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Let me just start by letting you guys know: it's kind of a miracle you get a weekly article from me at all. I spend all week thinking about what to write about, and frequently just wing it. Right now I have on my phone a draft that I spent all week working on about Social Constructs - which I came up with two weeks ago and was going to publish today - as well as the beginning of a draft on False Dichotomies that I started this morning, a couple possible intros on the topic of how contrary to the popular maxim "capitalism breeds innovation," capitalism in fact stifles innovation, and a lengthy tome answering (GENTLY) an old friend's public question about why it seems like everyone hates Liberals; and then I finally decided on my way home from work today to write about Relatability Politics.
All of that to say: I have almost no idea what I'm doing here, and the fact that I'm managing to actually be on schedule with these flop pieces is nothing short of personally miraculous. I'd thank Jesus if I thought he had anything to do with it.
With that out of the way, let's talk about the title. What is Relatability Politics? What does that even mean? How likely is it that you're going to want to punch me in the face at least twice while reading this?
Well to answer the first two questions: I made the term up. It's the best I could come up with. I thought what I was thinking of was Identity politics, or maybe Personality Politics, but both of those terms have definitions very different from the phenomenon I'm thinking of. I googled the concept and searched through the first eight pages of results before concluding that I'd have to make up a damn name myself.
(The answer to the third question is "Pretty much definitely.")
What I'm talking about by Relatability Politics is the idea that a person deserves a vote based on who they are as a person, on the inside, as opposed to the track record of their actions and the policies they intend to implement. It's the idea that the important thing is that a person hold the "right" views on things, and the assumption that they're genuine and that the correct actions will naturally follow, rather than the idea that candidates should earn our votes by offering the policies that best match the Will of the People. It's the idea that our primary concern in deciding who to vote for, in any office, should be who they are and what they believe; that what they'll actually do is an afterthought.
It's mostly, in my experience, used more in defending a candidate than in choosing one - this is a conversation usually had when a person has already chosen who to vote for, and needs a good way to justify that decision - and it is most definitely not a healthy use of the democratic process.
That might be a bit vague, so here's an example from about 867 real conversations I've had this past month:
"Vote for Biden! Trump doesn't believe in climate change!"
"Okay, but Biden isn't planning on doing anything useful about climate change either."*
"At least he believes it's real!"
*I have since learned that he has improved his plan from meaningless nothingness to an actual plan with the only real flaw being that it takes too long
So the idea here is either that, because Biden believes in climate change, naturally he'll do something about it, or that even if he doesn't do anything about it, it's enough that he believes in it - and I have no idea which of those it is, because for some reason, I stop getting responses right around the time I ask.
Can we transpose that concept to our own everyday lives for a moment? Are there any areas where you and I can affect change, or even just get credit, for just believing something even if we don't act on it?
Take marriage (I should know, I'm on my third): If I leave my dirty clothes everywhere, never wash dishes, never change diapers, pee on the toilet seat, and sit around drinking beer on the couch all the time (probably while browsing Tinder, but who could ever be sure, because she knows I lie about pretty much everything) - then does it really matter that I believe that my wife deserves to be treated well? Or is that just a nice easy cop-out so I don't have to put any effort in?
How about if I believe that my car needs an oil change at regular intervals? Am I excused from actually changing the oil at any point just for believing that it needs to be done?
More importantly, is belief enough to end racism? Sexism? Poverty? Will the cops stop beating and shooting Black people for funsies if enough of us just believe they shouldn't?
So why do politicians get a free pass on this? Why are we satisfied with them believing the right things without actually doing anything?
It's part of a larger issue in which we make politics more about characters and drama than about what actually gets done in this country. We elevate politicians to hero status and take any accusation of fault as a personal attack, while simultaneously miring them in petty drama and watching them like reality TV characters.
More than anything else, the headlines that get the most attention are those about petty drama and insults:
More than that, politicians are transformed into idols, celebrities, and elevated to positions of social sainthood while at the same time reduced to soundbytes and one-liners that have more to do with sass and attitude than about anything remotely related to the American People.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a fantastic example of this - not her, personally, to be sure; from everything I see that's relevant to her position (which is sadly not a lot), she's a great legislator, her heart and mind are in the right place and she's doing everything she can within a system deliberately not designed to do what she's trying to do to actually help people. I think she's great. What I don't think is great is the fact that all of that gets overlooked in favor of where she came from and how good she is at sass. Almost everything I see about AOC is "AOC claps back" or "AOC savage burn" or similar crap. Not a lot of mention of bills she's writing or sponsoring, not talk of her emerging voting record, just a litany of sick burns. It's a disservice to her as much as it's a disservice to us, and she not the only one.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (told you you'd want to punch me) isn't seen as a high-ranking (conspicuously un-elected) interpreter of the constitution as it applies to proposed legislation; she's seen as a feminist icon, a sassy badass, and, somehow, the single thread keeping us from falling from contentious democracy into abject fascism. We may discuss the cases she presided over (some more than others), but her role is elevated from "one of nine votes" to "literally the most important factor in these decisions" - including and especially in cases where she was the dissenting opinion (meaning nothing liberals support was won that day).
Meanwhile, we spend so much time obsessing over her dissent collars and her statements and how horrible things are going to be without her, that we completely ignore the important conversation about why Supreme Court Justices are appointed instead of elected in the first place, and why the absolute hell the Supreme Court - as, I cannot stress this enough, un-elected, appointed officials - has so much influence on what our rights are in the first place.
And look - all of those things may be true! I'm not saying she didn't achieve amazing goals that set precedent for, and gave hope to, women everywhere; I'm not saying she didn't have some killer sass; and I'm not saying...well, okay, I am saying that she definitely wasn't the only thing standing between us and Nazi Germany - we've been past that point for quite some time now (and besides, in my opinion it's a more apt comparison to the run-up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994) - but that's a conversation for another week. The point is that those achievements are not what we should be focusing on; the actual results she produced should be our focus.
Another great example is Obama (I know, just racking up the punches): Huge accomplishments! First Black president - that is amazing; and he was incredibly dignified, and had an impressive sense of humor for a politician, and he got Bin Laden, and legalized gay marriage and gave us healthcare! And now he just has the best callouts about Trump - he says what we're all thinking!
It all makes it really easy to forget the fact that he ordered drone strikes on civilians, and created the deportation centers that Trump has turned into full-on concentration camps, and the fact that he actually wasn't responsible for getting Bin Laden (he may have ordered it, but he was definitely not there) or legalizing gay marriage (the Supreme Court did that), and that he actually didn't give us healthcare, just required us to have it. Not to mention the fact that he says what we're all thinking because we're all saying it anyway, so it's pretty easy to join in and say it; it's not like he's making some huge bold statement, just copying us in saying things that are so obvious that they should go without saying anyway. "Trump is bad! We need Not-Trump!" is not exactly a new take.
The point is, while it's great to acknowledge amazing accomplishments, we take it into hero-worship territory, where a person is too loved and valued and obsessed over to allow their objective faults to be acknowledged and addressed - and where we lose our minds with excitement when they do things we do, like talking smack.
I get it, it's fun; but here's the thing: every bit of that is disastrous for our future. These politicians know that this is what we're about; they bank on it. Joe Biden knows that he doesn't have to put meaningful policy in place to combat climate change, because no one is expecting him to and no one is penalizing him over it - I mean everyone is pretty loud about the fact that he has their vote already; anything good he actually does is just gravy at this point. Any democratic senator can win their election just on the promise of "being a Democrat in congress." That's all it takes - Biden has the vote, and Biden can't do anything without a majority-Democrat congress, so every Democrat running for congress has all but won already, even if they never even suggest they're going to do anything.
The point is, they don't have to do anything for us, and they know it! And I will give $100 to the first person who manages to tell me a single legitimate, credible reason that that is a good thing, because the entire concept our system of government is supposedly based on is the idea that the People are in charge, and congress and the president and the courts are all there to be nothing more than executors of our Will, in different capacities. Their job is only meant to be to take what We decide We want life to be like in our country, make it into an enforceable plan, and provide a way to enforce that plan - the plan reflecting Our will. If that's not the case; if these people are our Leaders, and our will is meaningless to them; if they're just there to wield power over us at their whim and we just have to deal with it - as has been made increasingly clear over the years - then frankly, what are we doing here?