The Political Divide

The Political Divide

Are our emotions preventing us from discussing the issues that impact us most?

By Maureen Harmon

Illustration by Charlie Powell

We learned it by watching you.

First of all, we don’t exactly have great role models, says Foglesong. “There’s a top-down influence on citizens about how conversations about politics should take place,” he says. And the way our electoral system is set up isn’t helping. There are so many safe districts within Congress—areas that heavily support one party or another—that members of Congress representing those districts have relatively strong job security. There’s simply no need for them to work across the aisle. And for those politicians who are battling for their seat every time an election crops up, the campaign begins to seep into their job. It’s a fundamental change to American politics, says Don Davison, professor of political science. “It used to be that once the votes were counted, the elected official would get on with the job of governing. That has been breached,” he says. “Governing is seemingly inextricably connected to all of these electioneering tactics.” The result is what Davison calls a “hyper-democracy”: Everything lives in the public domain—conversations on the Congress floor, emails, meetings. It doesn’t leave much breathing room for politicians to negotiate.

What politicians do instead is stand their ground. “Candidates take uncompromising positions. A campaign pledge elevates to the level of principle, and you can’t compromise your principles,” Davison says. “That’s a sign of weakness.” Voters tend to follow suit. Pair that with issues that are naturally divisive—issues such as abortion, health care, gay marriage, taxes—and a civil exchange of ideas takes a backseat.

To be fair, we don’t really know what we’re doing when it comes to political discourse, as we’ve had little practice. We’ve been told for decades that politics doesn’t make for polite conversation—it’s chalked right up there with sex and religion. As a result, says Joan Davison, professor of political science, we’re not trained to talk politics. “Americans tend not to be politically knowledgable,” she says, “and that reality leads to an oversimplification and personalization of the issues.” To the U.S. citizen, politics are personal. The campaigns know this all too well and lean on voters’ emotions to play up those ideologies. “What ideologies do is simplify and summarize reality for the voters,” says Davison, “and simplifications lead to a lack of the depth that we need in political discourse.”

Here, she suggests, we could take a few cues from Switzerland. Every time there’s a referendum on the Swiss ballot, every home receives a public statement that lays out the facts. (It’s also worth mentioning that most European countries have a multiparty system, which leads to negotiations between parties. In Germany, for example, no one party will win enough seats to govern alone. They have no choice but to work across party lines, says Davison.) But in America, even the “facts” are up for debate. When the jobs number came out in October, Davison points out, the unemployment rate was lower than expected. Immediately, the right suggested the numbers had been doctored. “You can’t even debate unemployment,” says Davison, “because we don’t agree on what the facts are.”

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