I recently began studying for a Master in Public Policy degree at Tufts University. Someone asked me why I was doing this when I already had a Master of Divinity degree and they wondered how the degrees were related. My answer is playing out in real time this week with the 2020 United States Presidential Election. Although my initial impetus to pursue the degree came from a desire to counteract the harmful ways in which I recognize religion is being turned into a policy weapon, I see that this violence is much more wide spread. Nor is it specific to one religion’s (Christian) fundamentalism.
…we are living in the age of the…”celebritician.” These are people who are not so much public servants who wish to help govern our society as they are eager to craft and promote a brand that has a high market value.
As we watch an electoral map unfold in what is an unthinkable way for many people on both sides of the political spectrum, what we are seeing is a combination of things. First, there is the vast difference in which sources people use to acquire news. With the emergence of Fox news as a veritable state television network for Trumpism and with CNN working to create some kind of counternarrative to that bias, news and news sources have become inherently political. Add to this the plethora of podcasts, YouTube channels, vlogs and blogs, none of which are regulated or assessed for bias, people are capable of creating their own comfortable echo chambers tuned specifically to what they want to hear…24/7.
Next, we are living in the age of the celebrity politician… “celebritician.” These are people who are not so much public servants who wish to help govern our society as they are eager to craft and promote a brand that has a high market value. We first flirted with this with Jack and Jackie. Then Ronnie and Nancy literally brought Hollywood to Washington. The Clintons monetized their political lives to a level that has been questioned by GOP pundits as criminal. Michelle and Barack were the total anomaly that we couldn’t/can’t get enough of…and are willing to pay for no matter what the cost. The pinnacle of celebritician has been “The Trump Show” fully produced for syndication with story arcs, villains and heroes, costumes and characters and of course fabulous hair. Think Dallas in D.C. Where this becomes problematic is when a celebritician becomes the total embodiment of what we expect to see as the face of public policy.
The final piece of this toxic equation is the level to which aspirational culture has taken over our political sensibilities. I recently described this through the metaphor of how people attach a personal affinity to sports teams. For many people in the United States, we attach a personal sense of ownership and aspiration to what sports teams do on the field, ice or court. We don’t just cheer them on, we invest in knowledge about their training and the makeup of the team. We follow and work hard to predict the statistics on how well they will perform and we believe on a certain level that we can will them to an outcome. We project on sports teams a level of aspiration to “win” that may or may not be healthy from a psychological standpoint, but when applied to politics and policy is obviously doing us all tremendous harm.
What I’ve realized is that together these elements (information, embodiment, aspiration) add up to the reason I’m pursuing my degree. Together they create the framework for something that is the cornerstone of what ministers are trained to understand deeply: belief. Religious belief is based on a source of information, how it is embodied either by prophets or within the self and how that information and embodiment add up to aspirations for everything from having an afterlife to literally turning your body back into the earth. Ministry is the business of belief and more and more so are our politics.
But it is not just that we have entered into a time where politics are beliefs, it is that we have no modern, evolved tools or language to process what that means. This leaves the left and right hunkered down in their opposite corners assuming that every move made by the other side is going to be one of aggression or attempted erasure. Ministers will tell you that living in suspicion is much more dangerous than living in fear. Suspicion is the ground in which assumption grows and assumptions are what eventually become underpaid women, caged immigrant children and dead unarmed black people.
We are in a desperate need of a way to completely rethink what it means to be political. We have to ask tough questions about what it means to navigate the world we have created where belief drives policy. What are the common sources of information, the embodied sources of mutually respected leadership and the unified goals and aspirations that we can all work toward within a wide range of belief systems? These are the questions that our policy makers must learn to be asking. That is what I believe the future of public policy will hinge on. Without it, we may literally tear each other apart.