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New Year’s Alert: The Dangers of ‘Politi-Fatigue’

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My efforts at the traditional new year’s practices have evolved over time.

They have shifted away from resolutions, which have usually been profoundly lacking in “resolve,” and from predictions (pre-dicta), statements about the future, which usually have little to do with how things actually turn out, and from prognostications (pro-gnosis), which tend to presume a special knowledge about the future, which I certainly do not have.

Still, at the beginning of a new year, there is a need to think and say something about the needs, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The year of 2020 looks to be an unprecedented year on a number of fronts, given the complexity of challenges that face our collective lives as a nation, as individuals and as communities of faith.

A year that begins with a contentious impeachment trial of President Trump, a year that will be a “perfect storm” of political campaigns and messaging, and a year that will culminate in a November election gives rise to a number of concerns.

So, having abandoned resolutions, predictions and prognostications, I find myself pondering “concerns” for the new year – thoughts that emerge from the volatile context that is now center stage of our public life.

One such concern that I have at the beginning of this particular year is that we as a people will fall victim to what we might call “politi-fatigue” – a weariness in the face of the tensions and conflicts of the processes called forth by actions that have exposed the ease with which our systems can be tested.

As the likely drama of the year plays out, I worry that the constant exposure to the dysfunction that can find its way into our attention will push us from active citizenship to a more passive, apathetic form that disengages us from our responsibility as “we the people.”

A perspective that yields to “What’s the use?” thinking and slips into a helplessness before forces that seem too powerful to challenge is understandable in a time when an empire of moneyed power has come to dominate our public life.

The danger of such a trend is seen most clearly in a year like our new one, as the months unfold toward the one pivotal opportunity we, as individuals, will have to make a difference as a people in our governmental leadership.

A general election is our opportunity to offer a collective voice on who we are as a people that is not filtered through officials whose priorities are easily compromised by partisan loyalty.

Apathy is perhaps the primary handicap to the power of that process, as politi-fatigue leads people simply not to participate by declining to vote, or, in voting, to respond to the latest campaign thrust without careful thought.

Apathy is also a primary asset for those who would benefit from limited participation in the voting process, and it increases the effectiveness of various voter suppression techniques.

A passive populace is also more vulnerable to mal-information and exploitation of fears and resentments.

Active citizenship, contrasted to passive, does not necessarily imply what the term “activist” often connotes.

“Activists” provide a helpful service in support of causes that benefit from focused attention.

But active citizenship implies a committed, informed engagement with public processes.

It is a conscious effort to understand and respond to issues based on a level of discernment that is deeper than what is encouraged by sound-byte commentary that is often part of polarized programming.

My new year’s concern is that politi-fatigue will lead to the kind of passive citizenship that either will “check out” of the process or will be vulnerable to disciplined and skilled efforts to manipulate responses in ideological directions.

The oft-quoted line from Edmund Burke has had application in many settings, and it seems particularly pertinent to our lives in 2020: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.”

And his less familiar corollary is also applicable: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

Politi-fatigue will be easy to give in to; it is also a temptation important to resist.

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.