The Nuisance Of Nuance: One President's Doubling Down On The Dumbing Down Of American Politics

Donald Trump's presidency has regressed our public dialogue in ways that will be seen for years to come.
10/27/2017 09:47 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2017
Alexander Hamilton’s statue adorns Hamilton Lawn at the founder’s alma mater, Columbia University. The “Little Lion” penned <
Alexander Hamilton’s statue adorns Hamilton Lawn at the founder’s alma mater, Columbia University. The “Little Lion” penned Federalst #1 - 230 years ago today.

“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

From as far back as the founders, there has never been an expectation that our national government would personify the kind of “first rate intelligence” described above by Fitzgerald. But throughout our history, the fact that our system of democracy is inherently complex and difficult seemed to be self-evident.

Three branches. An unofficial fourth to check the others. The power of the vote. An increasingly diverse and growing nation. An increasingly growing and interconnected world. As the decades have passed and populations have expanded, how could the responsibility of governing the leading democracy on the planet have possibly become easier instead of harder?

And yet, for a number of reasons, a large section of the electorate has become so enraged with American governance that the real reasons driving the poor results often seem to get pushed aside. Instead of holding “two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time” - and functioning - we wade knee deep into dysfunction.

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Not long ago, I spoke to a class of Junior Fellows at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies. The Q & A session is always the best part of these things and this day was no exception. But the very first question hit me so squarely between the eyes that I fear my answer might have been longer that the opening speech.

An undergraduate named Wesley calmly asked me if I was concerned that “nuance was being lost in our politics and public discourse.” My first thought: “Wow.” My second: “How long ya got?”

The “wow” wasn’t because a student was asking such an astute question. I learned long ago that a great many of our young people often see things far more clearly than their elders. This is a wonderful thing, and in recent months it’s one of the few facts that has made me feel hopeful when it comes to American politics.

My pleasant surprise at Wes’s question was due to the fact that for more than a year, I’ve had one headline floating around my head: “The Nuisance of Nuance.” Out of all of the controversial events and language that have surrounded our national political dialogue over the last couple years, I keep coming back to what may be our biggest loss: The vanishing ability to look at more than one side of an issue or debate. The importance of nuance within political arguments and policy discussions.

While troubling, this condition is not altogether shocking. As human beings, we often prefer the simple. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. We are all conditioned to listen to the voices in our heads, and then react. The less reflection and inner debate we have to go through before making decisions, the less time gets gobbled up and less stress gets produced.

The same goes for personal relationships. We rationalize a ton. We often want to believe the best about people. We want to see the good. When we have to confront the bad, things become harder. Who needs all that anxiety.

The preceding doesn’t lead me to assert that American politics has historically been so different – so incredibly nuanced up until just recently. Because that would be untrue. Throughout those fateful early years of the nation’s founding, a heated and prolonged debate played out regarding ratification of the U.S. Constitution. And the central issue in that debate – a stronger federal government versus more power and autonomy to individual states – presented a stark division that is still playing out 230 years later.

The founders did, however, appreciate the complexities of what they were authoring as the new charter for the United States. They also anticipated nearly every conceivable counterargument to the form of government they were proposing. One need look no further than The Federalist Papers to witness a true crucible of confronting nuance and subtlety. Before a single law was ever passed under the soon-to-be adopted Constitution, Alexander Hamilton cautioned his countrymen in Federalist #6 that even as he heartily advocated for ratification, the new American democracy would be an exercise in managing expectations:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, weaknesses and evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

Two centuries later, and after a 34-year career in Congress working with Republican and Democratic presidents alike, U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) recalled the words of The Federalist Papers as he described the trustee role our elected leaders must play once elections have taken place:

“The founders didn’t believe that Congress should just mirror the will of the people. They believed it ought to ‘refine and enlarge the public view.’ They thought that members should favor the national interest in their deliberations.”

Centuries apart, but taken together, the two Hamiltons’ remarks strike at a core element of our constitutional democracy: We choose our leaders to make difficult decisions on the country’s behalf – and achieving perfect answers is not the standard.

But in 2017, the complexities of governing a nation seem to be lost on a great many Americans. “Lost” might not even be the right term. “Consciously ignored” may be more accurate. People are pissed. They’re angry at a government that in their eyes has not been delivering. For decades. I get it.

In 2014, as I wrote the Preamble to Unlock Congress, I reported the fact that public confidence in our legislators had reached its nadir – 7 percent. This number was the lowest ever recorded in the 40 years Gallup had been asking the question.

Although I was passionately making a case in the book about how and why Congress had been failing, and how to go about making fixes to the system, I worried every day about a larger question: How do you get a massive number of Americans to care about these details? About the rules. The complexities. The limits of the system – and the incremental improvements that various reforms would hopefully generate.

These concerns that I and others have had about Americans’ attention span and dwindling capacity for considering nuance existed well before Donald Trump’s ride down the escalator. No one should pretend that the strategy of simplifying in order to divide started with this President. History is rife with examples. Both successes and failures. McCarthy. Wallace. It’s easy to forget that Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and enthusiastic embrace of “law and order” came 50 years before Donald Trump.

George H.W. Bush is now widely revered as a statesman. But in ’92, he loudly groused on the campaign trail: “I am sick and tired every night hearing one of these carping little liberal Democrats jumping all over my you-know-what.”

At a Pennsylvania fundraiser in the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama explained his view of conservative folks in economically depressed Midwestern communities:

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Obama got clobbered over these remarks; they seemed like a massive oversimplification meant to divide. Perhaps. Or perhaps he was trying to explain to an audience the policy preferences of many American voters versus the ones that his supporters embraced.

This is by no means a comparison of the words of Bush and Obama to Trump’s. In fact, quite the opposite. While all modern presidential candidates have engaged in hardball politics on the way to the White House, and sharply attacked the opposing party’s ideology and track record, they did not prosecute super-simplified indictments of the entire system. And to the extent that they called out “career-politicians,” they realized that once in office, they’d need those officeholders to get things done. Even the ones in their own party.

No, Donald Trump didn’t actually start the dumbing down, or dulling down, of American politics. What he did do was step up to a batter’s box where a tee-ball of apathy and bottlenecked voter frustration awaited a reckless hitter to blast it out of the park. Bases loaded. Three and 0. Swing away.

Prior to that escalator ride, his entire adult life had been about simplifying all things down to black or white. Wins or losses. Hires or fires.

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who’ve been viscerally disgusted by Trump’s personal behavior, try to set that emotion aside for a moment. Focus on the simplification factor.

In 1989, Trump spent notoriously spent $85,000 in four New York newspapers to vilify the “Central Park Five” who were accused and then wrongly convicted of rape. Trump did not know the facts of the case, but he didn’t need to. He made simple statements to get attention. This is his way.

Twenty-six years later, when he announced for President and described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists, one of the Central Park exonorees felt a sickening sense of déjà vu. Kevin Richardson told the Washington Post’s Janell Ross: ““It was exactly what Trump did to me, to us. Just like those ads, that speech was a call for extreme action based on a whole set of completely false claims.”

Trump’s documented body of lying has been record-breaking, both in its scope and volume. While this ingrained practice is ineffably troubling, it is a tactic. The strategic goal is to simplify and divide. To dumb down issues and decisions to the lowest common denominator of understanding. Nuance is his enemy. Why bother explaining the details or what the range of ramifications might be that a decision may trigger? Trump gets the fact that a ton of people don’t want to listen to or concentrate on any of that stuff. They’re tired of politicians explaining why all of this stuff is so hard. Just get it done.

If you have a legitimate concern about illegal immigrants coming into our country, Trump’s got your simple solution: a wall. Can such a wall actually be built all along the massive U.S. border, including the winding Rio Grande? Moreover, would it actually impede illegal crossings? The president doesn’t care. Those are details. Policy nuances.

Is it possible for Americans to on the one hand prefer that people stand for the national anthem, and on the other hand respect their right to kneel in order to protest a valid concern? Of course it’s possible, for the two are not the same thing. If Trump is actually the “really smart” person he claims to be, then most certainly he understands this. But he reflexively knee-jerks to dispensing with nuance when there is a gap he can seize upon for perceived political gain. Trump slams the pedal down and rolls right over the details.

Is it possible for past U.S. trade deals to have both benefited and negatively affected the lives of middle-class working Americans? It’s not only possible, it’s practically axiomatic. But not in Trump’s simplified reality. He called NAFTA “the worst trade deal in the history of the world.” He promised to terminate it once elected. Then he stuck with it. Trump’s not the first president to flip-flop once an election’s passed. The difference is that he doesn’t even make an effort at providing an explanation of the complexities that surely surrounded his head-spinning 180. That would imply there’s nuance involved in the decision-making process. Nuance is for losers. So is explanation.

We see this happening on issue after issue. The President rolls past the complexities involved in solving our large scale problems. Instead, he points the finger of blame. It’s easier. It’s simpler. He learned this long ago. And without a conscience, like past presidents, that would compel him to comport himself in a manner accustomed to the office instead of engaging in the simple division of the country, the dumbing down descends deeper and deeper.

Trump distills the complex architecture of the federal legislative process into simple stick-figure drawings. He doesn’t even bother to color them in. Why can’t all of these “dummies” figure out the answers he’s had to these problems for decades? Never mind the fact that there’s no substance behind his answers.

All of this was problematic enough when he was still a candidate for president. But it takes on a new level of seriousness when the simplification is coming officially from the White House. Trump urges everyone to stop all the handwringing that goes into legislative solutions. “Screw the ‘elites!’ Those guys don’t know any better than the rest of us, right?” Passing laws to improve health care, reduce the debt, and keep Americans safe while protecting civil liberties and maintaining longstanding international partnerships – all of that stuff isn’t so complicated in the Trump tableau. Lace up your Nikes, losers. Stop thinking so much. Just do it.

If all of this massive oversimplification were to abruptly end when Trump’s time in office ends, it wouldn’t be quite so worrying. If we were only talking about his ugly and childish behavior reflecting a historic lack of character, that would be one thing. Presidents come and go from the Oval. In fact, quite quickly in the broad sweep of history. Just as people come and go from this earth every second. The problem is that even a single person in a position as visibly powerful as the presidency, even briefly, has the potential to infect our country far beyond the term he serves.

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) delivered a truly remarkable statement this week on the Senate floor about the President, what he has wrought on our country, and actions that should be taken to recover the principles that many Americans still hold dear. Listening to his speech live, I was genuinely moved. However, there was one thing Flake said that struck me as overly optimistic – especially when it comes to the nuisance of nuance:

“This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better. Because to have a healthy government we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith.”

I want to believe that Senator Flake is right about this. And I do agree that a whole lot of swing voters as well as many Republicans will soon thirst for a return to having traditional, respectful, adult behavior exhibited by the nation’s commander-in-chief. But that’s just one person.

I’m far more concerned about achieving that “atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith.” Even if Flake is just talking about the 535 members of Congress recapturing this environment – which in and of itself may be a stretch – what about the millions of Americans who’ve accepted this President’s simplified version of politics and his cynical view that all the answers to national challenges are super-easy and lie right in plain sight.

Donald Trump took the naked exasperation of millions of Americans and jacked up their expectations to a dangerous level. He then makes it even more dangerous by blaming the very people who are trying to pass complex legislative solutions in what will always be a complicated system.

It is incredibly glib and easy to label all of Washington, D.C. a “swamp.” Even if it is a swamp, is this because of the people we elect to serve on Capitol Hill? Or might it be because of the rules that allow for a river of money to flow through that swamp? Or could it be because of rigged legislative districts that protect incumbent officeholders to the tune of 95 percent? Might there just be some nuance involved? Ah, there I go again.

To be sure, fierce partisanship has been part and parcel of our system from nearly the beginning. It’s not going away, and maybe it shouldn’t. But for so long in our nation’s capital, there have always been points in time at which - usually after elections - our presidents would at least make an effort to represent the entire country. White House administrations would work with Congress and with the knowledge that this stuff isn’t so simple, even in cases where there’s single party control across Pennsylvania Avenue.

Partisanship and compromise are not always mutually exclusive. A good debate is always healthier than closed minds never willing to concede a point. When nuance in our public dialogue is ignored, and even consigned to the category of nuisance, then we have truly lost our way. When simplification and shouting win out over the thoughtful processes that have historically led to some of our nation’s milestone achievements, it is not an understatement to say that our future is at risk.

For two years, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have been happy to drown out nuance with noise. I might wonder aloud what Hamilton would have thought of this approach, but I don’t have to. He made it very clear in Federalist #1, published 230 years ago today.

“For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

Words to govern by. Words to live by. Yet seemingly words from a bygone era.

It can be hard to feel hopeful about our politics these days. Most folks I talk to are not. I feel this, too. I feel it plenty. But then I listen to younger Americans like Wesley, and a new sense of hope wakes me up. I’m placing my bets on him and millions of other young Americans to restore the power and purpose of Hamilton’s words. To renew the lost art of listening, debating and carefully considering before concluding. To bring the importance of nuance back into our national decision-making process.

Pollyanna? Hey, Wes brought it up.

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