Over the course of my 17 years of life, I’ve lived in three states. Born in Florida to two Ohio natives, I spent most of my early childhood growing up in Alabama, and now reside here in California. When discussing the customs and beliefs of the places I’ve lived with people from elsewhere in the country, I’ve always felt a strange sense of tension in the conversation. Until recently, I hadn’t exactly been able to put my finger on the source of this tension; however -- as I have become a more politically engaged citizen in the past couple of years -- the source of this tension has become glaringly obvious.
The political trends of all of the states I’ve lived in are starkly different, and growing up experiencing them has given me exposure to an extremely wide range of political perspectives. However, many people in this country only have the experience of living in one state, and therefore, their perception of people from elsewhere in the country is largely fabricated from widespread stereotypes and generalizations that they themselves have made. Now, I’m not trying to say that all Americans do this, or that this in and of itself is even necessarily a bad thing. Nonetheless, this could in part account for why American politics is seemingly so divisive right now. There are far too many people who ignore the complexity and nuances within a given party’s beliefs, which leads to people making sweeping generalizations that benefit no one. Granted, most Americans do seem exhausted by politics and the intense divisiveness present in it right now, yet, when confronted with criticism, both sides often choose to point the finger in order to deflect blame from themselves. This ultimately does not result in progress.
In an attempt to break this cycle, on an extremely small scale, I spoke to Democrats and Republicans from red, blue, and swing states. Through these conversations, I hoped to bring light to individuals’ nuanced and imperfect political beliefs, demonstrating that maybe we aren’t that different after all.
Now, I do understand that each party has its individual platform, and there are aspects of these platforms that are diametrically opposed with seemingly little room for compromise. For example, when it comes to topics like abortion, the two parties platforms could not present more differing arguments. Amanda, a Republican from Alabama, feels that she could “never vote for a [pro-choice] candidate,” while I’ve heard many Democrats say the same for pro-life candidates. With that information alone, it makes sense that there would be a clear divide between the two parties. However, this is not the only issue on the table. Just because there may be one aspect of a party’s platform that a person does not agree with, that does not mean that the platform as a whole must be written off.
Most people recognize this, with the same Republican granting that she realizes that she has a great deal in common with many Democrats. The most common complaint that I heard from people was that the media is driving people apart. Amanda says, “People listen to the media, but they have nothing to report on if people are happy.” A fellow Republican from California agrees that biased news stations are a source of many of the problems we are having. “We just have biased news stations fighting biased news stations, and then their viewers start fighting with each other, and then everybody is fighting everybody,” she remarks.
While this is not the main or only cause of divisiveness in American politics, I think it does explain a great deal how stereotypes of the different parties have been formed. In addition to this, I also discovered great differences between parties on the topics that members valued most. For example, Democrats consistently brought up health care and social issues as the problems they cared about the most; whereas, Republicans most often brought up gun control, abortion, and tax reform.
However, what I found interesting was that, when asked what they looked for in a candidate, every person said in some form or another that they valued authenticity and integrity in a candidate. Leanne, a Democrat from Alabama says she looks for, “Honesty, and even more so, authenticity.” “The things that are important to me are honesty and integrity,” echoes Gary, a Republican from Ohio. If these traits are what everyone on both sides of the aisle value, it seems baffling that there would be such a great divide between the parties. However, when we examine what these words mean to different individuals and what they mean in the context of the issues that they value most, it does make sense that there would be disagreement. Honesty to a liberal Democrat may seem like politically correct pandering to a conservative Republican, while honesty to a conservative Republican may seem like rude, insensitive drivel to a liberal. While people’s personal beliefs and values may differ and be difficult to change, the first step to making progress is understanding where each side is coming from.
While I believed that most people would be hesitant towards this notion, most people agreed that now is the time for compromise and recognizing our similarities, rather than continuing to plug our ears to what the other side has to say. Even a liberal Democrat who worked on the campaign trail for both Obama and Hillary Clinton agrees that that this divisiveness is “what happens when we stay loyal to party above all else, above sanity.” Gary agrees that “The polarization has created this inability to work across the aisle, and if a Democrat brings something to the table, it’s not going to pass in a Republican House, and vice versa. I think it hurts us that we’re not able to get beyond that and extend the olive branch in order to get things done.”
So, if people recognize that an inability to work across party lines and reach compromises is inhibiting us, why does it feel like we are all still so divided? I think Leanne sums it up perfectly when she said, “Our politics are more divided than we are.” She explains that the politicians who get through the primaries are the extremes on either side. This leads many to believe that we are more divided than we actually are. Amanda says, “I think a lot of people are closer to agreeing than they realize.”
From my personal experience, I wholeheartedly believe this. While politicians, the media, and common stereotypes would lead many to believe that we are far from agreeing, many Americans believe that this is not actually true. Echoed by both the people that I interviewed and people that I speak to daily, extending the olive branch may not be something that people want to do, but it is something that is necessary. This is not to say that people should stop advocating and fighting for their beliefs, not at all. However, it seems like most people would agree that the cutthroat, divisive political climate needs to change, and the only way that will happen is if we listen to each other.
Julia is very excited to be contributing to The Charger. She's pretty enthusiastic about life in general, but especially loves playing the oboe and watching reruns of The Office for the millionth time.