We were at a social event recently when an older woman came up and introduced herself. When she learned Alex and I are from Georgia, she perked up.
"I'm a patriot," she said. "It's a shame what happened in Georgia, but we're going to fix it."
Dumbfounded, I didn't know what to say. The event was purely social, nothing to do with politics in any remote way.
Yet, this woman felt compelled to immediately launch into a political commentary with two strangers she had just met.
I've thought a lot about that interaction since it happened. It says something about our culture, something that is very troubling.
I suppose that politics and culture have always been somewhat entwined. Political power has often been used to enforce various kinds of social conformity, such as the Jim Crow laws that were enacted in the South as a way to preserve a racial division following the abolition of slavery. In the 1960s, the youth counter-culture movement blended liberal political views (anti-Vietnam War, pro-voting rights, etc.) with a new culture of music, clothing and styles.
The mixing of culture and politics has been seen in other ways as well. Work culture has historically injected itself into the political sphere via unions. Today, that has morphed into high-tech firms like Tesla, Facebook and Apple being at the center of national debates over politics.
Religion has also often overlapped with politics. Historically, black churches were at the center of the civil rights movement, an injection of religious culture into the political sphere. Today, some conservative white churches are involved in anti-abortion and other political movements.
Given that history, why am I so troubled about today's political and cultural mix?
It's because so many people today in the U.S. have crossed a line with their political and cultural views. A lot of people, like the woman we met at that social gathering, now define themselves largely by their political views and little else.
That's a historic change in our nation's culture. In the past, people might have different political views, but still shared a lot of common ground in other areas of their lives. Politics was a much smaller part of how we defined ourselves in the past.
Today, it feels like everything we do and say is political, or has political overtones.
That thought might seem strange coming from a newspaper editor who has covered and written about politics for the past four decades. Much of what I do grows out of the political sphere. I often get asked about issues of the moment.
But although my work keeps me entwined with the political world, I don't define myself based on my political views. I'd like to think that I'm more than just the sum of how I vote, or what I write.
I like dogs and cats. I like getting eggs from our chickens and quail each evening. I like today's folk music and rock-and-roll from the 1960s and 1970s. I like to travel and discover how other people live. I like hoppy IPA beer. I enjoy reading about Appalachian history. I like to hike.
My world is more than just the politics I write about. If I met someone new and they asked me to describe myself, my political views wouldn't be in the top 10 comments.
Yet that isn't the case for so many Americans. On both the left and the right, politics has become the center of the universe and the defining aspect of personhood.
You see this in a lot of different ways.
There are subdivisions in Texas that appeal to conservatives to move there and become residents. Liberals flock to urban areas and college communities. We are starting to segregate ourselves in where we live, not just on our jobs, but also based on our political views.
In religion, some evangelical churches have turned away from faith and toward promoting politics as a means to an end. Abortion is part of that, but in recent years the influence of politics has infiltrated churches on other issues as well, something we saw a lot of during the Trump presidency.
And in more recent months, we've seen health care and the issues over masking and vaccines for Covid become little more than political debates, the science be damned.
Just about every aspect of our daily lives has become politicized. Friends and family have been divided over it.
Magnifying that is the pressure from both the left and right to pick a side. Moderates who have a mixture of beliefs are no longer welcome to any party. You have to be hardcore or get out of the way.
Republicans who have moderate views are derisively called "RINOs." Democrats who don't tow the left-wing progressive line are harassed.
Extremism has become mainstream and those of us who hold more complex, moderate political views are shunned by an "if you're not for us you're against us" mentality.
That has spread beyond just the political sphere and into our general culture. A lot of people no longer define themselves by their hobbies (golfer, UGA Bulldog) or by geography (Southerner, Georgian) or their work (engineer, carpenter, musician), but rather by their political affiliation (Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal.)
There have been a lot of times I've covered local government meetings and aside from the officials and the staff, I would be the only person present at the meeting. I used to think people should care more about their government and what it does.
But now I think our nation cares way too much about politics.
We've become a nation obsessed by politics and gripped by an unfathomable mob mentality. Naked propaganda, stuff that is so obviously fake and false that it deserves to be laughed at, gets serious attention by a large segment of people.
Our political intensity has become so deep that we've lost the ability to think clearly. It's as if large swaths of the nation have been brainwashed and become little more than robots programmed to spout the same phrases over and over. That's true for both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.
It's time Americans get group therapy for this obsession with politics.
We need to turn off the social media and news channels. Go outside and play golf with people who don't share our personal political views. Read a book. Go see the new James Bond movie. Throw a stick for your dog to fetch. Drive to a national park and take a hike. Go to a Braves game.
We need to rediscover that our lives are bigger and deeper and richer than just the sum of our political views.
Politics is a part of life, but it isn't everything.