EthanBenn, Staff Reporter
Do you hear the people sing? And march. And chant. And shout and scream. And raise their voices in a cacophony of protest, surrounded by signs bearing every message of hope and upsetting pejorative.
I did. The voices I heard arose from the March for Our Lives and Enough movement, which held nationwide demonstrations on Mar. 24, and those vehemently opposed to them. But they didn’t make me hopeful. I’m nervous and anxious and a whole lot more for the future of this country. These factions aren’t helping to alleviate my fears.
Instead of feeling inspired or uplifted, I was despondent. I saw individuals act for their own personal gain, emotional backlash and a lack of principle. That was on both sides. So let me be clear: we’re all losing something from the gun control debate. And that, reader, is what really aggravates me.
I’m starting to think that neither side in this debate wants a real solution, or at least isn’t willing to compromise far enough to reach some way to resolve this. And since when did this become normal? Not just gun violence in schools, but mass protests and demonstrations every other week. Pardon me for preferring the stability of normalcy that comes along with good, responsible and aware government, but this just isn’t right.
Well, it is right in some sense for this to happen. Even though the United States is a “representative republic,” the tradition of democratic participation is still strong and encouraged. In a healthy democracy, the people enforce their will on their elected leaders. How healthy is it, though – this nation and its democratic values? Going back to these two movements, which I personally find unsavory, and looking at them in depth might yield a portrait of modern politics in the United States of America. There are seven specific aspects to this portrait of modern politics: moral posturing, historical revisionism and misinformation, unwillingness to compromise, an us vs. them mentality, personal attacks, appeal to fear and emotion and tunnel vision. Without further ado, these are the seven deadly sins of American politics.
Who doesn’t like to be right about something? The satisfaction of winning an argument or defending your dearly held principles is quite a rush. The issue is when one side claims to not just have the better stance on a topic, but argues that they and their opinions are morally superior and their opponents (and their opinions) are morally inferior. Your opinions are wrong, and so are you. Thinking about an issue in a certain way determines, for lack of a better term, how good or bad you are. Now, there are multiple examples of when one side of a debate is clearly better than the other – look to civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, for example – though I think this moral posturing has gotten out of control.
When you hear someone claim that what they’re doing is “right” or “good,” like marching to ban certain firearms, walking out to demand a higher wage, preventing women from receiving treatment at Planned Parenthood or waving Old Dixie on the side of the highway, it should raise suspicion. It’s all too easy to build a cushion of sanctimoniousness around you and your opinions and to cry: “I am holier than thou!” Smugly playing the morality card and claiming that the other side will be on the wrong side of history or whatever else is a cheap move that doesn’t do much to convince anyone to exit the echo chamber, and this is especially true of Democrats and liberals. Saying that an opinion is correct because it feels or sounds good – “gay people should have the right to marry because it’s the right thing to do -” is hardly a rational line of reasoning. There are plenty of other good reasons and explanations for the expansion of (sticking with our example) gay marriage, such as extending civil rights and following court rulings or the Constitution. In this day and age, facts are always preferable to feelings and the smirk of moral superiority.
Along with moral posturing comes crude insults and ad hominem attacks. These are the dreaded “isms” and “ists” of the modern cultural lexicon. Here’s all of the ones I can think of off the top of my head: racist, sexist, misogynist, misandrist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, fascist, bigot – look, there’s a lot more than 10 of these caustic catchphrases, but I hope you get the point. These types of terms, often used by the left to deride the right as outdated and mean spirited (or worse) have their own counterparts. I’d like to list them here, but they are genuinely too inappropriate for me to write.
The point is that hurling insults isn’t a good strategy, but it’s a pretty ubiquitous one. Go to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or any other social media site where self-described political experts congregate, and amaze yourself by analyzing the depths of human depravity. Really, go check – I’ll wait.
You might have noticed that everyone and their mother has decided to resort to these basic blows of indecency. Even the Parkland kids and members of March for Our Lives and their opponents, like NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch have traded insults, resulting in boycotts (like of Laura Ingraham), Twitter feuds and absolute disgust for your staff reporter. I’m not kidding: I don’t enjoy it when rational discourse gets reduced down to snide remarks and the like. Pundits who curse, scream and shake their fists in righteous anger at their “true” (though mostly perceived) enemies receive no respect from me. While it might be easy to hurl cannonballs of cruelty from your digital, anonymous fort, it certainly doesn’t mean you should.
Historical Revisionism and Misinformation
Sometimes, liberals and conservatives stick their heads out of the trenches long enough to open up a history book. But rather than read certified curricula or accounts that are agreed upon as fact, it seems that some of them have chosen to turn to alternative facts and falsified histories to up their political arguments. I’m not just talking about crowd size, as this campaign of misinformation and intentional ignorance reaches far beyond simple statistical accounts. Perhaps of any sin on this list, this is what most hardline Democrats and Republicans are guilty of: lying to make a point. When we can’t agree on facts, it’s going to be hard to agree on anything else.
On the left, common mistruths include those over the gender pay gap, a good portion of most of the accusations lobbied against the NRA, that President Trump is in step with Vladimir Putin (which, to some degree, may be proven true) and definitions of sex and gender, to name a few. All of these are mostly based on faulty statistics, bogus facts and haphazard reasoning, as are their counterparts on the right. Righteous condemnations of climate change, the claim that the United States is a “Christian nation” or that Barack Obama is (1) a Muslim and (2) doesn’t have a birth certificate are just as ungrounded. It’s alarming, and quite frankly, disgusting, that anybody can blatantly ignore reality, even just a part of it, in such a manner. It’s okay to get things wrong or misspeak, but it is simply impossible that every mention of such claims is a slip of the tongue. Is it too much to ask for the American public to be intellectually honest?
Well, when they’re not twisting the facts of today into the fallacies of tomorrow, ideologues are working hard to contort the past, and our Constitution, to suit their present arguments. Cherry picking the Second and Tenth Amendments, (Republicans) or the First and Fourteenth, (Democrats) for political reasons is abhorrent. So is obscuring their meanings: it seems “the right to bear arms” is emphasized much more than the “well-regulated militia,” in the same way that both sides clamber upon the First Amendment whenever their speech is at risk. The familiar point that the “Democratic party is the party of slavery” fits here, too. I think Lyndon B. Johnson, the signer of three pieces of civil rights legislation, (the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act) would beg to differ. Put simply, if people on both sides of the spectrum are going to use “facts,” they ought to be true.
Us vs. Them Mentality
But what each side wishes were true is that they might be the victims of civil discourse: the underdogs, the downtrodden, the oppressed masses without hope. Look to Fox News to find conservatism and conservatives under siege (the us) from those “rabid leftists” and the mainstream media (the them). Fox exploits this tactic extremely well, positioning itself as the last line of defense against the Democratic party and liberals alike. The liberal enclaves and bubbles on the East and West coasts of the U.S. are the other brewing ground of this thought process.
Black-white, male-female, straight-gay, rich-poor: it’s not that social, racial and economic divisions don’t exist in the United States – they certainly do. It’s just that some organizations and institutions exploit these divides for personal and political gain. Any propaganda artist knows splitting your team from the other team, so to speak, is an excellent way to build support. Not to mention, there are tons of special interest groups representing a wide variety of interests in American politics on top of these identifiers. The Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, ACLU, AARP, NAACP, NRA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Planned Parenthood, the March for Life, the March for Our Lives and plenty of others have to divide their own members from their ideological opponents.
The pressure to join a team in opposition of “the other” shouldn’t stop you from joining any sort of organization, and in itself isn’t harmful. But the already toxic climate of politics, coupled with the widespread use (and arguably, acceptance) of personal attacks, means that respecting people’s opinions, and acknowledging that they have a right to an opinion, is no longer in vogue. My advice? Step out of the echo chamber, and hear something new every once in a while.
Unwillingness to Compromise
Even though some of us might be familiar with the policies and objectives of our political opponents, we certainly aren’t willing to give up our dearly-held beliefs to work with them. Put frankly, knowing your enemy doesn’t mean you’re going to help them. Unfortunately, this is a particularly entrenched attitude among American politicians, and it normally stems from them putting their party over their country. Coming together to work on bills and legislation which might genuinely help the average American is just too hard for our elected leaders, I suppose.
The Senate, the more esteemed, older-brother of our Congress, has a love-hate relationship with compromise. When the federal government teeters on shutdown, as it did in January, they have no problem rushing to back rooms and offices to hammer out a deal to keep the lights on. But if you look at something like DACA and immigration policy, you’ll see the opposite. In fact, the lack of compromise between Democrats and Republicans over “the wall” and Dreamers led to the shutdown in the first place. Sen. Chuck Schumer decided to play hot-potato with hundreds of thousands of Americans’ lives and trillions of federal dollars, praying that the cries of “hot potato, hot potato!” wouldn’t end when he would be responsible for coming to the table.
If our representatives learn that compromise involves both sides losing something so everyone can win, even if just by a little bit, and ignore the temptation to act opportunistically, government shutdowns, vetoed bills and lengthy filibusters might be things of the past.
Appeal to Fear and Emotion
But there’s something too powerful to stop using: fear. Our worries motivate us in a way that every politician, every organizer, every activist has seized upon. After the 2016 election, pundits on nearly every news show talked endlessly of the economic anxieties of white Americans – that they wouldn’t have a job or be able to send their children to college, for example. Appealing to the most basic, animalistic feelings of people is surprisingly easy, and today’s politics seem to feature it heavily.
March for Our Lives and the NRA both push fear to the front of their supporters’ minds. It could be you next, they declare, as a silhouette of some armed criminal hovers behind an innocent woman. What if it was your child?, they ask, conjuring up hopelessness and downright terror in those unlucky enough to fall victim to this petty tactic. Because, much like moral posturing, saying “oh, that’s scary, so support us,” is not a good reason to join any movement, it seems plenty of organizations will have to rethink their branding.
Besides fear, there is plenty of indignation to go around in today’s political sphere. Try to fill in the following phrase, and you’ll see how easy it is to work up a certain element of society: ___ man kills ____ woman, screaming ____. Drop in different ethnicities and races, religions and perhaps a slur, and you’ll soon find at least half of America tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming their rage onto social media. It’s all too easy to be misled by our own emotions.
At the same time, staying on the path and relentlessly advancing your party or group’s agenda can be dangerous. Pushing environmental protection or economic expansion at all costs isn’t going to end very well. When politicians and activists only consider the ends instead of the means, and are sure that the ends will justify the means, we’ve entered morally ambiguous territory. “Progress” at all costs, for example, quickly turns into regress.
The minds of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren might be full of wondrous ideas of democratic socialism, universal healthcare, free-college tuition and the like. But, if you follow them to the end, there’s no denying that countless Americans will find themselves worse off under such policies.
The sin of tunnel vision is really just a reminder to consider the consequences of your actions within politics – bills, protests, votes, etc. – and not get so absorbed or high strung in your own objectives.
And thus concludes the seventh, and last, sin. There’s more problems with the way this country conducts its politics than I can address in some two-thousand word article with a decently interesting headline. With any luck, these sins will stick out to you in the future as easily avoidable political pitfalls.