If you were to drive through a neighborhood on a brisk fall day in October 2008, you would have seen signs in front yards proudly displaying the candidate someone was going to vote for in the presidential election. Fast forward to 2020 and you rarely see them.
Yard signs, that had previously symbolized the right to free speech and patriotism for many, have seemingly vanished. This could be due to a lack of enthusiasm about our choices for president. However, I also think a large part of the missing signs comes from the toxic environment we have turned our American politics into.
Political leaders have villainized the other party at lengths previously unheard of in recent memory. Everyone remembers Speaker of the House Pelosi tearing the State of the Union speech apart and Trump’s consistent tweets of the “evil” Democrats. Biden’s entire campaign is based almost exclusively on the fact that you should hate Trump and Biden happens to not be him. In fact, the overwhelmingly #1 reason Biden supporters choose him is because “He is not Trump.”1 Both sides call the other crazy and insane, while moderates in the middle are starting to believe that on that account, both sides are correct. This toxic environment has turned something as simple as a yard sign into a declaration that people will interpret to decide whether you are a good person or not.
The media has contributed to this rising polarization. To be fair, news and reporters produce what they can sell. If all Americans wanted unbiased and even news, then there would not be a market for partial news. Yet, people often will only listen to news that is known to contain bias because it aligns with how they think. This ramped up, self-selected media then makes it difficult to understand how anyone could ever think differently than themselves. As a result, those who do think differently are either seditious with evil intentions or are simply crazy mixed with stupid.
Yet, despite these trends, to truly understand democracy is to understand that we cannot achieve our goals without each other. Being in a democracy means that I am given freedoms that allow for my opinion in a political system. It also means that I have to put up with other opinions that differ from my own. But putting up with other people is the bare minimum; we Americans should want to be together. Abraham Lincoln said it best at the height of extreme polarization in this country: “We are not enemies, but friends… Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”2 The Constitution was built on the foundation of togetherness. It does not work if Trump supporters hate Biden supporters and vice versa, so much that they don’t want to live next to someone who supports a different candidate.
The first step to compromise (also known as progress or success in a democratic system) is to try to understand another’s point of view. Ideally, we would have candidates that could represent both sides, but the polarization of political parties has made these candidates harder and harder to come by. Everyone has unique experiences that determine their priorities of issues. A voter may prioritize economic issues and see Trump as a more viable candidate in this area. Another voter may prioritize social change and view Biden as a candidate who facilitates that more.
We need people in this country to deeply care about the economy. Our economy is currently in crisis. Unemployment is almost triple it was a year ago due to Coronavirus3 and next year the US debt is projected to be more than the GDP for the full year, a first since WWII4. However, we need people to deeply care about social change too. We are facing serious social issues that include mass incarceration, racial inequality, and environmental destruction. It is a good thing that we have citizens who care and are passionate about topics such as these. Instead of attacking or labeling someone because they want to vote for a certain candidate, there ought to be open conversations about priorities, specifically addressing which priorities are most important now and in what capacity is each candidate able to address those. To effectively meet pressing issues, we will need to compromise and support a political environment of compromise that has room for moderate candidates. Beyond being Republicans or Democrats, we are Americans. As Americans we all want to see our nation continue to be a “City on a Hill”. As we treat each other with respect and dignity, we get closer to achieving that vision.
1: Pew Research Center https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/08/13/perceptions-of-trump-and-biden/
2: Yale Law Library
3: Bureau of Labor and Statistics
4: Wall Street Journal https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-debt-is-set-to-exceed-size-of-the-economy-for-year-a-first-since-world-war-ii-11599051137
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