The nature of politics has become more local than anyone could have imagined prior to the age of the Internet. Not only have our politicians become aware of the importance of cyberspace as a platform for the political discourse, but they have also used it as a tool to attract voters, often by pandering to certain groups and interests. The political rhetoric of the day has become more divisive when the tentacles of the political octopus have reached into the bedroom and underneath the blanket.
Will Dubbs recently opined about a resurgence of local politics in the age of the Internet. I agree that it would behoove our nation to involve more voters in the political discourse and educate them about salient issues. But I disagree with his assertion that the dialogue should primarily be framed on the local level. We deemphasize the macro level—not just the country, but also, and more importantly, the globalized international system to which it belongs—at our own peril.
That people can reschedule meeting times for the Super Bowl and not for the State of the Union says a lot about many citizens’ waning interest in politics. An event filled with political theater, held in a chamber increasingly known for hyperpolarization and stalemate, did not attract as wide an audience as a State of the Union address should have. I join millions of Americans who are disillusioned with politicians that behave more like Super Bowl players rather than true public servants, focused more on winning than on collaborating and improving national policies.
But it does not mean that I should ignore current affairs in America and around the globe; quite the contrary. Even in a new crisis of confidence (we could use the blunt assessments of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter), we must be the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” that Dwight Eisenhower once deemed essential.
As Americans, we directly engage in an international economic framework, whether willingly or not. Simply check the labels of your clothes or the sides of your electronics; they often (and sadly) indicate that they were manufactured on foreign soil. And while our nation has made strides in energy production in many sources, we still struggle to wean ourselves off OPEC oil. Consumers are often vulnerable to price swings in cases of political turbulence in far-flung corners of the world.
Obama is a master of localizing broader issues in order to persuade voters and fellow politicians. His landmark 2008 campaign transformed the art of political campaigning through this oratorical trick, along with a signature grassroots organizing style and an effective use of the Internet. It solidified in our collective psyche that America is a “coalition of communities,” as Dubbs wrote. Following that logic, I agree with Dubbs in that American politics ought to give a voice to all, especially “those who cannot speak for themselves.” As Ohio and Florida taught us in recent election cycles, every voice does and should count.
Although this type of rhetoric can create trust in a politician, it can also diminish the capacities of citizens to be suitably informed. Few can fully understand the minutiae of international affairs, so we can forgive a politician for conflating proper nouns; after all, they are human enough to misappropriate names.
The real danger lies when our discourse adopts and promotes shortsightedly monolithic views of international issues, rather than nuanced ones. What works or does not work in Iraq cannot apply fully in Afghanistan, as David Petraeus would warn. Nor can we develop a monolithic view of nations impacted by the Arab Spring. For example, the Obama administration’s position on Libya cannot feasibly apply to Syria. The administration’s policy must not become as infungible a mix of incoherent elements as the composite opposition to Assad, but it cannot be as clear cut as the War Hawks’ desired policy in Iran.
The political discourse must therefore be sensitive to the nuances of foreign policy, about which Americans must be as informed as they are about domestic politics. Whether or not the nation heeds Obama’s call to wean ourselves off of a “permanent war footing,” the very fact that our troops still serve overseas, and in theaters of war, means that our political discourse has often committed the sin of omission.
Governor Mitt Romney, in his 2012 RNC speech, mentioned the military, but not Afghanistan. And the candidate who warned his listeners to “stay informed”—Herman Cain—suffered an embarrassing brain freeze when asked a question on Libya. Cain also posited that if he were asked about “the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” he would respond with indifference, “How’s that going to create one job?”
Campaign politicking may be primarily local, but governing occurs on broader levels. To amend the 20th-century saying, all 21st-century politics are global.
Shatz is a member of the class of 2014.