MR Round Table: Are You Experiencing Political Fatigue?
We talked to two political writers about why that happens and how to work through it
Leandra Medine: The topic of today’s round table is election fatigue. This election has already made history and it will alter our future, so are we even “allowed” to be fatigued? We’re feeling it here in the MR office. Amy Schumer made fun of Donald Trump during a recent stand up set and “dozens” of people walked out. Two people told The New York Times that the show was too political; others tweeted that they wanted her to make them laugh, not talk about politics. The Times also did an article on the negative psychological implications the election is having on many Americans.
Mattie Kahn, who covers politics for Elle.com, and Emily Tamkin, the associate editor of New America, are here to join us today, so let’s kick this off by asking them: Are you experiencing election fatigue?
Mattie Kahn: Yes. [I’m] definitely fatigued. And I feel guilty for feeling fatigued because I know that there are people who are far more immersed in this than I am, who are living and breathing this every step of the way. Elections are exhausting here because they last longer in the States than they do in other countries
But this election, if it’s not ripping at your very core…I feel like you haven’t even scanned the headlines. If you write about it, recap it, regurgitate it after every new thing that happens, you metabolize it inevitably so it’s just exhausting and upsetting.
Leandra: There’s just so much content. That gets to the root of a lot of how I feel about media at large: everyone wants to have an opinion or feels like we have to have an opinion on everything. Even the places you go to escape real life feel like they have to serve an opinion.
Mattie: Man Repeller has been talking about what’s going on in the world and how that affects women’s everyday lives. There are places that are very happy to be — and should be, in a lot of ways — the places we go to escape election coverage. Like, I read food blogs all the time. I love doing that. It’s the break in my day.
But if you create any kind of content and you feel any kind of way about how you want the world to be, as a person who makes that kind of stuff, even if you usually restrict yourself to food blogs, it feels irresponsible. It feels irresponsible not to say, “I’m thinking about this too,” or, “Here’s what’s going on,” or, “I can’t believe this thing just happened,” because it doesn’t feel okay to opt out the way it sometimes has.
Emily Tamkin: I want to start by saying that I totally get it. I live in Washington, I currently work at a non-partisan think tank and I’m about to start working at a publication that literally has “Policy” in the name. I’m around this all the time and I, like a lot of people, think this election is so long and drawn out and exhausting. This particular election has just been such a circus and so deeply insulting to so many people and so tiring that I’m sympathetic to it and I get it.
But on the other hand, the stakes are so high that I’m sort of like well…there are people who are saying that this is so bad for their health — and I don’t dispute that, I agree with that — but on the other hand, what’s really bad for your health is losing your health care, or not having control of your reproductive rights or all of the things that could come into play should we tune out of this election. As long as you’re a lifestyle publication and you’re writing about some segment of society, that is impacted by politics.
So, for example, you saw after the Trump/Billy Bush tape came out, Teen Vogue tweeted about it. Which is relevant to their readership, right? Even if you’re going there to see what sort of emoji you should send your crush, I do think that publications, on moments of intersection, should capitalize on those moments.
Leslie Price: I try not to get dragged down by the negativity of the election. The thing that I keep returning to, that actually feels exciting about this election, is that it has galvanized women in a way that I hadn’t seen in previous elections.
Mattie: Where I feel the real fatigue is when I read the millionth article about a woman being attacked online for sharing an opinion, for speaking up for herself. When another woman talks about sexual assault and she’s denounced as a liar. That’s when I get the feeling of being so bogged down by what’s out there, because it’s a story we know well. Can I take it for three more weeks? Yeah, of course! It’s so important that people are engaged. This election has given us all the opportunity to be aware of how much real misogyny is out there. Even though this is the best moment to be a woman in America, there’s still such an uphill climb. It feels like you’re in mile 10 of your marathon and you have so much left to go.
Leandra: I have two things to say. One of the things that I find really frustrating about all of the coverage is the really, really nasty, below-the-belt takedowns of Trump. Not because I don’t think he’s warranting them, but because we’ve heard it already. We’ve seen it done so many times. And I know that even the writers at Man Repeller are inclined to talk about how ludicrous and disgusting and crass and crude he is. I understand that and there’s a real, real frustration around the stuff he says, the allegations being thrown toward him, and what it will mean for women and thinking people if he becomes the president of this country.
We’ve done so much and come such a far way and if he becomes our president, what does that mean about all of that, right? So to that point, us shitting on him makes us no better than him. Do you know what I mean? I’m sick of the media throwing him under the bus without necessarily also making a new point.
Emily: When you read the umpteenth story about a woman who comes forward about being sexually harassed or assaulted, what’s tiring to me is not the existence of the story, it’s that it happened. And what’s tiring about the story of Trump saying, “Well I wouldn’t have ever done that because she’s ugly,” it’s not seeing those words in print, it’s that I saw a woman come forward and knew exactly how the next 24 hours was going to go because I’m alive in 2016 in America. The tiring parts of this election are not that we’re covering it, not that we’re reading about it, but that this is what it is. Which is why you still need to engage with the election. Otherwise, it just becomes mean tweets and takedowns on both sides.
Leslie: To the point about talking negatively about Trump, the biggest problem I have with it is when people take the lazy route. Going super-negative is the most lazy way to approach it. I want to read something that turns things over and makes me think about something in a new way, even if it’s illuminating the negative parts of this process. I want to read something that brings new ideas to light or offers a new perspective. It’s just so easy to go negative. Negative is the easiest default for this, period.
Mattie: Negativity is definitely a crutch, but I also find myself being frustrated by the temptation to set up some kind of pro-con column between the candidates and pretend like we’re even talking about people who are occupying the same solar system let alone running against each other in a race. When you have two options, the temptation is to go point-by-point and compare and contrast where they are on the same issues. But I get frustrated with that post-debate spin of like, “Who won the debate!?” Well, who won after the second debate? Probably the person who wasn’t suggesting he committed criminal activity the Friday before. You can only play by those journalistic rules — “We don’t go negative,” or, “We maintain our complete unbiased approach” — if everybody is playing by the rules. We’re in a situation where our candidates are not playing by the rules.
Leandra: What parts of the election are still energizing for you to cover?
Mattie: When you see the ball moving forward. Not just in terms of following the race or polls or things like that, but when you see that somebody presented a nuanced view of something. That because of something that happened, X group of women has decided to take X kind of action. When you see all the rhetoric actually become something. That’s still thrilling, or it can be.
Emily: I come from a policy shop, so what we’ve tried to do is look at some of the issues that aren’t going to be covered on CNN or MSNBC. For example, the political realignment that’s happening now, the demographic shift between the two major political parties. That — whether or not you’re tired of talking about it — is still really interesting from a pure political science point of view. I am a Russia and Eastern Europe nerd, so looking at the role that those areas have played [in this election] is bizarre but interesting.
Possibly the most interesting thing, and this is after Obama won the first time — I read an article that was like, “One thing I learned this year is that you do not come for women.” You’ve seen that in this election, not just because we have a female candidate on the top of the ticket for the first time ever. Whether or not you like her, it’s an incredible moment in our country’s history, the way in which women have mobilized in this election, have become galvanized around certain issues. And not just women. The way in which different groups who, in the past, would have been silenced by this particular process, are saying, “No, we’re not going to do that.” None of us should get tired of writing about or talking about or celebrating that.
Leslie: It’s exciting to feel like you are watching history. I’m not that old, but the stuff we’re talking about and the topics that we’re talking to high schoolers and teens about is just worlds away from what we were thinking about when I was in high school. Some of this was never discussed. It’s incredible.
I felt that way about Obama, too. How lucky were we? How lucky are we!? That we lived through that.
Mattie: I have a friend who’s doing a lot of work around the fact that there’s a big backlog on citizenship applications [in the U.S.] and that many people won’t be able to vote in this election because their applications just haven’t been processed, which is terrible. But! For all of those very bad stories, she also has introduced me to the fact that there are many, many people who are voting in this election for the first time because they’re new immigrants. They don’t feel like this is a civic duty, they feel as though their life depends on it.
I don’t envy being in that position; I don’t think it’s “exciting” that they get to go through that, but I think about how amazing it is that they really feel one voice, one vote. I remember that there are not just a dozen people who feel that way, but thousands of people who are waking up on election day with that urgency.
Leandra: What will you do if Trump is elected?
Emily: Ha! Good question. I get annoyed with when people say, “Oh, I’ll just move to Canada,” or, “I’ll just move elsewhere.” Like, how — and I say this as somebody whose siblings are both Canadian citizens — how nice that you have a career, and you have the money, and whatever [else], that will allow you to move somewhere where this isn’t your problem. The people who are going to be most affected by a Trump presidency, in a lot of cases, can’t do that. So I will stay and try to find gainful employment doing meaningful editorial work in the Trump Administration to try to uh, make it better.
Leslie: We’re still untangling the things that happened under Bush. Obama’s done so much, but those bad decisions can last years and years and years and years. They affect so many people. Policy, boring policy that we may not ever write about or know about, affects people’s lives in innumerable ways. And it’s a luxury to be in New York; it’s a luxury to be here.
Mattie: I have such complicated feelings about this. I had relatives who were on vacation on election day in 1933 in Germany. When my great-grandmother saw that Hitler was elected chancellor, she didn’t even go [back] pack up her house. She stayed. It would be like if you were out of the country on election day and you decided: that person’s evil and I’m never going back.
We’re lucky to be in America. It’s still a democracy, however threatened. But the thing that people tweet about — “I’m going to move if he gets elected!” — there’s somebody in my family who actually did that. There’s no question that we are all alive because she did it. I’m not ready to make that choice!
That story has been passed down to me and felt like such ancient history. It doesn’t feel so ancient anymore.
Leandra: What do you use as a reprieve from the election?
Mattie: I like cooking. I find that it’s really hard to pay attention to what else is going on when you’re following a recipe, so I’ve made some really elaborate desserts over the past few months. Members of my family can attest. When you feel okay to maintain your sense of humor about [the election], that’s not the worst thing in the world. You can hold two thoughts in your head at the same time. You can know that this is deeply serious, and that you have to do everything you can to be as responsible of a citizen as you can be, and still laugh if there’s a funny skit either about it or about something totally unrelated. It’s a great time for rom-coms right now.
Leandra: What about you, Emily?
Emily: I do a lot of yoga. And I read fiction, which reminds you of the depth of human empathy even if social media doesn’t. Yes, you need to stay involved; yes, you need to stay engaged; yes, you need to stay tuned in; but that doesn’t mean every moment of every day. You still need to sleep, you still need to take care of yourself. The consequences of the election [could be] worse than the stress of the election, but we also need to take care of ourselves.
Leslie: I continue to search for meaning. I haven’t run out of interest. I look at history, or try to decode why we react the way we do to some of these things. I find it endlessly fascinating.
Leandra: What’s weird for me is that none of my release valves are working. That’s why I wonder about the psychological effect of the election. I have historically always stayed away from outwardly expressing a political opinion that was so literal. Man Repeller is kind of a political statement by simple virtue of being what it is. But all of my escapist valves no longer work. It’s very peculiar.
Leslie: The thing about working online and seeing the dialogues online and interacting with people online is that it’s just never going to be the same as talking with people face-to-face. It perverts our interactions in some way, makes everything feel more polarized. It is helpful to just have interactions with people in a normal way.
Leandra: What advice to you have for someone who is trying to get away from the election without feeling guilty?
Emily: If you want to take a weekend off of social media, off of watching the news, do that. If you’re reading this conversation or are having this conversation with yourself, you’re already an engaged person. So keep being that. Keep being an engaged person who takes responsible care of him or herself.
Mattie: You have to ask yourself, “At what point have I had enough? At what point do I feel I am making an informed decision?” I am not letting anyone off the hook on election day. No matter how exhausted you are, you better go vote. But it’s okay to say to yourself, “I’ve had enough. This is no longer benefitting me or the people around me. I no longer feel a personal responsibility to keep reading.”
Leandra: Also, just because you have no choice but to have developed an opinion about this election and to have made a decision about this election, feel proud of that. Because choice is hard. We are consistently being confronted with having too many choices and maybe there is so much decision fatigue right now because people are going back and forth with opinions that are unlike their own, trying to sway others. Take a minute to feel proud of yourself for being a thinking person.
Emily: And to have done the work and have stayed informed and stayed engaged, exactly as you said. If you put in the work and the energy and effort to have talked to your friends and come to a decision and read your sources and read past the headline, you have done your good citizenship work; you don’t need to torment yourself. You are an American citizen. You are also a human being.
Leandra: And regardless of what happens on November 8th, take yourself out for a drink afterward.
Illustration by Emily Zirimis.