When did we decide it was OK to forgo discussion and replace it with attack? I find today’s political climate intolerable; full of anger, jealously, bitterness, pride and bereft of the kinds of qualities that allowed a country like the United States to be founded. What happened to us?
That question is the driving reason for this post and the ones to follow. I think it’s necessary today to plant a stake in the ground and represent decency. We are not a perfect country and we do not have a perfect history, but for most of this our existence we could manage to be productive and build toward the greater good despite the heat of political discourse.
I don’t want to suggest that only today has political discourse become vitriolic. Absolutely not. Our Founders said appalling things to teach other and in one famous example, got into a literal shooting match. Meaning, yes – they lined up and shot at each other.
And yet, despite the vitriol, look what was accomplished.
What can we do today? Effectively nothing. But we are good at shouting that all Hillary Clinton voters are socialist, feminist lunatics, and everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a sexist, racist, fascist tyrant. (Johnson voters? Well, they’re just wasteful.)
That sets the table for this conversation. I had been thinking for sometime about having other voices join this blog in order to delve into new topics in new ways. And so, here we are.
Who are we? Well, I wanted to talk about political discourse in America with someone I knew would not consistently agree with me. This isn’t meant to be an echo chamber. I am often wrong and love a smart conversation, which often goes hand in hand (oddly). Plus, part of growth is facing a challenge, and so not only did I want to chat with someone I do not line up with politically, but also with someone smart.
Kirsten and I are friends and also journalism refugees, which will likely come up in this conversation, as media plays an incredible role in the political discourse that surrounds us in 2017.
Also, keep in mind something, folks. We’re young people sharing opinions in the public square.A healthy part of the intent for this endeavor is showing how decent discourse can occur. We are not going to result to insults (well, not serious ones anyway). This will not be a fight. We will not agree, we will both present our arguments, and we will remain friends afterward.
What you will read today is part one of a long conversation about politics and discourse. More is definitely to come, likely on Tuesdays. ABetterAdam isn’t about to become a political blog, but I felt compelled to get into this topic.
Discourse is vital, and all of us have a duty to contribute to it in a positive way.
And so, here we are. Kirsten, any opening thoughts?
Hi, Adam! Thanks for asking me to contribute to this discussion!
To dig right into it, I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon for regular citizens—as in nonpoliticians—to treat politics as an ideology. We pick a side, and that side represents us. Very quickly, any attack on the party you associate with becomes an attack on yourself.
Why do we do this? We like to be able to define ourselves; to say “I am this” or “I am that.” We like to have opinions. To not have an opinion may make us look flippant, or worse, ignorant.
In regard to the latest presidential campaign, it was so easy to have an opinion. Since when have politics been so easy to understand? Because of the unprecedented rhetoric, issues were rarely able to be discussed beyond the surface level. Immigration became simply a matter of walls and refugee bans. Hours of news coverage each day would cover what Donald Trump wrote in a 140-character tweet.
It’s easy to debate these issues, unlike the nuances of tax policy—a staple of campaign cycles past. We can quickly form an opinion and quickly get sucked into a shouting match. Some of this is good. Suddenly, many more people are paying attention to politics and are getting involved in their local communities.
However, many of us can’t yet fully comprehend what happened during the presidential campaign. But, we know that America is more divided than ever—a realization that is both novel and jarring. We’re bruised, and we don’t know how to talk and listen to the other side. Some may be hard-pressed to even find someone from the other side.
I live in Illinois, a state that was called for Hillary Clinton very early on Nov. 8, and I can count the number of Trump supporters I know personally on one hand. Is this part of the problem? Yes. We’re isolated. That’s why so many were shocked by the results of the election. We didn’t see it coming, and we can’t handle the other side’s opinions.
You mention politics as an ideology for some. I see two other options as well:
1) Politics as sport.
“I vote for the Republicans because I always have, and they are my team, and I will root for them forever!” I see a lot of this around me, and I continue to be baffled by it. Politics as sport removes the possibility of changing one’s mind, which means those folks move only in lockstep. How do we improve? How do we grow? With this mindset, we cannot, because the point isn’t a better you or a better country, but rather seeing your jersey of choice winning.
I saw some of this in the fall, when people across the aisles shrugged and voted for candidates that disgusted them, and chastised those around them who dared consider voting for a different option.
2) Politics as religion.
I noticed a somewhat hilarious correlation between right-wingers worshipping Donald Trump (go pay a visit to r/The_Donald on Reddit some time) and the same type of hero worship that surrounded Barack Obama in his early years in the Oval Office.
Humans are prone to placing public leaders on pedestals – such notions exist throughout civilized history. What I find interesting is the desperation behind it now, as if Trump or Obama were reaching a hand over the cliff as we hang, fingers slowly slipping as the rocks wait for us down below. And if you disagree with a policy associated with either, you are now part of the problem – you are symbolically stomping on those grasping fingers.
Notice that such a path leads you to the same place as above. If you view your candidate or your party as a deity, you cannot disagree with them. Where does that lead you? It isn’t a good place. What more must we see from politicians before we stop? I find it at work in me – some part of me so wants to believe Rand Paul isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for example.
The issue there, again, is a lack of ability to see said candidates rationally. When we are so whipped up with anger and paranoia, we, intentionally or not, render ourselves unable to make sound decisions. Desperation takes over, which breeds a kind of tribalism that makes other ideas a threat. As a Libertarian with plenty of Republican friends, I see this all the time.
Now, here’s the other problem, as illustrated by Colin Moriarty. What happens when a party routinely labels the opposition candidate as dangerous? Voices on the left said horrible things about George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, but in general all three are decent men. What happens when you cry wolf every four years? No one listens when the wolf really appears.
The same happens on the right, of course. Was Barack Obama the antichrist? I don’t think so. I had significant problems with him, but to suggest he’s an America-hating Stalinist is beyond counter-productive, because the conversation then changes from honest debate to a fight. We put the pen and paper away and pull out the knife.
My fear is, we’ve reached a point where the general populace is no longer capable or interested in nuanced discussion. That’s a significant problem because the issues our nation faces are not small or simple. How does one fix large, complex issues? Not by yelling, but by critical thinking. I hope we are still capable of that, but the previous election cycle leaves one concerned.
You make a great point about the election, by the way. People on both sides are genuinely stunned that someone might not agree with them. I can understand why folks would vote Clinton or Trump. The fact that I did not does not change that. I don’t have to agree with you, Kirsten, on each political point to believe you have a right to those opinions. You’re allowed, and so am I. What I’m not allowed to do is belittle and attack you for those opinions.
While I agree that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and they should not be attacked or belittled for holding said opinion, something shifted during this past election cycle that is making it extremely difficult to remain civil.
While Republicans and Democrats shift in and out of the Oval Office, it’s never been impossible to see the president of the United States as the head of the United States government, or the “leader of the free world,” a term coined in the early years of the Cold War.
While the president’s job is mainly political, it is also representational. Who a president is as a human and how he (I use “he” only because that’s the only pronoun we are currently able to use in U.S. presidential history) carries himself can be seen as a representation of the United States to the rest of the world.
As a woman, I will never understand how Donald Trump could say the things he’s said about women and still be elected president. His comments absolutely infuriate me, and the American people (or, the electoral college) nevertheless said that it’s OK for Trump to represent America.
Sure, it’s likely you will never agree with everything the candidate you vote for believes. But for many Americans, including me, it’s incomprehensible how you can put all the derogatory comments from Trump aside and vote for him anyway. Even more incomprehensible to me, and this is probably a product of where I grew up, is how some may have voted for Trump because of those statements.
I want to remain civil, and I want to remain rational, but I feel personally victimized by our current president, and the victimization is not a product of any policy he’s put forth. It’s simply because of who Trump is as a person. Some may call me a “snowflake” because of this. But I want a president I can respect. I want a president who will try to move us forward to be a more accepting and understanding society.
It’s not only about politics anymore, which is why these heated debates have easily entered everyday conversations. We are taking people’s political opinions and using them as a reflection on their character, and this is a problem. Is it an avoidable problem? Yes. But Trump’s continued antics are making it a very difficult problem to avoid.