The American general election, although always contentious, was marred by many instances of violence this last cycle. Unfortunately, the violence of growing polarization continues today.
On March 1, 2016, a black woman was mobbed and attacked by supporters of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump at a Kentucky rally. An anti-Trump supporter later that month pepper sprayed a woman at a Make America Great Again rally in California. Trump supporters then assaulted that man and chased him along the Pacific Coast Highway. In June 2016, demonstrators loyal to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton threw eggs, water balloons, and punches at a protest against Mr. Trump in San Jose. They also burned the signature MAGA hats before taking selfies with their work.
It would all seem too absurd, except these instances manifest themselves every day, still, on a smaller but no less pernicious level. Seven months after the election, the political atmosphere is still an uncomfortable one, and many refuse to talk about why they voted the way they did, preferring to sweep things under the rug as a foregone ordeal. And no wonder — one gets persecuted for whatever belief is found contrary.
But the problem is, the moment a Trump supporter is branded uneducated, redneck, ethno-nationalist, the conversation ends. And the moment a Clinton backer hears they are elitist, snowflakes, Godless, they naturally stop listening and get defensive instead.
Mrs. Clinton herself made the mistake of announcing, “you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables… racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” Of course, as for Mr. Trump, he has called Mrs. Clinton “the devil,” a “nasty woman,” and “Crooked Hillary,” in some of the mildest language he has used against women.
The dangerous trend of such polarization is that the political becomes personal. Political opponents become personal enemies, immoral, evil. Yet how counterintuitive this is, even dangerous. Democrats should never have insulted and alienated working class whites with genuine economic suffering by branding them with the aggressive language Mrs. Clinton employed. This was a failure for the party, especially as Democrats claim to represent the working class. Republicans likewise should not have toed the party line, ignoring their better judgment, in keeping silent when Mr. Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.
Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton spent so much time insulting one another during debates that actual domestic, not to mention international, policy had little airtime. At a debate in St. Louis, last October, Mrs. Clinton unhelpfully said, “it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” to which he replied, “because you’d be in jail.” The candidates should have spent less time tearing into each other’s personal characteristics and more time debating actual concrete issues that affect Americans.
The 2016 election made partisan politics personal, which often led to violence, whether verbal or physical. But the beautiful and frustrating thing about democracy is that we can march and vote to our heart’s content, but whatever the result, we have to wake up the next morning with millions of people we disagree with and still must live with. As soon as candidates take the oath of office, whatever vitriol they have spewed, they must represent the whole nation.
This continuing violent polarization stymies the goals of both parties — Democrats’ hope of impeaching President Trump remains a pipe dream as long as they refuse to compromise with moderate Republicans. Those moderate Republicans, sensing animosity from the other side of the aisle, will stick to their party line, no matter their own convictions. On their part, Republicans ache for a tax reform win after the failure to repeal Obamacare but struggle to craft a plan that does not increase the deficit over time, thus risking a Democrat filibuster. After being shut out from the Obamacare repeal talks, many Democrats are not too keen on bipartisanship.
A 2016 Pew Survey found that 55% of Democrats and 49% of Republicans said that the other party makes them “afraid.” For those highly involved in politics — those who regularly vote, volunteer, or donate to campaigns — 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans are afraid of the other party.
Compromise and listening to those with whom we disagree are some of the cornerstones of democracy. It is high time Americans inject a little kindness, a little patience, and a little listening into our politics. Compromise on your terms is frankly not compromise.
Concerns are very real on all points of the political spectrum, and how easy it is to see that that bigot’s, or that snowflake’s, opinions make a lot more sense once taken out of the purely black and white boxes into which they were pigeonholed. And how easy it is to find some common ground once we humanize the opponent. How can we say we love this country and say we hate half of Americans in one breath? The targeted and those left behind, the Mexicans, Jews, women, African-Americans, LGBTQ people, Muslims, and yes, working class white people need to know this is their America, too.
However, at the root of partisanship exists something positive: passion. Caring about politics, the framework for life that determines everything that we deem important — education, housing, health, taxes, culture, rights and liberties, the environment, to name just a few. That passion ought to be encouraged, especially in the face of jadedness. Many shy away from discussing politics because it gets contentious. “I don’t like politics,” they say. No, you like politics – did I mention politics determines your taxes and social programs? – you just don’t like the violence levied against your person. Personal demonization is the very element of increasing polarization we should strive to do away with, not the conversations themselves.
Political discussion around the dinner table should one, happen more often, and two, should be a little like the dinner itself, where presentation is half the experience.