The Eclipse of Rational Politics by Al Sikes


The total solar eclipse timed out at 160 seconds. It might have passed quickly, but it was a sensation in a nation that needs a distraction.

It is hard to say when the eclipse of our relatively stable and orderly political order began. It will be neither short nor salutary.

Scholars will take apart the political events of recent years. Dozens of questions will be asked and answered, and the few who pay attention to political science will enjoy the inevitable debates about the various perspectives; but, what about the rest of us?

Voters and candidates alike are not unlike little plastic figures that are moved around on chess boards. And, for the most part, they are pawns being manipulated by cynical political operatives. Those operatives who were once subordinated by political leadership are now the dominant forces. The leaders have abdicated, and those (us) who are supposed to choose between the pretenders and contenders are buffeted by the manipulators.

The results are frightening—democracy debased. The tools are well known, but their collective power is underestimated.

The playing field reflects a large and intrusive central government being used to shape and re-shape our social and economic lives—the stakes are high. The so-called political leaders, feigning an interest in what voters want, commission polls and the questions are largely made up of words and phrases that have the potential to make us mad.

The poll results are then turned over to the marketers who helped shape the survey. The marketers using advanced computer models categorize us by demographic traits and the emotions that we reveal through both our online and offline activities. They then go to work raising money and swaying opinion. Their messages largely engage our emotions not our brains.

We become subjects on a game board of identity politics. As we wittingly or unwittingly self-identify, we become targets of highly emotional appeals. Every medium is used to make and reinforce the appeal. And since the news media is often an extension of identity politics, the targeted audiences are easy to find.

Social media, a relatively new vehicle in this war of images and words, is an especially powerful tool in the minds and hands of the manipulators. It is used to both identify and animate and often we are provoked to pass the outrage along.

Washington marches provide an interesting context for today’s political engagement. These marches are organized by emotion. We leave the federal budget to the lobbyists, while we march on the pros and cons of abortion or the right to bear arms. We might be sinking in a bog of debt, but our representatives know where we stand on the “hot button” issues.

We now have a president who specializes in pushing emotional buttons. He is the ultimate identity politician.

It is hard to know whether Donald Trump is the last stage in our weakness. It is hard to know whether identity politics that closes minds and campuses represents the most elevated fever or not.

It is, however, clear that Americans need new leadership—voters need thoughtful, not scripted choices. But, if we the voters allow ourselves to be herded into the cattle chutes of identity politics, the debasement of democracy will continue.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Letters to Editor

  1. Thank you so much, Al Sykes, for your thoughtful and articulate columns! You and I come from different backgrounds polically and religiously but we are each passionate about our shared values. Derived from our respective faith traditions, we are committed to the spiritual perspective that faith in God indicates the sacredness of every human being including the potential and actual qualities each of us possesses for goodness on this sacred earth which we are pledged to preserve and nurture. Each of us honors what our parents taught us about our duty to our fellow and our commitment to our nation. I want to believe that each seeks the best of the other and prays for the success of blessing our respective efforts rather than daily efforts to demonize and curse one another. I further surmise that each is tired of residing in an echo chamber where we only listen to the words and ideas of those who think exactly as we do. When I read your columns, I am challenged to consider different possibilities about what you are advocating over my own strongly held views and I wonder how I might respond. Clearly, your record of honorable service on behalf of the common good dictates why we should respect and value your thinking whether we agree with you wholly or not.

    Here is my challenge! We do not stand alone. There are many of us in Talbot County who have lived with integrity, who have been highly successful in our respective business and professional careers, who have contributed mightily to our common well-being, who are thoughtful and who still believe in building our togetherness. Can we come together to discuss and promote our different economic, political, social, scientific and spiritual aspirations of kaleidiscopic proportions in affirming America’s future though we may have strong quibbles with each other? Can we do this because we respect and love our life adventure and desire as much for our children and grandchildren? Can we restore hope that American ingenuity is not a tug of war but an enormous collaboration of human enterprise?

    I know you through your leadership and commitment to “Jazz on the Chesapeake” and through your support of “Chesapeake Music.” I believe that we live among many talented, knowledgeable and accomplished players of life experience accustomed to a variety of sounds and tempos each seeking to feel the excitement of living in a world always hungry for fresh compositions. That may be something truly for the willing to SPY!

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