In the past week alone, Senator John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, several very close votes were held in the Senate in efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and throw millions off health insurance, the Department of Justice announced it no longer interpreted federal civil rights law to apply to LGBT people, and Donald Trump fired his chief of staff and tried to ban transgender soldiers via twitter. A few days ago, the administration’s new communications director embarked upon an unhinged tirade while on the record with a New Yorker journalist. Meanwhile, the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia has continued apace. (No doubt, I’m missing something—it is near impossible to keep track of it all.)
The response to each of these events has been a flurry of online activity, ranging from gleeful (”Did you hear about the thing in the New Yorker?!”) to horror (”This is terrible!”) to disbelief (”There’s no way this could happen!”) and everything in between. Each response has in turn provoked a war of words between conservatives and liberals and leftists—what is the appropriate way to respond to news about a conservative Senator’s cancer? Who is the real hero in stopping the latest ACA repeal bill? Is banning trans troops good, actually, because the military is bad? Each hot take and counter-take has produced a new volley of vociferous tweets and Facebook comments.
I’ve done my best to keep up, and have even joined in the fray myself, but I’m exhausted. Isn’t anyone else? Only a handful of times since Trump’s inauguration, writers have talked about political exhaustion and how to address it, with varying suggestions. In mid-February, one Huffington Post contributor suggested that people just “get over it,” explaining his concern over complacency with the Republican Party’s agenda, insisting that the only way to address this was political engagement. In May, US News ran an opinion column, ostensibly on the same topic, attributing the exhaustion to the news media’s thirst for “a major leak or new angle every 30 minutes.” NPR echoed this sentiment, and pointed to a handful of other potential “causes,” in a short piece a few days ago.
But there is more to this than political disillusionment and the 24-hour news cycle, which have both been around for decades. It is true that the Trump administration may be churning out a startlingly high number of scandals and leaks, but those of us who want to be effective in opposing it can’t simply attribute the blame to the administration or the media and sit back in satisfaction. Nor is it enough to say that people should just “get over” their exhaustion; believe me, if I could choose to feel less tired, I would!
What this calls for is more disciplined messaging and better focus. Considering our current environment, we have to be efficient to be effective. This means picking our battles, prioritizing struggles that will save lives above frivolous topics.
Recent events are instructive. Over rumors that Trump might dismiss the independent investigator of the Russia allegations, some liberals have suggested that “the Resistance” respond with massive street protests if he follows through. Apart from the twitterati, however, few Americans actually care about the Russia investigation. Meanwhile, though active in pushing for voters to call their representatives, these same people have been conspicuously silent about the possibility of a similar mobilization in support of saving the Affordable Care Act—let alone pushing for single payer healthcare.
Likewise, commentators have devoted huge amounts of time to covering the drama of the inner workings of the Trump administration, right down to the specific ways in which Trump demeaned Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff. As far as I can tell, coverage of these stories and the bickering accompanying public responses to it—utterly irrelevant to anyone struggling to feed their families, find work, or afford health care—have come to eclipse legitimate work about finding a way forward.
Meanwhile, the Democrats recently unveiled their “Better Deal,” something that has generated remarkably little discussion, apart from the left’s mockery of the milquetoast slogan they rolled out with it. Though embarrassingly limited in its vision, this marks a step forward, and something deserving of attention and serious consideration, regardless of whether we think it goes far enough or not. We should be talking with one another about this plan, or our own visions for the future. What is wrong with with the Democrats’ vision? What is right with it? Is there something we can do to protect vulnerable communities by statute rather than by executive order or administrative interpretation? Let’s argue about that.
We also need to consider whether our own back-and-forths are worth the energy. It is not that important, for example, to prove we’re right who the “real” hero is in the healthcare debate. As people interested in pushing back against the Trump administration’s policies and advancing a progressive agenda, we should start talking about precisely those policies and that agenda; this entails narrowing our focus, relegating the court politics of the federal government and pointless flame wars to where they belong: gossip columns.