When five police officers were gunned down in Dallas last week, a stricken city and its leaders responded with compassion and reached out in acts of humanity and healing. Many outside Dallas, however, responded by attacking the "Black Lives Matter" movement, calling for stricter gun laws, or defending "right to carry" laws. While many mourned, many others decided to use the tragedy for political purposes. Free speech supports this, but the nation is not always helped by it.
In America, a lot gets politicized. Turning information or an event into an argument for a political and/or partisan position happens quickly and spreads virally, often with little regard for objectivity or the impact on the social fabric of society. In areas as diverse as religion, science, social justice, and the economy, we seem to be losing the ability to think apolitically, to reason through issues without the subtle or overt guidance of political doctrine.
Monthly unemployment statistics, to use one example, are seized upon as a sign that the president has failed at economic recovery or that he has led a robust resurgence of jobs, depending on what political points one wants to make. A reasonably dispassionate conversation about how to grow the economy takes a back seat to political posturing.
While scientific research, to use another example, points to a warming climate, the ability to discuss what this means and how to respond is subverted by political positions on whether human activity is a chief cause. Science is demeaned in the process, as if there are no such things as scientific objectivity and honest scientists.
Rather than undertaking research to determine the extent and causes of gun violence, as well as the possible effects of various actions to ensure gun safety, politics has prohibited the use of federal funds for such research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A rational approach to ensure we honor both the Second Amendment and the Constitution's promise of domestic tranquility seems out of reach.
Religion, as well, often turns pulpits into political platforms. Many religious leaders now align themselves with political parties. Using sermons as endorsements for political positions and candidates, they turn the church into a political interest group. The spiritual support of their congregants, which ought to be apolitical, is diminished. For many people of faith, this threatens the legitimacy of the church. The founders of our nation rightly believed that religion would be stronger if it avoided entanglement with politics, a mixture that weakens both.
Politicization distorts the careful reasoning which sound decisions demand. It treats our opinions as "facts," eliminating the barrier between objective truth and subjective preferences. The result is that even verifiable facts are treated as just so many opinions, and in the world of contesting opinions the bases of our proposals become our biases.
Politicization degrades perception by filtering reality through a political lens. As the essayist Anais Nin put it, "we don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Politics channels thought into "acceptable" and "unacceptable" ideas. Instead of diverse and imaginative debate, we get "either-or" thinking, a dangerous reduction of the options sound policy needs. Systemic solutions and compromise are crowded out by "win-lose" political orthodoxy. Politicization hardens positions and fosters animosity, obscuring the common values on which we do agree. "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter," for example, are compatible ideas. There is nothing in the former that denies the latter, but you wouldn't know this when politics grabs hold of these words.
Politicization is as old as the republic. It is, as James Madison said, "sown in the nature of man." Yet, as he did, we are right to worry if it goes too far and to seek to contain it. It is thus useful to ask if declining trust in government, in the leaders of many professions, and in each other, are causes of politicization or consequences -- and how we can rebuild that trust. It is helpful to ponder how we may correct the tendency of social media to pay less attention to factual accuracy and more to the need for speed and like thinking. It is important to wonder if we have lost faith in the ability to find truth and, to the extent we have, how we can restore it. It is necessary to ask how we might strengthen trust in institutions whose legitimacy can be a counterweight to politicization, including the church, science, business, law, and the media.
Politicization hardens the societal arteries through which a robust, open, and communal life must flow. Politics has its place, but when it warps our thinking and the other institutions on which we depend, it runs the risk of preventing the healthy society which is its sole purpose.