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Once disgusted

"I never vote," said the man across the table. I thought I detected a little smugness.

"Why not?" I asked.

His response was not entirely articulate, but I got the gist: democracy is a con, and voting is making yourself its bitch. So yes, a bit smug. He was above all that. And he probably can afford to be: British, highly educated, skilled, securely employed in Germany.

This is one form of the politics of disgust, but not the worst one. There have always been smug people who believed they were too smart for democracy. Because we pay so much attention to billionaires, there seem to be more of them now. Jeff Bezos, celebrating becoming the world's richest man by musing carelessly on Twitter that all he could think of to spend it on was space travel, is an example. People had to remind him on Twitter that he could contribute socially by paying his warehouse workers better and ensuring his company pays its taxes, At least Bezos did respond by giving $2 billion to fund non-profits working against homelessness and create a network of pre-schools in low-income communities.

Personally, the worst aspect of the politics of disgust has been seeing formerly pleasant and reasonable people transform into fulminating repositories of anger. This was visible in the US at the end stages of the 2016 election, when some lifelong Democrats of my acquaintance were unable to bring themselves to "hold their noses" and vote for Hillary Clinton. It's visible in the UK now in conversations about the EU referendum when friends say "Both sides lied." Saying, "But Leave lied *more*" or "But Leave broke the law" makes no dent. Others can't mention Donald Trump or anyone who works for him without appending an extensive array of Godwin's Law expletives. You could see it, too, on the face of Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) when he ranted at those trying to do due diligence at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. You could also see it - repeatedly - on the face of Kavanaugh himself, though it's hard to tease out which of his grimaces were disgust and which were temper tantrum.

When it's facts that are in dispute minds can be changed with evidence. When emotion overwhelms facts, emotions can be changed, with more difficulty, with interaction and empathy in a slow march back to reason.

Disgust is different. Once disgusted by something, you do not revisit it. Instead, you recoil at the thought - and you go on recoiling as a permanent response. Being asked to reconsider disgust is being asked to take back a bag of rotting garbage, or open all those containers of moldy food at the back of someone else's refrigerator, or pick up the weeks-old decaying rabbit you just found behind a box in the garage. You do it, you hate it, and you stop thinking about it as quickly as possible. From disgust, there is no way back.

And this is the state of our politics, in the US, in the US, and doubtless increasingly elsewhere, too. It is incredibly damaging.

The late, great journalist Molly Ivins frequently noted that people who think politics is irrelevant to them fail to understand how intimately they can be affected by politicians' decisions. (Or, I would now add, they are deluded by wealth and privilege into believing they do not and have never needed anyone else's help.) Women in the US have grasped this intimate connection faster than most groups because issues of access to contraception and abortion are so directly personal. The US right's inability to live and let not-reproduce unfortunately means that reproductive rights have stolen the country's entire focus. Many people began allocating their vote in presidential elections based on Supreme Court futures in the 1980s; now, this habit is percolating into Senate races. The result is that, as an LA Congressman commented earlier this year, the biggest endemic nationwide issues - particularly poverty - are shut out of consideration.

What's worse is that disgust at politicians is being conflated with a more general historical distrust of government, particularly in the western half of the US. People literally do not know what government does for them, so they believe it doesn't matter. In his new book The Fifth Risk Michael Lewis visits the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce to learn what they do and hear the briefings Donald Trump's transition team thought were not worth their time. Lewis finds brilliant, knowledgable people working for mission rather than money to manage nuclear threats, ensure food safety and security, and build the science and data to underpin the nation's economic future. Politicians seize our - and especially the media's - attention because they put on a show. Government proceeds, unnoticed, in the background. As Lewis tells it, today's White House is breaking that all apart, partly through reckless negligence and wilful ignorance, partly through favoritism for commercial interests. Rebuilding will take decades.

This week, as disgust penetrated the politicians themselves at Kavenaugh's Supreme Court nomination hearings, we face the prospect of it spreading to the judiciary. Collaboration and balance are impossible in this destructive atmosphere. As the movie The Candidate asked in 1972, in one of history's top five cinematic endings, "What do we do now?"

Illustrations: Brett Kavanaugh, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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