With November right around the corner our country is bracing for a barrage of political attacks, skewed data, and faulty logic. It is our job as citizens to vet these political distortions and hold our politicians accountable. Forwarding emails, trolling on Facebook, or posting links from partisan blogs does little to support positions and creates a wider divide. Taking a “good versus evil” stance is unproductive and should remain clear of our civil debates.
How did we get here?
I am often asked how we arrived to such a polarizing environment dripping with angry partisan rhetoric. My response? Look in the mirror. We have stopped holding our streams of information accountable. We respond to 30 second sound bites. We repeat talking points instead of questioning them. Our media is selling propaganda rather than vetting it. We now view compromise as political weakness, and “flip-flopping” as a sign of indecision instead of solution building.
With that being said, it’s hard to walk away from Newt Giengrich’s “Contract with America” as a contributing driver of a political downward spiral. During the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan did a remarkable job uniting our country through compromise and leadership. Watching 49 states unite in the 1984 election was magical. This Reagan compromising spirit Newt perceived as weakness and drove the creation of the “Contract with America”. Newt sold the public on a political agenda in 1994 leading to a remarkable 54 seat swing and Republican control of the house. Newt then tried to ram legislation through the floor within the first 100 days knowing the Senate would object, creating wide distrust between the parties. Newt’s rhetoric was so polarizing it led to a government shutdown and eventual loss of the Republican House, and the ripples continue to grow.
What can I do to stop the partisanship?
Turn off the tube. If your main source of news comes from a 24 hour news cycle which uses irrational conclusions and skewed data to fill their time void, your reasoning skills are declining. Take a quick gut check – Do you think Fox News is fair and balanced? Do you view CNN or MSNBC as fact based reporting? Answering yes to either of these questions indicates an addiction to a mind numbing drug called repetition.
Use the shock test. If you read an email or watch an ad and become “shocked”, take a step back and do some basic fact checking. It’s amazing what you might learn when challenging a statement you badly want to believe. No, Obama is not a communist. No, Romney does not want to fire half of America. No, illegal immigration is not causing bankruptcy. No, pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. No, the NRA does not want anarchy. No, Liberals do not hate America (my favorite). And Yes, Republicans do care about the poor. If what you are reading does not sound right, chances are it’s not. A great piece of advice is to vet all of your email forwards through sites like Snopes, Politifact, or Factcheck which have spent considerable resources documenting data based claims (or lack of). I have little tolerance for friends and family who send me blatantly obvious pieces of political fabrications. I have been known to “reply to all” with the fact checking information (this usually gets me removed from their lists).
Stop being a troll! If you use blanket statements while confronting differences of opinion, you're probably trolling. Trolls talk in emotional charged opinionated responses. Trolls also use labels to degrade differences of opinions. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t automatically make them a (fill in the blank). Terms like RINO, liberal, and conservative are all trolling labels. Instead of calling President Obama a socialist for Obamacare, why not discuss points of the law you disagree with. Since Trolls do not bother with data or use fact based dialogue they are tough to pin down and add little value to conversations.
Ask questions! There will be times when we engage in a heated political discussion. When debating from absolute positions we become more polarizing and miss persuasive opportunities which can flip opposing arguments. Recently I started a conversation with a government employee who hated socialism. After a series of questions about his stated position it was clear the conundrum he was engaged in. The most persuasive individuals help others reach a conclusion through logic and reasoning primarily driven through questioning. Nobody likes to be told why they are wrong.
My final thought is making sure we always respect those we love. Politics is not worth sacrificing friendships for. I have made it a point to move political conversations to mediums that do not interfere with relationships. I have not forwarded a political email in several years, I do not post politics on my Facebook page, and I do not start political conversations (but always happy to engage once started). To some this might seem timid or cowardly, to me its common respect. Election cycles happen every other year, but families are forever.
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” - E. M. Forster