Politics Are Still Not the Problem

One year after Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection, I found myself wondering why the America he left us felt so divided. Why it felt especially divided. Though it’s simple enough to see that he broadened our divisions, his divisiveness wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking in itself. Prior to Trump, the country certainly had no shortage of racist, sexist, xenophobic public officials or the average joes who voted them in, and all three of those vices had once been the supreme law of the land. I asked myself, if one hundred years ago I’d have been federally labeled as a second-class citizen, what is it about this man’s hatred that feels so original?

The answer, I came to find, was all around me. The political left, right and center were hopelessly mired in debate about voter suppression and expansion, abortion rights, trans rights, the honest teaching of American history, the mention of sexual and gender identity in schools, and other matters in which each side’s most pronounced grievances were the actions and agendas of another side. Liberals accused conservatives of weakening voter access in left-leaning communities and conservatives accused liberals of refusing to safeguard fair elections. Liberals accused conservatives of promoting revisionist history and conservatives accused liberals of indoctrinating schoolchildren with divisive far-left ideology. I discovered that it was this explosion of “I’m right and they’re wrong” politics and its effects that felt so foreign to me, that felt so unmistakably Trumpian. Because of him, human rights came to be more about politics than humans.

After coming to this conclusion, I published an article called “Politics Are Not the Problem” in which I based my argument on the way certain conservatives, most notably Trump, have repackaged white supremacist ideology as nothing more than a set of harmless conservative ideals. Since then, political involvement in human rights has all but reached its crescendo, the most recent examples being the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision and the congressional challenges to the protection of same-sex marriages. When the court ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the Constitution doesn’t defend a woman’s right to an abortion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion that the decisions that legalized same-sex marriage, protected the right of spouses to buy and use contraception without government interference, and determined that private and consensual sexual acts between adults shouldn’t be criminalized could stand to be reconsidered.

This unholy union between political discussion and basic humanitarianism is an essential characteristic of the post-Trump era. Before him, toxic practices like racism and sexism were mostly unafraid to speak their true names. Since redlining, gerrymandering and other voter suppression tactics, gendered wage gaps, and challenges to same-sex marriage were all still pressing issues, there was more than enough political doublespeak to go around; but the waves of future (or, for earlier generations, hypothetical) Trump voters tended to make themselves a lot clearer.

It was once said that a woman shouldn’t have control over her own body because it’s better for a man to control it. Now, though this is still believed, Americans of this opinion cite the Constitution to justify their misogyny instead of being open misogynists. Or take the “critical race theory” debate, where racists are opting for “patriotic education” instead of “far-left,” “socialist,” “woke” and “divisive” education, by which they mean the history of American racism. Back in the day they’d just say that us Blacks don’t deserve to know what’s being done to us.

This kind of coded language is extremely dangerous. At best, it’s used unwittingly by the millions of Americans trapped in the 24-hour news cycle, and is scarcely more than a learned regurgitation of their favorite politicians’ and commentators’ talking points. At worst, it’s used by those politicians and commentators to sow doubt, distraction and division, all with the intent of furthering their own politically and personally self-serving ends.

For all the positive change that politics have the power to bring about, due to how they’re being used, they’re perhaps doing nothing more effectively than obstructing that change. In such a situation, our survival depends on our ability to hear the unsaid.

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