We are quickly entering into the thick of the political season. Ads are airing, controversy is high, and people that profess no interest in politics are increasingly short-tempered with all this conversation. As someone who studies the political system, I couldn’t be more thrilled.
Politics is my bread and butter, and it’s a rare privilege for a college newspaper to cover a presidential election. I went forward into this season, wanting to give fair and balanced coverage to all parties involved.
But through all my excitement for the elections, I’ve noticed a common theme in 2016: the divide between Republicans and Democrats has become a knockdown fight, with each side attempting to defend the Oval Office from perceived unspeakable harm. Increasingly, the consensus is that whatever party you favor, a win for the ‘other side’ pitches the nation closer to collapse and dysfunction.
The battle between good and evil is an archetypal tale as old as time. Whether it takes the form of the classical heroes of Ancient Greece or the modern movie icons, the conflict of ‘good guys versus bad’ is immediately recognized by viewers and fulfills our base expectations about the way the world functions. This lens of reality is good and well for fictional stories, but does more harm than good when used to understand reality.
To protests that this is selling our society as a whole a little short, I’ll be the first to admit that the 2016 presidential election is an exaggerated version of this observation: the intensity of feeling about both Clinton and Trump has surpassed levels considered normal in recent elections. But the phenomenon itself is nothing new. In 2008, I saw bumper stickers proclaiming that ‘Republicans Vote for Voldemort’ around town. On the Republican side, some stickers simply stated to ‘Vote Democratic to Destroy America’.
These pithy phrases reveal the all-too-common train of thought on both sides of the American electorate: that the ‘other side’ is acting with malice aforethought in regard to their policies. Reducing either candidate to this caricature is a shallow excuse for political conversation. No matter personal biases or flare for metaphor, no Presidential candidate is a storybook villain, nor is one party determined to bring our society crashing down. These jokes hinge on trading in political debate for a cheap laugh, and alienating the chance to do what polls indicate the majority of Americans want elected officials to do: reach across the aisle.
Leaving aside the controversies of individual politicians like Trump or Clinton, the trend to view the opposing party as an insidious threat to the wellbeing of the country is a far larger threat than any partisan identity. The disgust that has developed doesn’t stop in internet forums and clever merchandise: exit polls indicate that Americans are increasingly motivated by spite while voting, meaning that they don’t vote to express confidence in their chosen candidate, but to defeat the ‘opposition’.
The lingering consequences of this trend of contempt emerge down the line in confidence in government, and the willingness of citizens to participate. To me, this trend outlines a tragedy of our nation. Functionality and confidence quickly decline, while people rail against enemies they have no intention or inclination of understanding. The simplification of half the nation to ideological enemies is at the heart of this American tragedy; and it truly expresses itself on the national scale. Fear and resentment may have proliferated at the individual level, but the consequences are most visible with how national leaders are treated.
This growing schism undersells what we have in common. Most people on either side of the party line want to do what they see as the best thing for the nation. We might differ on what that vision entails, but in the broadest terms, our goals are the same. If nothing else, a common priority should enable us to have conversations about politics that don’t result in the belief that the end is nigh should the other side win.
I won’t deny the basic truth that our system is divided; the major parties reflect two dominant views of the priorities our nation should have, and how we should govern. Universal policy agreement between the parties is likely impossible, but under reasonable circumstances cooperation is not. Sadly, reasonable conditions have become in short supply. This atmosphere of grudging resentment will only grind our government down, with approximately half the nation despising our leader as an archetype of evil.
Under these circumstances it’s hardly a wonder that satisfaction in elected officials has plummeted, and shows no sign of stopping, that we have tragic weaknesses in our electoral system. But I believe that this will change for the better, that we have the capacity as individuals and a nation to extend a willingness to listen to voices in other parties.
One election cycle won’t solve these underlying issues. But if you truly want the best for America in 2016, consider the arguments of the other side. You may never sway in your own convictions, and may still view the parties or candidates with distaste. But reducing either to a spectacle of evil does half the country a disservice and drives our nation further to deadlock.