I recently heard a commencement speaker define politics as the pursuit, acquisition, and retention of power over other people. Though I think that this does describe politics as it is currently practiced, that’s not the way that it should be.
Politics ought to mean rational people deliberating about how to best order their lives together. But that’s an idealist’s view. It’s asking too much of people in 2016 America to expect that they might rationally deliberate about much of anything. We’re too attached to slogans, sound bytes, insults, internet memes, Tweets, Facebook posts, and advertisements to bother with deliberation. Nobody can sustain the attention that it takes to have rational discussion. If it can’t be summed up in 140 characters or in a Facebook meme, then we don’t have time for it.
But rational deliberation is essential for any people who want to remain a democracy. Because we don’t have the will, energy, or attention-span that it takes to have rational discussion about important issues, our politics is no longer truly democratic; instead, it’s a struggle for power completely devoid of any interest in truth.
Once again, superhero comics have done a pretty good job of diagnosing the problem.
Marvel’s 2006 crossover event, Civil War, perfectly captured the state of American politics. That book is about an ideological divide between good people: a fight between a group of inexperienced heroes and some supervillains goes badly wrong and results in a lot of collateral deaths, including a number of elementary school students. The disaster causes congress to rush to pass the Superhuman Registration Act, which requires superheroes to register their identities and work for the government. This divides the heroes, and when it becomes apparent that there will be no deliberation about the question, a civil war erupts.
Many—I don’t know if it’s fair to say most—readers side with Captain America, who represents the heroes who oppose the SRA as a dangerous violation of their rights and an example of government overreach. But in the end it doesn’t matter whether or not Cap is right, because the politics of the Marvel Universe, much like the politics of the real world, is not about the pursuit of truth: instead, it’s about power, and there was no way for the anti-registration side to win in terms of power. In the end, Cap surrenders, saying that even though his side was winning the physical fight with the pro-registration heroes, they weren’t persuading anybody of the rightness of their cause. You might say that Cap’s surrender is the only truly good act of the entire story because it gives the lie to the politics of his world: the SRA was never really about what is right; it was about power.
But what would have happened had Cap refused to surrender? What if he had continued to fight, knowing that the anti-registration cause was just? The 2015 version of Civil War, which imagined an alternate universe (part of Marvel’s universe-smashing-combining Secret Wars event) in which the conflict of Civil War had continued instead of ending with Cap’s surrender, and the picture is not pretty. In this world, the U.S. no longer exists; instead, two nations have formed in the wake of the conflict: the Iron (with Tony Stark as its president), which encompasses the eastern U.S., and the Blue (led by Steve Rogers), which includes the central U.S. and the western states. The two sides are in a perpetual state of conflict, and each side holds an advantage over the other: the Iron, as an internationally recognized state, has trade privileges that the Blue does not have; but the Blue has the majority of the territory. Each has something that the other wants—in other words, each has power over the other, and each tries to use that power to exert its will over the other.
When Tony and Steve come together to try and find a way to compromise, it becomes clear that there can be no compromise when all that matters is power. And as it turns out, while the two sides fight each other for a greater share of power, they both fail to see an enemy who threatens to destroy both of them.
The lesson of the 2015 reimagining of Civil War isn’t that what divides us is merely a distraction from the “real” issues. Most of the things that divide us do matter—a lot. But as long as we refuse to engage in real, honest deliberation about our political differences and instead simply fight (not necessarily with superpowers or violence, but with our slogans, picket signs, Tweets, sound bytes, and lawsuits), then either our civilization will destroy itself from within, or it will be brought low by an outside enemy that we fail to see until it’s too late.