Although there were countless reasons to hope for a Trump defeat last November, the enactment of a sweeping liberal agenda was not realistically among them. Had Hillary Clinton prevailed, her domestic agenda would have been constrained by an obstructionist GOP Congress, and on foreign policy, argues Daniel Drezner, she would have been content to “[make] America Boring Again.” Not, Drezner hastens to add, that there’s anything wrong with that: “And given how this year has actually gone, I would take that outcome every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”
This wistful reflection on the blessings of boredom reminded me of Andrew Sullivan’s remark, a few weeks after inauguration, that the near-constant stream of Trump outbursts plants this President “into your consciousness every hour of every day,” giving a “glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind.” “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy,” argued Sullivan, “is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.”
At this particular moment in American history, the idea of a boring politics, a politics which attracts little of one’s attention, is undeniably attractive. There is nothing entertaining about a President who runs the country like a reality television show. But even so, Drezner’s tribute to boredom and Sullivan’s idealization of a society where citizens don’t need to think about politics both sit uneasily alongside a familiar complaint about the American public. Readers are surely familiar with the idea that much of what ails American democracy can be blamed on the citizens who are, after all, responsible for it: They are uninformed, disengaged, apathetic, even lazy—in short, asleep at the switch. I’ve summarized the argument in its strong form, but one variant or another can be found among critics of diverse political persuasions; in some circles it’s almost taken for granted. And indeed, one often sees some, or all, of these tendencies being blamed precisely for the current mess.
To this point, Drezner and Sullivan would probably both respond that an apathetic society where citizens choose not to think about politics differs from one where things are so well-run that they don’t need to. Maybe so, but it doesn’t follow that the latter is a suitable ideal for a democracy, or even a very good description of any period in historical memory. If there is an upside to the ongoing Trump debacle, it’s that his profound unfitness for public office has inspired a backlash in the form of massive civic organizing. The numerous marches and protests; the mobilization around issues like health care and the travel ban; the formation of Indivisible chapters; the flow of money, volunteers, and attention to Congressional elections—all these speak to wider and deeper political engagement by average citizens. Most of this takes the form of partisan mobilization, but given the threat posed by Trump, and by extension his Republican enablers, to liberal democracy and basic constitutional principles, this partisan mobilization is also, in effect, a defense of the American political order’s best ideals.
Even for those of who think American politics could benefit from a little more engagement (however messy), this is perhaps cold comfort—whatever upsides come with a more mobilized citizenry are dearly purchased at the cost of a constitutional crisis. I think this complaint is plausible insofar as Trump represents a truly singular departure from the Republican Party’s long descent into what is now a more or less an open embrace of white-nationalist plutocracy: Without a President Trump, the argument would seem to go, there’s no need for Indivisible groups across the nation. But this conclusion seems altogether too glib. Trump may be the debased product of a long and dangerous trend, but he is, for all that, part of a trend—and one whose true nature it is better to face clearly. (Sometimes people write as if the most objectionable thing about Trump were his lack of decorum.) Trump embodies the American right’s worst tendencies, and as long as the GOP succumbs to those tendencies, our politics will not be boring. It’s a sobering reality, but it would have been true even if Hillary Clinton had won—and there’s no breaking the fever until we face up to it.