Based on the perpetual, shrill cable news headlines and the content of radio talk shows, you could easily conclude that life — allowing for the odd climate disaster here and there — is mostly about politics. It is decidedly not.
This harsh judgment must in fairness be tempered by acknowledging our politics has never known the whirlwind that is Donald J. Trump. And it’s not every decade that we have an impeachment by the House and a trial by the Senate presided over by the Chief Justice. Nor do we customarily — or even ever — have 29 candidates pursuing a major party’s presidential nomination, 22 of whom appeared in six Democratic debates in 2019 alone. Utah is getting all these referenda, too, which engage the public mind in heavy stuff like legalizing marijuana and expanding Medicaid.
The U.K. and Canada conduct national elections in weeks not years.
It has not always been like this. Dwight Eisenhower started campaigning for president in June 1952, only five months before the election. His opponent Adlai Stevenson wasn’t even a candidate until his Democratic convention nomination in late July 1952. These two highly intelligent, capable men conducted a spirited, idea-based campaign, ending in Eisenhower’s election. Ike did a bang-up job as president. He avoided scandals and sought little self-aggrandizement. Even if given the technology, he definitely would not have tweeted, ever, about anything.
And — imagine this — during Ike’s presidency, Americans left off politics and worked in their shops, factories and homes, got married and bore the baby boomers, played baseball, and watched “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It to Beaver.” This conclusively proves Americans are not congenitally doomed to spout off about politics at every dinner with friends, when working out at the gym, or even muttering to no one in particular while walking the dog. We used to play Monopoly and table tennis and travel to see places and peoples whose politics we had no idea about. We pursued golf, tennis, gardening, literature, even poetry. Now there’s just Fox News, CNN and MSNBC all day, every day. Even that old barber shop reliable, the economy, is now a mere political forecasting tool to predict whether the president will be reelected.
British political writer Matthew Parris noted this strange obsession with politics and ascribes it, not entirely tongue in cheek, to emotional disturbance. In 2018, he wrote in The Spectator, “An intense interest in current affairs … is also a common indicator of a life going wrong. People who are in trouble mentally, in their careers or in their relationships, tend to develop strong opinions and feelings about the political scene, and to follow the scene with more intense interest than those whose lives are going well.” He continues, “A great deal of political engagement is driven by rage, frustration or disappointment. Those inhabited by emotional responses to problems in their own private lives will find in politics unlimited opportunities to harness their anger and their sorrow.”
Psychologists are now practiced in therapies addressing Trump Derangement Syndrome. But now we’ve identified this harmful new pathology — Compulsive Political Obsession. CPO, for short, is akin to silent killers like pancreatic cancer and Jack the Ripper. You only know about an attack when it’s too late. CPO’s symptoms are easily determined: watching TV news for more than a half-hour a day; leaving your TV on virtually all the time; consuming news from exclusively conservative or liberal outlets. The astonishing but absolutely definitive symptom, however, is giving up one’s long-held political principles at the drop of a hat, for conservatives if Trump rejects them (free trade, reduced deficit spending, standing up to strong men like Putin), or for liberals if he embraces them (repatriating jobs, minimal intervention in foreign problems).
CPO can ruin friendships and family relationships. It’s a sure-fire romance killer. Even when spouses are politically aligned, in time CPO couples transfer their interest and attention to politics and the media. Soon, leisurely strolls, holding hands and quiet dinners fall by the wayside.
Americans, move on. Do something more productive with your time than yielding to Compulsive Political Obsession. Or for that matter, do something unproductive with your time as long as you’re not driven by CPO. Life’s a lark… without so much politics.
Greg Bell is the former lieutenant governor of Utah and the current president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.