We’re down to the last 7 days of Election 2012.
By all accounts, Obama and Romney are neck and neck in an all-out sprint to the finish. Poor voters in the campaign-designated “swing states” have been, and will continue to be, subjected to a constant stream of last minute negative campaign ads. And people will wonder, as they always have, why has our political discourse gotten so uncivil? Why do we villainize each other so? Why can’t politicians work together to get something done? Why can’t we talk to each other any more? And why oh why do today’s campaigns always degenerate into name calling or bitter fights over stupid slogans (binders of women) and inconsequential matters (birth certificates).
A common (and generally accurate) response to these complaints is a bit of historical perspective. Politics in America has always been a bit rough and tumble. Partisanship — severe partisanship — has been part of American politics since the very beginning, and gridlock in Washington D.C. has been the rule more than it has been the exception. Think some of our campaigns get nasty? Think Democrats treated President Bush shabbily or Republicans are excessively mean to President Obama? Go back and read what John Adams and Thomas Jefferson said about each other — it wasn’t pretty, and oftentimes makes us look down right civil by comparison.
So maybe it’s just the same old same old, and we’re just appalled all over again.
Certainly that’s part of it.
But despite the historical perspective, I think something has changed, and I’ll tell you what.
It’s not the politicians. They’re pretty much the same as they’ve always been . . . generally good people thrown (OK, maybe jumping in with both feet) into a mostly impossible situation.
Nope, it’s not the politicians. What’s changed is you and me.
Well, I don’t claim to know all of it, but part of it is the internets, people.
No longer are we dependent on geography or circumstance for our news source. These days, news is (nearly) 100% ala carte. And this is generally a very positive thing. I’m in charge of my own destiny, so to speak, when it comes to information.
But our (relatively) new found freedom can also be very problematic for political discourse when we’re lazy or comfortable about it.
Why? Because I no longer have to sort through or be exposed to anything that annoys me or doesn’t validate my opinions.
As a consequence, unless I make a conscious effort, my preconceived notions don’t get challenged. Instead, every piece of news that enters my world confirms my political predilections. All the commentary I see reaffirms that I’m right. It’s like I’m the judge in a courtroom with only one side’s attorney. Everything is crystal clear to me and I just can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t see it. The other side is either evil or stupid.
And we increasingly demand candidates who profess to see as clearly as we think we do. The political results of our electoral decisions are predictable.
I think the so-called “vital center” of American politics remains intact, but it can be hard for us to see where it is, or even where we fit in relation to it, when differences are magnified and our circles of political thought and exposure grow ever smaller. Sometimes it seems that people who are not really too far apart from us are on a separate planet . . . .
In the United States our judicial system operates on the principle that truth is best determined when you have skilled individuals advocating for each side of the case. Regardless of the merits of the advocate system (and I don’t really want to get into that debate here), you don’t get anywhere — at least so far as the search for truth is concerned — when you excise one side from the courtroom.
Now, I’m not trying to romanticize the good old days where we were stuck with whatever happened to come to our porch at 6 AM or our TV in the evening. But I do offer it as my opinion that with the right to control your own destiny when it comes to news sources comes the responsibility to challenge yourself a little bit. And to the extent more people do, we’ll move a bit further back to the status quo of American politics, which, though itself not always great shakes, was a bit better than what we have today.