America suffers from an unhealthy addiction to junk food politics.
Like a Big Mac, The Bachelor or Donald Trump's hair, junk food politics looks and smells wonderful from afar. The first encounter is blissful. It entertains. It tantalizes. For awhile, the afterglow of that first taste masks the side effects. Yet what follows in the wake of an addiction to junk food politics is an unhealthy separation from reality and a great deal of regret.
What is junk food politics? Junk food politics is politics devoid of policy or civic virtue. It is the politics of fear and anger. It is the willingness to promise what can never be delivered and to blame the eventual lack of delivery on others. It's when an entire city's lack of clean water gets less attention than Donald Trump signing a baby's hand. And when politicians pander to Americans' worst fears about immigrants and the economy. Junk food politics is everything that a civics course teaches to be bad in theory, but that is commonly practiced in reality, because it sells.
Trump is the most successful purveyor of junk food politics, yet he is far from its only vendor. The Republican Party has been feeding its supporters on junk food politics for years, and is now shocked to discover it can't control their cravings. The media thrives from the devoted, sensationalist coverage of the junk food politics it claims to deplore. And while I come down on the Democratic side in most debates, Democrats are not shy to turn Republicans into boogeymen when policy differences alone are not resonating with the electorate.
Junk food politics is not new. When Alexander Hamilton -- the Founding Father most likely to win a Tony Award -- was helping chart the creation of the United States of America, he was the target of both political and personal attacks that would not be surprising coming from Trump's mouth. He was regularly assailed as a sleeper agent for British monarchical interests, and alleged to be a mulatto child in the op-ed pages. Yet somehow he and his Founding peers succeeded in writing a Constitution, developing a national government and successfully charting a course for our country. Junk food politics was only a small part of their political diet.
To better understand the prevalence and resiliency of junk food politics, its useful to contemplate the world of actual food. Americans increasingly obsess over the need to be healthy to find the perfect diet, but we have become noticeably less healthy. Why? Because no matter what we say we want, we're addicted in food and politics alike to cheap and easy solutions, which in retrospect turn out to be neither cheap nor easy, and often solve nothing.
So can we do anything about junk food politics in this election season?
The answer may be found not in a trendy political tract but in the recommendations of noted food journalist and Netflix star Michael Pollan, who for years has sought to teach people to change their eating behavior by explaining what separates real food from junk food.
Pollen doesn't offer a prescribed diet. He has no trendy checklist. Junk food is viewed as a guilty pleasure. Instead, Pollan seeks to reshape our understanding and relationship with food, and to establish general, simple and easily followable guidelines that can gradually transform our perception and reduce our acceptance of junk food.
Pollan's basic dictum to eating healthier is as follows: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And he goes on to encourage people to "cook at home" whenever possible. There is a simple genius within that guidance.
Can Pollan's dictum be applied to reduce our addiction to junk food politics, which is approaching the point where the only cure is a double bypass of the Trump ego?
Eat food --> Seek and reward substance in politics. Don't make up your mind based on clever soundbites, or judge candidates by pointless gaffes.
Not too much --> Don't let junk food politics take over your life. What is said in a debate or on the campaign trail isn't life or death. No candidate will personally kill your dog or steal your car. Maintain a sense of context.
Mostly plants --> It's far too easy to get carried away with imagined, meaty political conspiracies that have no basis in truth. Obama is a Muslim who "knows what he is doing" to destroy the country. Trump is the next Hitler. Research and compare the actual policy ideas and records of candidates, and don't force upon them positions and beliefs that they have never asserted.
Cook at home --> Don't feed the trolls in the comment sections of articles. Don't pick fights with opinionated friends of friends of friends on Facebook. Anonymous and online vitriol is a key ingredient of junk food politics. You learned your values from your family and friends; look to them to help you thoughtfully discuss politics in a polarized environment.
Junk food is equally unhealthy in diets and in politics. Our guilty pleasures have risen to the forefront to dominate our diets during the 2016 election because we have failed to fully recognize and curb our addiction.
But instead of bemoaning the current prevalence of junk food politics, take Pollan's advice to heart. This moderate philosophy of gradual, practical reengagement with healthy politics, rich in policy details, may help wean Americans from our addiction to junk food politics.
As one long-time D.C. insider earnestly wrote last month, "It's time we emerge from our junk food-inspired stupor and demand that our national discourse reflect it." Change starts with the choices you make.