Let’s not talk about politics

When I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina last winter, the weirdest thing I was asked the most about was not why did we carve former presidents’ faces into a mountain, which I’m still wondering about myself, but rather why was a piece of orange human garbage winning the Republican presidential nomination: “¿¡Por qué todos los yankees les gusta a Donald Trump?!”

One night, before Bernie Sanders had officially lost the primary, I was out at a bar with two of my friends and my friend’s sister who was visiting. A group of guys kept asking us to join our table and though we ignored them for a while, we eventually obliged. I can’t remember why, probably because in terms of loud men who harass women until we talk to them, they seemed pretty mild.

One guy asked us who we were voting for, we all said Bernie Sanders, and then the guy hugged us all and assured us he, too, would vote for Bernie Sanders if given the choice. He pointed at himself, “Yo, yo apoyo a Bernie Sanders, pero él,” he pointed at his friend, “¡Este hombre apoyo a Donald Trump!” Aside from our President Macri-loving host moms and the one anti-refugee German my friend went on a date with, most of us only knew porteños more Marxist than us, so we cried out, “¿¡POR QUE?!”

This boy explained how he was sick of Peruvians and Bolivians — aka indigenous people — coming into Argentina and using their public health care and universities, both of which are legally free for Argentines and foreigners. My friend Abby turned to the Bernie-supporting friend and asked what seemed like a logical question: “How are you guys friends? Do you ever fight? Like … pelear? Luchar?” He laughed at our violent Yankee naïveté, “¡Jajaja! ¿¡Pelear?! ¿¡Luchar?! ¡No!” Then he said the Spanish equivalent of “We talk, we argue and then we get drunk.”

The two main things I learned on my first day in Buenos Aires were: 1. All porteños go to therapy, and 2. Talking about politics isn’t off limits. I think these two things are related, but I don’t know that I’ll get to that analysis. What I will say is: Try talking about politics in the United States and you’ll quickly be hushed and met with whines of “can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” I don’t know how or why this cultural difference sprouted, perhaps it has something to do with living under various dictatorships that makes people realize that politics can’t be separated from everyday life, or perhaps it’s something else. Regardless, my issue is that in the United States we think we cannot talk about politics, but I argue: That’s impossible.

In the United States, we have a weird definition of politics. When we talk about “politics,” we talk about politicians, what’s happening in Washington, etc. We don’t actually talk about policies. And that’s not our fault: The image that’s been constructed for us of what “politics” is also doesn’t discuss policies. Example: the presidential debate. The debates are not about substance, they’re about creating personas of Donald and Hillary: our symbols of “politics.” Thus, when we talk about “politics,” we’re not actually talking about anything substantive — we’re talking about a performance, a false and constructed image of a thing, a spectacle.

When we talk about “politics” only as it relates to Donald and Hillary, our political consciousness neither exists nor has opinions of its own: It’s entirely created by and wrapped up in the being of our politicians’ personas and the language of their campaigns. When people say “make America great again,” they don’t mean anything. When people say “stronger together,” they don’t mean anything. Our political campaigns don’t mean anything. They are marketing campaigns. They make up slogans.

We think “politics” is a thing divorced from us as individuals because of how “politics” has been socially constructed and fed to us. The culture of “politics” that happens in Washington is very much an isolated, enclosed world that has weird and specific rules for how to do it right. But this is not actually or objectively what politics is, this is a social construction of politics, this is a simulacrum.

Our false definition of politics tricks us into thinking that we don’t need to talk about politics because politics can be separated from ourselves. This definition has allowed us to delude ourselves into seeing our political opinions as individual, private matters — and so something we do not need to discuss with each other — when, in fact, our political opinions are some of our most socially weighty opinions ever. By that I mean literally everything is politics because our society and policies politicize people’s existence: Capitalism is a political ideology, racism is a political ideology, sexism is a political ideology, and so on. It’s been a feminist rallying cry since the ’60s but it stands: The personal is political.

It’s kind of an easy analysis to say that the ability to not be political — to see politics as something separate from your daily life — is a privileged position. It’s easy, and it’s also not entirely accurate. Plenty of oppressed people ask not to talk about politics and to talk about something more pleasant. I think this is because our image of politics has been reduced to talking about politicians, and talking about politicians is unpleasant. And so this lie about what is “politics” leads us to another ideological lie: that we can just not talk about politics. When you don’t talk about politics, you’re literally left with nothing to talk about. You can talk about interpersonal conflicts, but those also almost always have a political dimension. We’ve depoliticized, normalized and naturalized aspects of our lives that are, in fact, political.

Because we’re not allowed to talk about politics, when we do talk about politics it gets mean. We have so much pent-up rage toward people who don’t agree with us that we can’t just talk, argue and get drunk. This is not just because some people in the United States have really heinous opinions. People in Buenos Aires and all over the world also have heinous opinions. I think it’s because “politics” is off limits and because we’re not encouraged to form political beliefs apart from our identification with political candidates — who clearly do not model productive political discussions. So then, when we get an opportunity to have political opinions we explode and perform the same rage spectacle we see performed on Twitter and in campaign ads and Snapchat filters and the debates and so on and so on.

Originally published by The Michigan Daily on 10/18/2016