Seeing politics literally vs seriously

I recall some debate about whether to take Trump literally or seriously, particularly early in his presidency. I think this concept got kicked around enough that it was even the subject of mockery on Twitter at one point.

Lately I feel like my evolving attitude toward politics, generally, might be described as taking it seriously but not literally.

The terminology isn’t ideally precise. By “seriously” I mean that I’m certain that policy matters, and so therefore does political activity which influences it. By “literally,” I mean taking politics at face value, or on its own terms, of which I have recently become much more skeptical.

I think most people are in practice generally the opposite: they take politics literally but not seriously. The average person pays little heed to politics, but when they do, I think they readily swallow most of the concepts offered to them with minimal questioning. The average activist usually pays attention, but still takes a lot of “how things are done” for granted.

I pay attention, but doing so has of late made it harder and harder to take politicians and political narratives entirely on their own terms. I still think that policy matters, and that politics influences policy, but that process only loosely resembles official narratives about what the rituals mean. There’s a lot of pushing on a rope. There’s a lot of noise.

Republicans are really running a top-to-bottom outright fraud, have been for a long time. Democrats engage in some stunts, however, which are lately being revealed for those few who pay attention.(To the extent that no-party-affiliation people have organized and produced official narratives, they seem to contain their share of the ridiculous as well.)

The condemnation of Mitch McConnell for stalling legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, for example, looks clownish now that Democrats control Congress and don’t expect to vote on the legislation until this fall, even in the House; if it’s in need of months of committee work, now, then it also was when Democrats were clamoring for McConnell to act promptly.

This June will bring the fifth anniversary of Congressional Dems’ sit-in, to protest the obstruction of gun safety legislation by Republicans then controlling the House of Representatives; I think the Democrats who supported the sit-in ought to be just as loud in protesting the continued Senate obstruction which now depends on conservatives in their own party to sustain it. But they probably won’t, which looks embarrassing, or would if anyone paid attention.

Instead though, people including activists and politicians tend to pay attention to the stage and whatever’s happening on it. Today, for example, the Census Bureau announced Congressional reapportionments which were almost and maybe entirely identical to what experts have anticipated literally for years. Twitter treated this like breaking news, with at least one high-profile account even using the siren emoji.


I take the substance of politics intensely seriously, probably even more than most activists. But how can I keep on taking the surface narratives and preoccupations and organizing concepts as seriously as their own face value, when accumulated experience indicates that it a lot of that is just theater? Or when up-close experience with politicians, including some who have made it into government, indicates that muddling along without any “theory of the case” is very typical, probably at every level.

This might be another post, some time, but in my 40s I have reached a conclusion that various very mediocre intellects with whom I interact—who are my age, near my age, or older—are probably similar to the average for educated adults with leadership responsibilities just about as high up the ladder as you might go. This has to appear incredibly egotistical, but at the same time, even the very capable people I know seem generally to be seat-of-the-pants improvising with spit-and-bailing-wire systems, and certainly that applies to me.

Thus, it becomes easier to believe that where a more innocent person might assume that “there must be a plan” there is in fact no plan, or else, a muddle of countless plans and people convinced of each, which is even worse.

How exactly to interact with that muddle when I think serious consequences are at stake, but that most of those involved are attached to a literal interpretation of activities and rhetoric which just seem like vain theater, I don’t know. I’m working on that.

One Thought on “Seeing politics literally vs seriously

  1. The State Rep in the district right next to mine is actually of friend of mine from college. Wonderful person and her heart is in precisely the right place in trying to legislate in the best way possible, to serve the widest number of people as efficiently and effectively as possible. But she and I have talked about this, and the base problem is that she effectively is expected to be an expert in everything. Which is, of course, impossible. So she’s forced to rely on crash courses of every subject on a more-or-less perpetual basis. There’s no way you can put together a solid plan in that environment, and you’re forced to do a lot of seat-of-your-pants decision-making. Like I said, she’s absolutely trying to make the best decisions she can, but it’s a pretty impossible situation.

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