What an ugly election season this is shaping up to be, and no, I don't mean the two main candidates for President. We live, of course, in unpleasant times. So the unpleasantness surrounding this election isn't necessarily surprising. Still, that doesn't make what's happening right. Or good.
From "BernieBros" to the Trump Nation, no one - no, not even the passionate defenders of Mrs. Clinton - can claim a lot of high ground. Name calling, finger pointing, the spreading of horrendous "memes," the loss of patience and decorum in even the mildest of disagreements... the primary season has been awash in foul language, and fouler innuendo. Not to mention actual bursts of actual violence.
What worries me isn't the unpleasantness itself - we Americans love the illusions that either we were much more graceful and kind to one another in the misremembered past and that we are simply gentle blushing flowers incapable of such terrible words and deeds... but really, this is us, and has always been so during our political campaigns.
No, what worries me is the blood sport that's developed around the unpleasantness, the Twitterverse and Facebooking of conflict, the glee of repeating the latest unholy epithet, the 24 hour news channels breathless flogging of the latest injury or slight, both real and imagined (or for Fox, mostly imagined reality... but why split hairs?). There's a cottage industry in - or in the cases of Politico and Wonkette, nearly no other reason for existence than - the teasing and promoting of conflict between and amongst the political players.
In the case of inter-party conflict - the D vs. R, right v left, your side or mine, and on and on - the presence of conflict has become the wallpaper of our debate. Everyone's on a side. Those who claim no side are either naive or lying, and we all claim to be sick of the game. Until it resumes, and we return to our corners. It's why this fall is shaping up to be both beyond the pale and a near literal parody of itself - we are running out of ways, and words, to define just how deeply we abhor the opinion/position/claim of "the other side." This poisoned atmosphere didn't just produce Trump v. Clinton... we nearly all insisted it be so. Changing the players wouldn't really alter the game - but these players will, we tell ourselves (like it or not), make the game good.
Yet it's all so obvious - how opposed we are, how well defined our polar opposites look - that on the edges, and even closer to home, we go through the motions, but the real will to fight on ebbs. The Clintons and Trumps know each other, have socialized together; as have much of Washington's left and right elites. The panels on those cable news shows share too many knowing laughs and across the divide looks to truly not know that the show is, often, just that. James Carville and Mary Matalin aren't alone, and certainly not new, in cross-political love and marriage; and the devastating loss Mary Katherine Ham suffered this year when her husband, in the Obama Administration, passed, was a pain felt and shared by many, and no one is callous enough to see politics in that.
Because we can't get the same thrill in old hates, I think, we thrive these days on the new ones, the internal divides. Even as Republicans settle mainly into the dulled, resigned acceptance that Donald Trump is their man, like it or not... news organizations thrive on finding the remaining contingent of "or not." Marco Rubio folding like a card table in the face of party exile was simply a moment, this week, to rehash all those colorful, awful thing Rubio said in his desperate last days on the trail. Conservatives are assailed at every fresh interview with some tale of internal dissent, some new round of unpleasantness at a rally and asked "how can you..." or "do you really..." just to slake our thirst for outrage du jour.
On the left, of course, it's the final, flailing days of the Sanders campaign that provide the gas, "Bernie or Bust" being just the jumping off point for another day, another round of tantrums hurled back and forth. He wants superdelegates! They don't get math! She's too horrible to contemplate!... and on and on. News organizations, week to week, drag out the inevitable moment of Clinton's final confirmed, no turning back, success in amassing delegates to clinch the nomination; "what if Bernie wins California" they breathlessly intone, though no poll has suggested anything near even a close result. I mean... hey, it could happen, and then... more conflict! No matter what happens, the news reporters tell us, Philadelphia and the Convention will be... crazy! Protests! Yelling! "Bleaaarrgghh!"
The orgy around hating - of people all too willing to tell you just how terrible your guy is, and how awful you are for even thinking it's ok - has an energy that I don't think can really be sustained. As with the left/right divides, drama has become farce has become pointless... and many are, at this point, all too weary of continuing at this pitch. There is, of course, the question of all the underlying rage, especially the white working class anger that has fueled the loudest and most sustained of protest voting exercises; but there, too, we all get it - there's a rage that needs to be addressed. Even Donald Trump, for those who care to listen closely, has long since tamped down the most egregious of his button pushing remarks. In part, he doesn't need to, the angry voter is already his. But in part, his performance was always just that, a rage to reach others, a feeling he doesn't, really, share.
It's the media, though, who can't, and won't get this memo until well after the fact. Anger makes great television, pushes ratings, sells the product. Gin up the anger machine. Throw some gas on the fire. Watch it burn. News is our voyeur, the watcher in us all. The doing, the changing... not so much. Changing the interest in hate, tamping down the glee over the shouting match... that has to be us. When we stop watching, when we stop caring. Or start. When we ask everyone - ourselves, our friends, even our enemies - to do better, try harder, be more. We are not the sum of our hatreds and our fears...but we can be. Or not.