Voting season is around the corner for the most divisive presidential election in recent memory. Whomever you support, whatever your beliefs, I want to make one thing clear: no candidate is going to turn this ship around alone. Trump is not going to “Make America Great Again.” Sanders will not usher in a golden era of American Socialism. It’s not going to happen.
There is a problem. It’s us. Unless we change, no candidate can get anything done.
Our government reflects its citizens. Congress won’t compromise because we won’t. Sure, SuperPACs, rampant gerrymandering and special interests are obstacles. At the end of the day, though, we buy in. We the people are not slaves of the system. We are the system.
I’m talking to you, Bernie Bro clogging my Facebook feed. And you, wise conservative sharing profundities like “all lives matter.” And you, leftist college columnist dropping sick burns on those racist free-speechers. You are all part of this.
I am too. I am the radical centrist know-it-all. I play the game. We all do. We sleep at night by telling ourselves we are independent thinkers. Then, we get up in the morning and read our lines right from the page.
I say I am open to challenge, but when push comes to shove, I often stop listening. I react. “How could someone think THAT?” runs through my mind as I jump on the defensive.
The evidence is clear: ideology, childhood experiences and values together shape our thinking. If you’re liberal, you’re probably motivated by equity. If you’re conservative, it’s proportionality—reaping what you sow. Everything we see is filtered through the lens of our existing beliefs, beliefs we sometimes haven’t even consciously chosen.
Today, we’ve let our ideology become our identity. “I am a progressive” and “I am a conservative” are now rallying cries for two radically different American visions. Once we pick a side, we risk losing our ability to think freely. We become part of the group. Then we must seek conformity with in-group members and seek conflict with those outside.
Stanford Political Scientist Shanto Iyengar argues that such political tribalism is on the rise. He found that, in 1960, only 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans would be displeased if a child married outside the party. In 2010, those numbers were 33 and 49 percent. A 2014 Pew Research study showed the same trend. 38 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans reported very unfavorable attitudes of the other, up from 16 and 17 percent in 1994.
This pattern is obvious now that political ads look like professional wrestling promos. Both sides are supporting candidates who will at long last cut through the red-tape and get something done. When presented with evidence that our political system doesn’t work that way, we wave our hands in the air. “It has to work!” we shout.
In this climate, it is fantasy to believe that Sanders, Trump or any candidate can achieve what they promise (to his credit, Sanders admits this). Our political system is designed to ensure that a president can’t unilaterally push an agenda. That’s not a bad thing: imagine if all the important progressive legislation of the last 200 years could be repealed on an executive whim. Where would we be then?
Let’s say Trump or Sanders does get elected and passes legislation in a series of split party-line votes. That’s no way to create lasting change, dragging half the country kicking and screaming. Sometimes that is the only option, but that’s certainly not how to capture hearts and minds.
Doing that requires listening to the other side. And listening requires accepting some cognitive dissonance. That’s the feeling we get when we think something that conflicts with our identity. It happens to be an extremely powerful motivator in political decision making.
We can’t stand it because we’ve predicated part of ourselves on our politics. Thus we cocoon ourselves in private echo chambers full of people who think like we do. It’s comforting to know the world is ordered the way we say it is. It’s downright scary to realize it might not be.
Instead of running from being wrong, let’s embrace it. Instead of telling others what they should do, let’s ask them what they believe and why.
I used to have heated political arguments with my roommates. One day during a gun control dispute, I tried something new. I admitted I didn’t know the answer. I started asking questions. I asked if it were possible that their thinking was colored, like mine, by what they wanted to believe. Suddenly, we were having a conversation. We never had another debate.
If we want the atmosphere to improve, we must stop playing the game. We must stop sharing outrage-inducing clickbait and trying to score political points against the other team.
Most of all, we must drop our political identities. Let’s be human beings working for a better future, not “progressives” or “conservatives.”
Let’s do that. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s change. Then, maybe, our government will too.
Ted Yavuzkurt is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. If you have a comment for him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.