Art by Amber Shin
In less than two months, millions of Americans will head to the ballot box to decide which party will control Congress for the remainder of President Joe Biden’s first term in office.
Political advertisements will be on screens soon, many intentionally targeting “the other side,” according to the Brookings Institute. Designed to evoke emotions, they can be both effective and incredibly harmful to public discourse.
There are signs of such rhetoric having a significant impact on people’s views of each other. 42% of Democrats claimed Republicans were more dishonest than other Americans, and 33% said Republicans were less intelligent, according to a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center. Conversely, in the same study, 47% of Republicans said Democrats were more immoral and 45% said they were more dishonest.
In a more recent study, 57% of Democrats said talking about politics with people they disagree with is stressful and frustrating. Likewise, 49% of Republicans said the same thing, both shown in another 2018 poll by Pew Research Center. For many, there’s already more than enough stress to go around nowadays.
This gridlock is harming the United States’ ability to govern well and pass legislation. In fact, the 116th Congress from 2019 to 2021 only passed 1.36% of all new bills introduced into Congress — the lowest percentage ever recorded, according to Attucks Adams.
Partisan identity strength, or how much people correlate our identity with a party, can cause conflict to escalate, according to Frontiers in Political Science. If people associate a party or group to be part of their identity, then often disagreements can become personal, fueling hatred, according to the same article.
The Founding Fathers and past leaders of the U.S. even shared fears of polarization, as seen in Federalist 10. In this document, President James Madison notes “violence of faction” is within the very nature of man, but the Constitution aims to curb the effects of these harmful groups. More recently, President John F. Kennedy said, “Let us not seek the Republican or Democrat answer, but the right answer.”
This is not to say disagreement is bad, or everyone must all agree on one specific policy or plan. Disagreement is not only healthy, but necessary to democracy, according to the Greater Good Magazine.
In fact, sometimes compromise is unnecessary or simply not feasible. If one side wanted to build a ladder, but the other did not, a ladder only half the size required would be unnecessary and frivolous. Disagreement can also boil over into illogical fallacies, rising tensions and in-fighting.
There are a number of actions just one person can take that will have far-reaching consequences. For starters, it is important to consume balanced media, as tools like Media Bias Charts show. Consumers of fair media can guide friends and family to balanced sources or at least seek new opinions that extend beyond political echo chambers.
As a responsible citizen, people can also practice civil discourse and argument, according to the Brookings Institute. People will disagree — it happens and it’s healthy. Regardless, disagreeing in a respectful, mature way, without using straw man arguments or insulting the other side, is the healthiest way to go about it.
Take action. Voting for candidates who will work with those across party lines, joining organizations fighting for unity or spreading the word about a new initiative is crucial, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Political polarization is a dangerous, daunting issue. For many, it’s been around since birth, and continues to accelerate, according to a study by Brown University.
Regardless, it’s not too late to act. By just practicing one or two of the solutions listed above, people can start making a real, positive change. This change won’t just be limited to American government, but rather to the very way people interact with one another, serving as a model for generations to come. The worst thing to do is give up hope, because a better future starts now.
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