Our current campaign system would make a cynic out of even the most earnest believer in democracy. Voters who wish to educate themselves on each candidate’s policy proposals find themselves wading through avalanches of calumny, melodrama, and falsehood. Attempts to research and compare Trump and Clinton’s qualifications often derail, and concerned citizens find themselves sifting through quotes taken out of context, unflattering memes, and the demonizing slander of both candidates. It is, to put it mildly, difficult to discern the truth.
This difficulty is not a side effect of our political machines; rather, it’s an intended result. We not only tolerate hyperbole and ad hominem: we put them in the headlines. Time and again, the citizen’s focus is drawn to smears and sensations. Now that the first painful rounds of vitriol and malice have been spewed and allowed to crust over the political pulpits, the presumed presidential candidates are two frontrunners who have sustained every kind of formidable designation: giant, winner, woman, demon, savior. Every designation, that is, except being a lowly-yet-distinguished human.The first step in overcoming the exhaustion of politics is to subvert the game and refuse any kind of engagement with propaganda that reduces a person to a pawn.
Rarely, if ever, are we able to truly relate to presidential candidates as peers. Instead, we’re presented with candidates who are curated representations of party policies, fragments of sound and image meant to provoke and inspire voters. Make no mistake, the first item on any successful politician’s agenda is to reject the gift of humanness and instead, rise above the fray in an American apotheosis and offer their abilities as machine-like powers. These political moguls are both Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster; they orchestrate their own rearrangement and become their own victims. They design their own reincarnations.
Even efforts to make candidates “likable” and “relatable” are driven by algorithms and polling results, not genuine respect for humanness. Untold amounts of money are poured into delivering the candidates out of the prisons of their personhood. Candidates are experts, it would seem, at transcending their own humanity. Despite the strong emphasis on appearing approachable, viable candidates often seem to bear no recognizable human sensibilities.
Mr. Trump careens between the poles of various political issues, seemingly oblivious to the thought, care, and hesitation many of us experience when trying to hash out a political position. Mrs. Clinton’s behavior can be just as baffling as she simultaneously praises and patronizes marginal demographics, touting those on the margins as tokens of her platform’s solidarity while enjoying a political career steeped in privilege. It’s challenging to think of these candidates as human when they themselves demand the opposite, both of themselves and of their opponent. Trump and Clinton will invest their energies into convincing the American public of two things: first, that they represent America’s singular hope, and second, that the opposing candidate is disaster personified.
But we cannot cast all of the blame on the candidates or the system; we voters are also enthusiastic participants in this game of monsters and men. We avoid any kind of context that might provide balance and verisimilitude to ten-second-long trending stories. We reward the media for splicing and spinning with ratings and reviews. We laugh and mock and shake our fists and wring our hands and retweet and forward and share and retweet again. We revel in feelings of camaraderie, not from belonging to a shared community, but from having a shared enemy. And we do all of this as though a candidate can be reduced to a hairstyle, soundbite, or meme. As though a marriage’s sanctity only counts if it’s between two average folks rather than two members of a power family. As though the common people are strangers to greed, folly, and lasciviousness.
The first step in overcoming the exhaustion of politics is to subvert the game and refuse any kind of engagement with propaganda that reduces a person’s humanness — even if the person in question is the one doing the reducing. Our country’s political race is one of disconnect, one that tries to extract a persona from a person and fuse it with a party agenda. It’s easy to hate a screeching soundbite, to ridicule the half-life of a political machine, to excoriate and vilify opposition, certain that they do not know or care about our insults.
This redemptive path does not mean that we should gloss over a politician’s character. Rather, it raises the standards by which a politician is measured. However unfamiliar and artificial the public presentation may seem, it’s a mistake to regard a politician as soulless, unaccountable, and incapable of moral agency. It’s a mistake to conclude that a candidate is without feelings, ethics, or conscience, that they are merely the fabricated representation of their party’s policy. No matter how they may seem, it’s imperative to hold to the truth of what people essentially are. It’s imperative to carefully evaluate the politician, not as a machine, but as a human leader created with purpose, in need of meaningful work, and capable of acting on behalf of his or her fellow man, for good or ill. Even as our political system has embraced a code of action in which the ends justify the means, our calling is to hold all leaders to a higher standard based, not on our cultural norms, but on a firm understanding of what it means to be a person.
As a people who believe in absolute, timeless truths, we must reject the idea that a person can be anything more, or anything less, than a creature imprinted with the Imago Dei. We must consistently hold to the sovereign truth that it’s not within anyone’s abilities to truly restructure his or her identity according to polling results — or anything else. We must insist that politicians be treated with compassion, respect, and culpability befitting a human being. These provisions are not relative to a person’s behavior, ambition, or self-constructed identity. They are the holy rights of all created people. We must be faithful to recognize them, defend them, and uphold them for all people — pawns and politicians alike.