Last Friday was a good night out in Washington DC. Dinner, a local Italian place. Mushroom risotto and a punchy Montepulciano. Proper company too, a hunky ex-CIA guy on my left, a lissom ABC newsreader on my right. We moved on, after dinner, to a Mexican speakeasy joint and drank sriracha and mezcal cocktails, which is about as spicy as DC gets.
Then we went home for nightcap. I cracked open the bourbon, we settled down and devoted two full hours to debating Brexit. Two hours! Interesting, attractive people, drunk and well-fed with a whole world of conversational topics to choose from, and we went with backstops and free trade agreements and Britain’s post-post-imperial place in the world.
They say politics is a hell of drug, but our current addiction to it feels closest to a chain-smoking habit. It comes up 40 times a day and is slowly rotting our body politic. The politics of the moment surfaces again and again, even when you don’t mean it to. Admittedly I live in Washington DC — the world capital of received wisdom, home to an endless, rolling political debate — but the same thing often happens in England too. We’ve become politically obsessed, trapped in a never-ending news cycle of apocalyptic chaos, a tragedy enacted by a strange and feeble cast of besuited hacks.
"Never in my life has politics been so relevant, ubiquitous and all-consuming. People won’t shut up about it..."
It never used to be like this. Growing up in north London in the late 90s, public life seemed very calm to me, dull even. The Soviets were vanquished, the IRA were out of gas and Britain was bouncing into the New Labour era. Occasionally I would complain naively to my father that the world seemed rather calm, timid even, compared to say my grandfather’s era — he flew bomber missions over Berlin. My father would usually respond by explaining the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
Today, it seems, we are living in interesting times once more, though quite how interesting remains to be seen. On the one hand, our politics are in a state of generational turmoil. On the other, bombs and skyscrapers are not falling from the heavens and the streets are not filled with blood and rage. Things could be a lot worse. What is certain is that on both sides of the Atlantic, this is the most political moment in decades. Never in my life has politics been so relevant, ubiquitous and all-consuming. People won’t shut up about it.
"I'll never forget standing outside Trump Tower on the night of 8 November and feeling that rare certainty that I was caught in the glare of history..."
Two months ago, I moved from New York to Washington to become the DC correspondent for The Sunday Times. It was not a move I had planned. I came to the US in 2016 to write about the land and its culture and for two years that’s exactly what I did. I covered nightclubbing in Brooklyn, tracked wild mustangs in Colorado and dived deep, a little too deep, into California’s marijuana boom.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the great game. I’m not a political person, but arriving here in September 2016 was like walking into a saloon brawl just as the first punch is thrown. I’ll never forget standing outside Trump Tower on the night of 8 November and feeling that rare certainty that I was caught in the glare of history. And so I became drawn into it. Now my life is politics and the swamp of Washington DC, where each person is a walking business card. What matters in this town is not your wit or your flair, but what you do, who you know, what information you can share, what power you wield.
"We’ve become politically obsessed, trapped in a never-ending news cycle of apocalyptic chaos..."
Now my life is all subpoenas and off-the-record briefings. Every interaction is a transaction, every friendship an alliance and every conversation of course comes round to You-Know-Who. I think my experience is an extreme version of the journey many of us have been on, in Britain and the US, over the past two years, as politics has blasted its way into our lives. That’s not to say politics didn’t matter before, but now it follows us around like an unwashed badger, the rancorous odour of partisanship and political posturing insinuating itself into every social setting.
I’m not sure there’s a whole lot we can do about this. Politics matters, after all, and huge changes will always generate fervent discussion. But since last Friday I’ve instituted some new rules to keep this monster in check: don’t drink and debate, it never ends well. No politics after 9pm. And don’t debate anything for more than half an hour. Because although we may again be living in interesting times, unless we rein in the political conversation, life is going to become extremely dull.
This feature originally appeared in the June/July issue of Gentleman’s Journal. Subscribe here…