I just returned from a four-day trip to Washington, D.C., to visit my daughter and help her settle into a new apartment. We bought the infrastructure of a modern life: kitchen utensils, lamps, throw pillows, and a toaster.
Without a car in the city, we gauged our shopping by what we could carry on foot. There was a retail system in place that we could negotiate easily in Columbia Heights (Target, Marshalls, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond). We knew where to look for different items at different stores. We made a plan, kept lists on the iPhone, and checked them off efficiently.
We also played hooky at night, treating ourselves to special outings. We had a nightcap at The Line, a converted church in Adams Morgan, ate dinner under the wisteria at Dupont’s Iron Gate, and shared the most delectable almond torte at Elle in Mount Pleasant.
I especially loved visiting with my daughter’s friends and neighbors on this trip. We hung out in beer gardens, played Uno at a neighborhood bar, and drank frozen margaritas on a picnic table as a spotty rain fell at the end of a humid day. It was a down-home kind of trip this time, just us girls. There were no visits to museums or to the Lincoln Memorial like usual. We just went about daily life, balancing chores with fun.
This trip was also different from others in one surprising way: no one I met in Washington talked politics. For the first time in years, I didn’t have a spontaneous conversation about the president or Congress or an upcoming election. Not with Uber drivers or cabbies, not with any of my daughter’s friends, barely even with my daughter.
The cab drive into the city from Reagan National Airport typically spawns at least one reference to the person in the Oval Office. But not this time. The absence of political talk made me wonder: are people just sick of talking about politics in this divisive environment? And if they aren’t talking, exactly what are they thinking.
This vacuum has been eerily present in my hometown as well as in my brief Washington encounter. It feels like people are just done talking about the madness. I wonder if they're hesitant to talk to one another, not knowing whether they are about to get into a verbal brawl. Or do they not care anymore about our political process, corrupt as it seems? (Insert your view of corruption here.) And what does it mean when we don’t even bother to shout our dissatisfaction from the rooftops about the surreal political and cultural moment we find ourselves in.
Maybe we’re all just too exhausted. Those of us with jobs are running more than full tilt. Technology forces us to be “on” 24/7 and our nine-to-five jobs often feel like we’re drinking from a fire hose. When we do have downtime, we’re bombarded with social media and, recently, with dozens of GDPR notices that we mostly ignore. This conspires to make us feel out of the loop, overwhelmed, discontented, or all of the above.
It’s no wonder that many of us shut down around our country’s political messiness. Who has the time to dig up indisputable facts that can overcome the prejudices of someone on the other side of the divide? So we stick to our own lanes, share our views with those who agree with us. The societal norms for negotiating a simple conversation seem to have vanished. Our cultural-political system suddenly feels ungoverned by rules. It's far easier to give up and go buy pillows at Target.
But what price are we paying for our inability to talk freely with one another? Are we complicit in the coarsening of American culture and its political dysfunction? Or is biting our tongues akin to a silent protest, a sort of necessary counterbalance to the unmitigated outrage that emanates from cable news, the White House, or our own personal social channels.
Maybe there is a new silent majority: the disgusted. It’s possible that quiet legions are just sitting back and waiting out the firestorm with an eagerness to speak only when it really counts, at the ballot box. Still, the silence makes me uneasy.
I keep hoping that we can face where we are, the times we live in, and exchange ideas. Because when we do, we turn toward, not away from, each other. And we need those connections, as testy as they may be, more than the unknowable silence.
I hope next time I’m in Washington the cabbie has the news on instead of background music. I hope we can use it as a launching point to discuss the latest political kerfuffle. I don’t care what side of the divide anyone is on. I just need to hear something. Because I feel bereft when I can’t hear what people are thinking. I imagine the worst—a disengaged American public. I'm guessing we can all agree that is an unsettling prospect. But without using our words, who is to know?