March 1, 2021

LORENZEN | Political Debate Fatigue

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There was a time when I loved to debate about politics. Whether it was making idealistic points like a low-budget Aaron Sorkin wannabe while dressed to the nines as a high school debater, casually arguing with friends while eating Louie’s well past midnight or participating in the web of countless cordial and sometimes less than cordial debates which make up Cornell’s political discourse — I loved it all. But these days, I’m not sure that I still do. And I don’t think I’m alone in that feeling.

I am still fervently dedicated to politics. That hasn’t changed whatsoever. I follow the news like I need it to breathe. I eagerly look forward to every government class I take and every fascinating political speaker who virtually visits the University. I still like talking about politics with my close friends. But when it comes to the debates, the arguments, the fiery and occasionally vitriolic partisan clashes, I find myself simply exhausted.

Those types of debates are occasionally necessary. That’s why I’ve started them at times, sometimes controversially so, through my columns. That’s why I tend to find the responses to those columns far more important and thought-provoking than whatever I wrote in the first place. I really enjoy a good, thorough critique of my ideas regardless of whether I happen to find myself persuaded by it or not. I believe, probably naively, in a politics in which you present your beliefs, hear those who disagree with you and then sit back and allow the public to be your judge without being concerned about getting the last word or continuously rebutting each argument, subargument and counterargument.

Yet these days I find myself reluctant to argue much at all. I’m not entirely certain if that’s a sign of maturation, disillusionment or good old-fashioned exhaustion. This is not a critique of political debate at Cornell. It’s a confession from someone who’s been involved in quite a few debates here. I find myself asking: Why have I grown so disinterested in arguing?

The easy answer would be to suggest that this growing reluctance to argue is a liberal’s response to Trump being out of office — complacency. But this fatigue long predated President Joe Biden’s electoral victory and inauguration. The critic’s answer would be to say that I’ve clearly realized that my political beliefs are stale and performative, that I’ve conceded the debate to those I disagree with because I can’t possibly keep up with them. My abiding stubbornness disagrees with that. As does the fact that I’ve found there’s nothing better than a good debate with great debaters itching for a fight. You learn the most when those you’re arguing are brilliant and almost completely wrong.

Or maybe, after the unrelenting turmoil of the past year, the devolution of our country into two warring camps, the collective weight we bear on our shoulders of the perpetually angry, perpetually dissatisfying Twittersphere day after day, I am just a little burnt out from arguing. And that exhaustion also emerges from privilege — it’s easy to throw up your hands and take a break when you’re a white male attending an Ivy League university. It’s easy to be a political hobbyist when your life is not at stake. When you’re under assault by a political system which is systematically biased against you, you don’t have the same luxury. And that’s wrong.

Regardless of the answer, I’m inclined to believe that I’m not alone in this experience. If someone is as naturally drawn to a fiery debate, to a polemical column as I am is exhausted by it — the average Cornellian probably is too. That’s not to imply that we should stop having intense debates, that we should suppress speaking out against injustice in our community and hold those around us to high standards. I’m not criticizing these debates at all. Sometimes, we truly need them. And those who start them can be doing something genuinely brave.

I’m just also saying that the exhaustion grows more palpable these days. You can feel it in the air. It washes over your phone screen in every political group chat. It colors your interactions. It paints you in a kind of perpetual low-grade frustration. And it leaves us all to wonder: How are we supposed to act in this state of political fatigue? What are we supposed to do to remain engaged when high-minded, heated debate loses its luster?

I believe we have to embrace the fatigue, embrace the exhaustion, embrace the frustration. As debate comes to feel like intellectual batting practice, we don’t have to swing at every pitch. We can engage with politics in other ways inside and outside of the Cornell community. We can advocate for legislation we believe in on the state and local level. We can work on behalf of the candidates and causes which cut through the exhaustion, the endless, circular debate straight to our ideals. We can dive into political learning and come to better understand that which drives us. There is no singular correct answer to this, but regardless of how we choose to react to our political exhaustion, we have to remember that it doesn’t have to breed disengagement. It can actually galvanize engagement on a deeper, more productive level. 

So if you feel as I do, if you find yourself increasingly losing interest in following the argumentative back and forth, don’t consider yourself as growing disengaged or disinterested. Consider yourself energized in new ways by the political exhaustion.

Andrew V. Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at alorenzen@cornellsun.com. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.