In 2017, those figures came in at 26 percent, 33 percent, and 37 percent. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump came close to winning a simple majority of the popular vote. Political scientist Morris Fiorina has declared the first two decades of the 21st century a second "Era of No Decision," similar to the late-19th-century period when control of the White House and Congress flipped back and forth for years. Eventually, the parties will realign and reconfigure into more effective coalitions, or they will be replaced by groups that are able to represent shared voter interests on issues such as trade, regulation, lifestyle freedom, crime, and more. When domestic partisan political advantage is again stable, it will be easier for us to leave culture alone and allow for more differences within our political coalitions again. When the Democrats had a lock on Congress for decades, after all, they could allow for more types of Democrats. And as the ideological and policy legacy of 9/11 fades in the face of multipolar world order in which the E.U., China, Russia, the United States, and others wield less and less unequivocal power, international agreements and relationships will need to be humbler, smaller, and less overarching, thus reducing the stakes rather than constantly raising them to red alert, us-against-them levels.
Even as he personifies the toxic blending of politics and culture and demonstrates how to wield power by blurring the two spheres, Donald Trump also points to a solution and endpoint. He has had successes as president: passing a large and increasingly popular tax cut, reducing regulatory drag on a number of industries, and producing some real breakthroughs in foreign policy. Yet he remains stubbornly unpopular and, more to the point, resolute in showing how mostly ignorant he is when it comes to a basic understanding of how the government and Constitution function.
For many, such revelations are terrifying, the equivalent of opening the captain's room and finding a monkey manning the controls. But that's not the only possible response.
As Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto has said, Trump "is a refreshing reminder that the guy that's in the White House is another human being. The power of the State is way too exalted. Bringing that power back to human scale is an important part of what needs to be done to correct the insanity that's been going on in the post-war era, where you have these large institutions that control all aspects of our lives." The plain fact is that Trump is far more like other recent presidents than most of want to acknowledge. But as his tenure continues, we'll be forced come to terms with that revelation and how little we like living in a world where everything is, first and foremost, a political statement. As Jack Dorsey can tell you, that's no way to live, especially in an ostensibly free country. The world is very different from when I was writing in 2001, but it's a still a world of ever-expanding possibilities and identities. A rigid us-against-them mentality can't last forever.
*CORRECTION: Rachael Ray's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.