PITTSBURGH (TNS) — Seven days. That’s how much time the American people were given to rest and recollect between the 2022 midterm elections and the first candidacy of the 2024 cycle.
Whether you view Donald Trump as an existential threat or eagerly await the restoration of the king-in-exile, everyone wants and needs a break. Hardcore politicos have joked forever that the next cycle begins the day after the last one ends, just like the odds for the next Super Bowl come out within hours of the Lombardi Trophy ceremony. But, also like football prognostication, everyone who isn’t a professional or a nerd can ignore it.
Now electoral politics is imposing itself on American life in a new way. Donald Trump is the reason. The 45th president has ensured that the next election, and his own name and face, will be a dominant presence in American media for 720 days. He couldn’t even let us have this holiday season, as a treat.
Of course Trump was going to be in the news regardless, if only for his legal jeopardy. He’s also great for ratings: Even if he hadn’t officially announced, media speculation about his potential announcement would have filled the void. And the Democrats find it politically useful to keep him in the headlines, especially after this month’s elections demonstrated that he’s a drag on GOP performance at the polls.
But it’s still undeniably contemptuous of the American people to force us to accept something absolutely no one wants or asked for: the perpetual campaign. While widespread political apathy is often said to be symptomatic of an unhealthy democracy, political oversaturation is an even more concerning sign of ill health. A satisfied populace can afford to hold politics at a healthy arm’s length; it’s a society in crisis, or one that fears an imminent crisis, that becomes obsessed with politics to the exclusion of other goods.
The United States is not, and was never supposed to be, ancient Athens — a chaotic experiment in mass rule that empowered every citizen (narrowly defined) to participate in every political decision. As a “mixed constitution” — incorporating aspects of rule by the many, the few and an individual — our republican system is meant to introduce some distance between everyday citizens and the details of their rule.
Being an informed voter is only one small aspect of republican citizenship. The role most people play in maintaining a healthy and prosperous society isn’t to dedicate themselves to national politics.
It’s building and nurturing flourishing families, both nuclear and extended; it’s forming meaningful friendships that give our communities strength and durability; it’s performing consistent and honorable work to build wealth and habits of excellence. It’s local, personal, direct. When the relatively minor duties of political rule that fall to everyday people interfere with these greater duties, that’s a sign of dangerous social disorder.
That Donald Trump will be an uninvited guest at Thanksgiving tables around the county this week destabilizes the most important relationships. A New York Times/Siena poll recently found that 19% of Americans have had friend and family relationships lost or hurt over politics. The toll of quieter ruptures — families drifting apart personally and politically without an explicit break, friends written off after social media posts — is almost certainly higher.
The political oversaturation we suffer during election seasons raises the stakes of our differences, turns more and more people into obsessive political proselytizers, and makes more and more issues seem absolutely important, so crucial to the future of America that we can’t even be friends with people we disagree with.
The perpetual campaign makes this much worse. We don’t have a break to go back to our normal lives and let our passions drain away and our exaggerated ideas evaporate. When campaign seasons meld together, there’s no cooling-off period for partisanship: The whole system runs hot all the time, until it overheats.
The only solution is an agreement that most of the time between elections will be as free of electoral politics as possible. No one will start campaigning until just before the primaries begin. That political cease-fire should come with mutual disarmament — softening of rhetoric, pulling back on cynical advertising and declining to press temporary advantages when doing so would only cause further division.
There’s not much hope of this happening, but at least until now candidates have waited several months after an election to start seriously campaigning. By officially launching his candidacy now, with the election only a week behind us, Donald Trump chose to give the nation a perpetual campaign. And worse, his kind of campaign: The most divisive figure in several generations of American politics will campaign by intentionally emphasizing all the issues and qualities that make him so divisive.
If the tide does turn against him among Republican primary voters, I wonder if his refusal to give us all a break will be a reason. The voters who will determine the nominee are the plurality who are open both to Trump and to post-Trump options: They don’t want or need to be given the hard-sell treatment. They, like almost all their fellow Americans, don’t want to think about the election for another 12 months, at least.
Indeed, if there’s one thing Americans can agree about across all the usual divides, it’s that campaign seasons are exhausting, that politics is becoming overwhelming, and that we can all use a break. Donald Trump is defiantly denying us that. And he may well be punished for it.
(Brandon McGinley is the deputy editorial page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, email@example.com.)