The following op-ed appeared in the August 2, 2018 print edition of The New York Times:
Have you felt less popular lately than you once were? Are people avoiding you? Are your party invitations getting lost in the mail? Maybe it’s your breath.
Or, just maybe, it’s because you can’t stop talking about politics.
“That’s impossible!” you say. “Sure, I talk about politics a lot and have strong opinions. But all my friends agree with me.” It turns out that it doesn’t matter.
Many studies of late have found that partisan rancor is increasing. But how do we feel about people on our own side who talk a lot about politics? That’s the question addressed by three political scientists in a new study in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.
Using “feeling thermometers” — the quantitative measure of how warmly people feel toward others — the researchers found that we don’t care much for rabid partisans, even if we agree with them. Why? In their words, “Although some Americans are politically polarized, more simply want to avoid talking about politics.”
How bad has it become? “Many people,” they write, “do not want their child to marry someone from their own party if that hypothetical in-law were to discuss politics frequently.” So feel free to go on about politics all you want — to your cat. Forever.
What to do? Start with a politics cleanse: For two weeks — maybe over your August vacation — resolve not to read, watch or listen to anything about politics. Don’t discuss politics with anyone. When you find yourself thinking about politics, distract yourself with something else. (I listen to Bach cantatas, but that’s not for everybody.) This is hard to do, of course, but not impossible. You just have to plan ahead and stand firm. Think of it as ideological veganism. On the one hand, your friends will think you’re a little wacky. On the other hand, you’ll feel superior to them.
In discussing this proposal with friends and colleagues, I detect an inchoate fear. It goes something like this: “If I tune out politics, I may be happier, but it’s irresponsible. The fascists” — my conservative friends here say “communists” — “will run across the country with abandon.” This is a version of John Stuart Mill’s maxim, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Is that how you feel? Here’s the truth: If you stop talking about politics for a couple of weeks, nothing will change, except you might get invited again to parties. You have nothing to lose but your loneliness.
And besides, whether you know it or not, you probably need a break. Afterward, with a bit more perspective, you can come back to current events. Three predictions: First, you’ll find that politics is a little like a daytime soap opera, where you can skip a couple of weeks without losing track of the plot. Second, you’ll see the outrage-industrial complex in media and politics more clearly for what it is: a bunch of powerful people who want to keep you wound up for their own profit. Third, like any reformed addict, you’ll see how much time you were wasting and how much you were neglecting people and things you truly love.
After you come back from your politics cleanse, how can you keep from falling back into your old patterns? Resolve to pay attention to ideas, not just politics.
They aren’t the same thing. Ideas are like the climate, whereas politics is like the weather. Ideas change cultures and nations over years and decades, while politics changes from moment to moment. Just as the weather can obscure truths about the climate, politics can make ideas harder to understand. Ideas, like the climate, require thought and study. Observations about politics, like opinions on the weather, require no expertise at all. The world is full of ersatz political weather forecasters. The world needs more people who are thoughtful about the climate of ideas.
Perhaps most important, while politics creates animus and contempt, people can generally disagree about ideas without bitterness. A Reuters/Ipsos poll finds that nearly one in six Americans has stopped talking to family and close friends over politics. Millions more are distancing themselves from people over ideological differences, or curating their news and social media to avoid political disagreement. But I know of no one who has stopped talking to a family member over disagreements about the merits of the idea of a universal basic income.
So if you are a politics addict and feeling lonely, here’s your formula to improve your life: Do a politics cleanse, and then focus more on ideas. After that, if the invitations are still getting lost in the mail? Then it’s probably your breath.