Earlier this year, Mhairi Black, an SNP politician who in 2015 became youngest MP elected to parliament in centuries, described parliamentary life as "depressing." She's not the only one to describe politics in such brutal fashion of late. A journalist from The Independent claims that 2017 is the year she sought help for "political depression," while The New York Times counsels those depressed by politics to model Queen Elsa and "let it go."
Why is politics depressing? Even before the results of last year's presidential elections, Americans were suffering from election anxiety. But the causes run deeper than any one result or candidate. Research has shown that our brains view political affiliation more like membership in a gang with an 'us versus them' dynamic. Attempts to lighten politics through entertainment or satire simply reinforce and even augment preexisting attitudes.
Another reason political depression is the sheer scale of the project. Politics deals with big ideas, big problems, and big institutions, all that have a big impact on our daily lives. It can feel impossible for any one person, policy or party to make much of a difference. Psychologists call this sense of being bound by forces beyond you an "external locus of control." And the higher this feeling rises in us, the more likely we are to suffer from symptoms like cynicism, helplessness, ineffective stress management, and depression.
Politics is, of course, a particularly serious human concern. Unlike decisions in, say, sport or sculpting, political decisions can result in the death of millions of human beings, sometimes as a matter of deliberate policy. Politics is "war by other means." And even in peacetime, the primary weapon in politics is the passing of laws, which work by threat of punishment and prison. Warfare and jailtime are perhaps the very paradigms of traumatic, non-playful human activities.
One response to this is to usher a call for us to take politics even more seriously, at least in some areas. A better response is for us to continue to seek the same political goals, but achieve them through a more playful attitude; for example, with less "rigidity in outlook" and more "good humour." This suggestion comes from Dr Stuart Brown, who pioneered research into the linkages between depression and a condition he has labelled 'play deprivation.'
It was another brilliant British scholar, Professor Brian Sutton-Smith, who (almost) coined the phrase, "The opposite of play isn't work; it is depression." If politics is depressing, at least in its contemporary manifestation, and perhaps even intrinsically, then it may be that a dose of playfulness is what it needs. But what exactly is play? And what might a ludic politics look like?
Perhaps the most basic attribute of play is that it is voluntary. Play is free from constraint and necessity. "Whoever plays, play freely. Whoever must play, cannot play," said philosopher James P Carse. The more control we feel we can exercise in the political sphere - an 'internal locus of control' - the less likely it is we will suffer its depressive touch. Play thus opposes both the political determinism of the Left and pessimistic doom of the Right.
There is a political position called 'voluntaryism' that was developed by Auberon Herbert, a member of Parliament from 1870 to 1974. Herbert believed that politicians have no right to initiate force against foreign powers or self-owned citizens. He even argued that tax should be voluntary, with the franchise only extended to those to choose to pay it. Modern voluntaryists hold that all forms of adult association should be voluntary, including all political interactions.
Politics can violate this voluntary principle in obvious ways; for example, by making voting compulsory, or though conscription into public service. But what about taxes? Death is certain, but must they be, too? Jeremy Corbyn once made the innovative proposal that taxpayers should be allowed to opt out of funding the Army. Why not spread this principle to all government functions, and allow citizens to play at directing their tax contributions towards those services they support?
Another key characteristic of play is that it is limited. As a set of activities, play is bound within what Dutch historian Johan Huizinga called a "magic circle." This is a special play-ground where the rules, goals and mode of play type supersedes ordinary life. Huizinga provided numerous examples: the arena, the card-table, the stage, the screen, the temple, and the court of justice. These last two examples take us beyond the play of mere sport. Everything isn't a tennis court or a tribunal. So why should we live as if everything was one, big parliamentary debate?
In our contemporary political discourse, politics touches absolutely every area of life. But if everything is politics, and politics is serious, then everything is serious. This grinding weight of seriousity has plunged other, lighter areas into the depths of political discord. Comedy, sport, films - nothing is immune. Even play itself has become "serious," thanks to Lego! The political Right and Left both attack each other for politicising, even "weaponizing," different areas of life, from health care to space travel.
Perhaps it is time for the concept of the separation of Church and State to find new equivalents so that play can flow. According to Terry Newell, America's Founding Fathers opposed the establishment of religion to protect religion and other societal spheres from politicisation, as much as vice versa. Maybe the doctrine of limited government isn't just a rusty political relic of Enlightenment idealism. Maybe it's a modern psychological tool we can wield to ward off those black dogs of political depression.