In an act of amazing public service, I have not written a column in three months. In the course of that time, I've stepped back from politics, a bit, and thought about other things. That naturally raises the question: How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal healthy brain?
Let's use one of President Barack Obama's favorite rhetorical devices and frame the issue with the two extremes.
On the one hand, there are those who are completely cynical about politics. But, as the columnist Michael Gerson has put it, this sort of cynicism is the luxury of privileged people. If you live in a functioning society, you can say politicians are just a bunch of crooks. But, if you live in a place without rule of law, where a walk down a nighttime street can be terrifying, where tribalism leads to murder, you know that politics is a vital concern.
On the other hand, there are those who form their identity around politics and look to it to complete their natures. These overpoliticized people come in two forms: the aspirational and the tribal. The aspirational hope that politics can transform society and provide meaning. They were inspired by the lofty rhetoric of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. The possibilities, he argued, were limitless: “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.”
The problem with this lofty rhetoric is that politics can rarely deliver, so there is a cynical backlash when the limited realities of government reassert themselves. This inevitable letdown is happening to a lot of Obama's supporters right now.
Then there are those who look to politics for identity. They treat their partisan affiliation as a form of ethnicity. These people drive a lot of talk radio and television. Not long ago, most intelligent television talk was not about politics. Shows would put interesting people together, like Woody Allen with Billy Graham (check it out on YouTube), and they'd discuss anything under the sun.