OPINION — Our political system is broken. Partisanship, however, is not to blame. It’s the personalization.
In the current political environment, it’s not enough to disagree with a political foe about policy. You have to discredit, demonize and destroy that person as a human being.
Arizona Republican Paul Gosar’s anime on Twitter showing his avatar killing New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Joe Biden with a sword is just one recent example. During the floor debate preceding his censure by the House, Gosar tried to justify the video by claiming it was a necessary vehicle to highlight Democrats’ flawed immigration policy.
Colorado Republican Lauren Boebert’s recent comments are another example. It’s obvious that she and Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar have different visions for the country, yet Boebert has chosen to repeatedly attack Omar, specifically targeting her religion, with anti-Muslim nicknames and jokes as part of her monologue.
Personalizing attacks is not unique to the Republican Party, but it’s certainly modeled and glorified by former President Donald Trump.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Disagreement can be healthy
To be clear, the goal doesn’t have to be a utopia, where everyone gets along. Everyone on Capitol Hill and around the country doesn’t have to agree on everything. It’s healthy for the country to have two (or more) healthy parties with divergent views on the role of government and who we should be as a nation. Disagreement can be good. It’s “how” we disagree that is increasingly the problem.
Partisanship is not new, but we, as Americans, seem to have lost the ability to have love, compassion, respect or empathy for people who look different, think differently, vote differently and live in a different part of the country or even a different neighborhood. When we see our opponents as an “other,” we devalue their lives and are willing to say and do things we normally wouldn’t to someone we see as an equal.
So, who or what is to blame?
Politicians are grown adults who should take responsibility for their own words and actions. But voters are part of the problem as well.
I still want to believe that very few people wake up each morning wanting to be cruel to other people. But I also believe we’ve created a system that rewards the outrageous and offensive.
Politicians play to the audience and, increasingly, candidates who say the most offensive things get the most laughs, applause, retweets, cable news attention, campaign dollars and votes. And it feels like more and more politicians are thriving off the high of that attention.
How to change
So how do we change course or, more specifically, the discourse?
It’s going to need to start at the individual level, rather than relying on Washington or politicians to change their behavior out of a sudden change of heart.
Each person needs to realize that every laugh, retweet, click, TV eyeball, campaign donation and vote rewards a specific type of behavior. If there was no reward for being outrageous and offensive, fewer politicians would be outrageous and offensive.
The call for individual civility goes beyond our transactional relationship with politicians. How many real friends do you have who look, believe and vote differently from you? How do you treat individuals who aren’t from your immediate tribe? And what’s the tone of your own political conversations, online and in real life?
Unfortunately, this is another area in which it can be easy to blame politicians, blame Washington, or usually just blame the other party. It’s easier to get angry at someone you don’t agree with or don’t like. Empathy and respect toward a political foe is certainly the more difficult path.
But the current environment isn’t going to change until individuals make changes in their own lives to reform their own political discourse and be intentional about rewarding or punishing politicians who thrive on the offensive.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.