If we genuinely want to fix our broken political system then civility, critical thinking, and compromise must replace anger, ignorance and polarization.
For decades, the average American voter has been apathetic and complacent, and people like me have taken advantage of that to win elections. In campaigns from local school boards, all the way to the White House, often all it took were one or two sound bites to pave the path to victory.
But an alarming evolution has occurred, and it represents much of what is wrong with “the system,” the same system so often described as broken. While apathy and laziness still exist, they have taken a backseat to anger and ignorance.
To be clear, the ignorance I speak of is not the invective used to chastise an individual who disagrees with one’s positions. I speak of the literal definition – “lack of knowledge or information” – resulting in an inability to make an informed decision.
In a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, just a quarter of the respondents could name the three branches of government. A third could not name even one of them. By the time I was fourteen, I knew the three branches and what each represented in our system of checks and balances. I even knew the process, from start to finish, and the complexities of how a bill becomes a law.
Frustration and concern, about where our country is, and where it’s headed, is easy to understand, and should be addressed. But nothing of long–term value ever comes from decisions made by angry and ignorant people.
Worse yet, we are creating an entire generation of misinformed and ignorant voters. Our children languish today in schools that no longer teach civics, where we no longer place any emphasis on history, and where we have relegated sociology to extinction.
Anger and Ignorance Beget Polarization
While there are many contributing factors – cable television, online pseudo–news sites and blogs, and a media more concerned about profits than accuracy in journalism – there’s a direct correlation between anger and ignorance, and the polarization of our politics. Today it takes actual effort to sift through the diatribe and sensationalism to find the facts, and increasingly, making that effort is just not the American way.
Today, most voters simply latch onto a single news source that seems to represent their views. Then they accept everything they read, see or hear as gospel. They no longer question the accuracy or truth of information purporting to be “news,” and they no longer seem willing to even acknowledge that media outlets might obfuscate or twist facts to achieve higher ratings to drive ad revenue. In short, the American voting public – for the most part – is longer willing to invest any amount of time in critical independent thinking.
The inevitable outgrowth of this evolution in our consumption of “news” is polarization, and that, in a single word, is what is wrong in this country today. This is not new. In fact, you can find the roots of polarization many decades ago. But we have come to a place where the vocal fringe elements are driving the narrative. The problem is that narratives, at both ends of the ideological spectrum, are built upon lies. Nevertheless, when screamed from the rooftops, long enough and loud enough, people believe those lies, then embrace them, and finally repeat them as truth.
There is an issue in play here, one that is enlightening yet perplexing, and seems to reinforce the volume versus validity trend we see today. In a most recent Gallup poll, 53% of Americans wanted political leaders to compromise and only 21% wanted them to “stick to principles.” Yet it’s the 21% who are dominating the arena, and creating the polarization.
Ponder for a moment what could happen if that 53% became informed, educated and engaged. Might we then begin to silence the echo chambers that have become so pervasive and powerful? Could we take the general attitude, “if you don’t agree with me you’re an idiot” and replace it with something more constructive? Could we create “we’re not going to agree on every issue, but if we can agree on the bigger issues and compromise, as our leaders did in years gone by, things can get better” mindset?
When In Doubt Blame the Politicians
Our elected officials, while not without their faults, have become the easy scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in America today. This is a fallacy of epic proportions.
We elected our school boards and local government councils. We elected our mayors and governors. We elected our state and US legislators, and we elected our president. Could we, should we, have done better? Maybe, but it takes an informed, not ignorant, electorate to elect insightful and effective officials.
Blaming the politicians is the easy way out. It allows us, if only for a moment, to feel morally superior, and it absolves us of any complicity in the broken system. But as we too often forget, this country is not a democracy. It is a constitutional republic, and every American who votes shares responsibility for our current plight.
Sure, there are problems in our political system: special interests with power beyond belief, handouts freely available, with little regard to actual need, and the unproductive polarization within our town halls, state capitols and the US Congress. But these problems can be addressed, slowly but surely. There are no overnight solutions, and there is no magic switch we can flip to make everything perfect.
What we have is the opportunity to look critically at the current dysfunction, then commit to replacing anger and ignorance with rational, informed discourse. We can invest some time in becoming more informed voters; voters who elect officials who want to address our issues, not be run out of town on rails because they sought to compromise.
We can welcome the challenge of turning our country around together, politicians and voters, while at the same time acknowledging that – although time consuming for us as individuals – becoming properly informed is time well spent.
AUTHOR’S NOTE – I originally wrote this piece during the 2016 election, so some time references may be outdated, but it is as true today as it was then, maybe more so.