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The Dangers of “Cotton Candy” Politics



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Regular readers of this column know that I usually employ it to reflect on Institute for Policy and Governance (IPG) projects and seek to explore and illuminate the broader questions or concerns those efforts embody. I want to depart temporarily from that precedent to comment on the fundamental importance of civic capacity for deliberation for self-governance, a concern that underpins all of IPG’s work. Indeed, recent years have witnessed something of a renaissance on the topic via a wide-ranging literature ¾how such deliberation might be defined, what processes might conduce to it, how to equip individuals with capacities to practice it and so on. This literature is doubtless a rich one, and it owes much to many scholars. Yet, at bottom, these authors have examined an apparently simple question: how human beings can come to live peaceably and reasonably in freedom with one another while addressing the inevitable conflicts among their number that will arise. My sense is deliberation has become so signal a question once more because interested scholars are well aware that in the United States (U.S.) and many other nations, a large and growing share of citizens exhibit less informed awareness of political questions, even as such issues have become more enmeshed in their personal daily lives. To some extent, the internet and social media, as well as the canalization of communications media more generally, have allowed a share of citizens to turn inward and worry more about reporting their reaction to their breakfast cereal to their friends than on, say, a genocide occurring in another nation or another mass shooting in their own. They can, and many also seek, news and information that conforms to their personal world view or affirms their opinions and expectations.

These individuals have become self-absorbed masters of their own wants and preferences and constant purveyors of the same, while increasingly less conscious of community occurrences, and still less capable of imagining what they owe the broader body politic. Indeed, they believe it owes them, and they demand that it serve their personal desires more efficiently and effectively. I have overstated and exaggerated this point for emphasis, as there are many citizens who use social media and the internet to discuss and to learn more about current events and governance. But my point here is widely known and is as broadly a topic of concern.

U.S. elementary and secondary schools have contributed to this situation, as they have not adequately acquainted their students with how American democratic politics works, or their roles in its success, for some decades. In 2017, for example, only 24 percent of U.S. high school seniors who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics examination scored at a level high enough to be deemed “proficient” in their understanding of core ideas related to the American regime and its Constitution.[1] This educational trend is partly the product of political and social choices that have sought to prize markets as the arbiter of all things and to ensure that students are “job ready,” rather than also to make certain they become informed and deliberative citizens. Relatedly, this result is surely the consequence of decades of partisan attacks on the very idea of the necessity for self-governance, in favor of a belief that capitalism and markets alone can serve those political functions.

The conflation of these trends has made Americans, particularly, more vulnerable to what one might call a “cotton candy politics” of empty, but initially alluring surface claims focused not on reality, but on fears and perceived slights and with no awareness and less concern about their longer-term implications. Cotton candy is a superficially appealing treat with no nutrition value, but with long-term pernicious effects if consumed in undue quantities. By analogy, I share four brief current examples of this new form of politics here. All are familiar, and all have seen their full flowering during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and administration, which has both relentlessly exploited this trend and deepened it for purposes of mobilization and to serve the President’s personal narcissism and self-evident cruelty.

Perhaps most familiarly, Trump has argued with no evidence that refugees and immigrants constitute pariahs who arrive only to prey on American women and steal livelihoods from all other citizens. As a matter of historical fact, these very individuals have played and continue to play critical roles in building this nation. Trump’s egregious claims use perceived differences and the anxieties of residents most concerned about, and directly affected by, social and economic change to scapegoat ruthlessly and thereby undermine democratic norms and human rights. More, Trump’s assertions have trivialized the complexities of self-governance and life in a diverse community by arguing that these imagined “woes” can be addressed by constructing a wall that will keep “those” people out. Not only is this idea an infantilizing grotesquerie, it encourages the very anxiety it purports to alleviate. Nonetheless, this bluntness makes it a potent mobilization device for a population otherwise only partly engaged and aware, if listening at all. This rhetoric and the unreasoned policy it engenders separates Americans into favored and disfavored groups and thereby erodes the possibility for civic unity.

Trump has exacerbated the implications of these claims and actions addressed to “outside others” with systematic attacks on minorities within the American population. These verbal assaults have taken the guise of anti-Semitic campaign ads and comments, high profile defenses of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist sympathizers and continuing condemnations of transgender and Hispanic Americans. He has frequently alluded to a non-existent crime wave in the country’s cities and persistently denounced those he claims are creating it, in an obvious gesture to fear and racial animus among a share of the nation’s population. Again, he has launched these attacks particularly to appeal to an economically restive group in the body politic and his discriminatory claims have undermined citizens’ sense of shared purpose and comity, even as they have violently scapegoated specific groups and subjected them to misplaced animus.

To these deliberate efforts to polarize, with their implications for civic capacity and shared norms, Trump has added a fresh embrace of torture in the guise of his nomination of an individual deeply involved in the George W. Bush administration’s malignant and much-criticized infatuation with torture to serve as head of the Central Intelligence Agency. Trump apparently believes his action makes him appear “tough” to those who support him, but this move undermines in symbol and in fact the most elemental principle of the American regime. If Congress approves this nomination, it will endanger American men and women serving in our armed services by signaling that this nation approves of such practices and may well undertake them again. Leaving aside that potential, Trump’s selection alone has besmirched the nation’s ideals and its standing as a beacon of human rights and freedom in the world.

Finally, Trump has lately turned to international trade as another convenient and simplistic means to scapegoat others to appeal to the anxieties of a share of Americans. As he has done with immigrants and minorities, he has argued that “others,” in this case, nations, have taken unfair advantage of past American officials’ gullibility, including those of his own party, and that fact has cost laborers their jobs. To say the issue is not so simple is to understate how misleading Trump’s claims are and continue to be. Still, at a superficial level for those millions of Americans not paying much attention, he appears to be “fighting” for those who have lost positions or status due to ongoing economic globalization. This perception can obtain among many, irrespective of the fact that his actions may well cost a share of those enamored of his othering rhetoric the positions they now possess and cost other individuals billions of dollars should trade wars ensue as a result of his ill-considered actions.

Taken together, these examples suggest that this form of politics seeks foremost to polarize and divide the citizenry into warring camps to the perceived advantage of its titular leader. It contemplates and encourages a thoroughgoing social tribalization. We have seen this before in our nation. In an essay published in 1871 in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Walt Whitman argued,

Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.[2]

Whitman was surely correct that democracy cannot long withstand such a situation. And yet, our current politics can readily be so characterized. Trump’s continuing attacks on the moral foundations and shared norms that comprise the fundaments of our collective governance enterprise, together with long-lived educational, communication and political trends that have found citizens knowing less and less about their nation’s institutions, but daily encouraged not to obtain the knowledge and capacities necessary to sustain them in any case, now endanger the Republic.

Whether the country writ large and its public officials—progressives or conservatives, and irrespective of their party affiliations—can find the wherewithal to overcome this multi-barreled denunciation of its democratic foundations remains an open question. What seems clear is that Trump’s superficially appealing, but empty appeals to human fears and capacity for hate will continue, even as only the more difficult, but essential, task of deliberative discourse can prevent democracy’s ultimate usurpation. In short, cotton candy politics, like its confectionary namesake, is insubstantial and empty, and ultimately the carrier and symbol of a host of significant maladies. It must routinely be unmasked for what it is and for its deeper and darker implications.

In my Tidings column of January 1, 2017, I argued the following:

One key role the Institute can play in light of these political trends is to continue to highlight these concerns and to evaluate their implications for self-governance and freedom and to do so as clearly and cogently as we can. We will continue to chart these changes in American politics in our daily work and in our reflections on those efforts as effectively as we can, as partisans, first and foremost, of civil and human rights and the freedom they both protect and represent.[3]

In my view, that goal has never been more important for the Institute and the School of Public and International Affairs and university of which it is a part.


[1] National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2017, “How did U.S. students perform on the most recent assessments?”     Accessed March 24, 2018.

[2] Whitman, Walt. “Democratic Vistas,” 1871,  Accessed March 24, 2018.

[3] Stephenson, Max, Jr. “Revisiting the Central Challenge of Democratic Self-Governance,” Tidings, January 1, 2017,  Accessed. March 22, 2018.

Publication Date

April 3, 2018