It’s no secret that our current political climate is becoming exceedingly polarized. Not only are Democrats shifting left and Republicans shifting right, but liberals and conservatives alike are witnessing a “rising tide of mutual antipathy.” While both of these trends are undoubtedly contributing factors to the hostility of today’s political climate, it is really the latter that prevents us from escaping this seemingly endless stagnation.

Political discourse should ultimately be about discussing different points of view with the intention of walking away with a more nuanced or perhaps entirely new perspective. But nowadays, politics has become an almost taboo topic, and discourse has been reduced to a series of echo chambers and unproductive arguments.

With such divisive issues dominating today’s current events, it’s easy to fall victim to this trap. We all enjoy hearing our opinions validated by those who agree with us and antagonizing those who don’t, but it’s time we start thinking about what our actions and words actually accomplish.

For example, within the past month, my Facebook feed has been riddled with text posts from friends all offering their two cents on Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. My immediate reaction when I see these posts is almost always to cringe. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to share an opinion with a wide audience, these strongly worded social media posts are simply unproductive — they garner support from those who already side with the point and reinforce the negative opinions of those on the opposite side of the aisle. Unfortunately, this type of discourse is all too common, and these so-called “slacktivists” who use social media as a platform to express their viewpoints have a misguided perception that they are making some semblance of an impact in the world when in reality all they are doing is feeding an already raging fire.

In civil discourse, rhetoric is almost as important as the content of the arguments themselves. As a liberal, it is hard to watch people with whom I agree preach their opinions to conservatives with such aggressive tactics. Regardless of whether their points are valid, when liberals make personal accusations of racism or sexism or attempt to nullify their opponent’s credibility by imposing politically-charged identities like “straight white male,” the actual argument, regardless of its merits, almost surely goes disregarded.

This type of discourse is hard to avoid. It’s satisfying to outsmart or embarrass others, especially when we live in a political climate that fosters hostility toward the other side. But when we discuss important and contentious issues like illegal immigration or Kavanaugh's nomination with the primary intention of frustrating our opponents, when we treat political discourse like a tactical game rather than a constructive discussion, we do so at the expense of the important issues that deserve healthy examination and debate.

During the 2016 presidential race, then-candidate Hillary Clinton made headlines for publicly referring to half of then-candidate Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Many viewed this statement as a political gift to Trump, as the news in the following days and, to some degree, for the remainder of the campaign, was dominated by that singular sound bite. Meanwhile, Clinton’s actual campaign policies and initiatives took a back seat, and her chances of earning any uncertain Trump supporters’ votes dwindled to practically zero.   

Though the political impact of Clinton’s blunder was far greater than anything most of us could ever individually cause, our collective hostility toward our political opponents is equally as dangerous. Clinton made an error in her campaign that the greater liberal community seems to make on a daily basis. She extrapolated her perceptions of a group of people based on their political leanings or beliefs.

Today, the term “Trump supporter” is practically taboo among liberals. Like Clinton, many of us, even if only subconsciously, make immediate assumptions about this community. But more than 60 million Americans voted for President Trump in 2016, and if the left really wants to change that number, they might want to stop equating these 60 million politically active Americans with the morally depraved.

We tend to forget the uncontrollable factors in our lives that influence our political leanings. I am a female Asian-American who grew up in northern New Jersey only 45 minutes outside of New York City. I am also a registered Democrat who would call herself a relatively educated voter. That being said, I have no idea how I would vote had I been born a white male in rural America. Factors like our gender, education, race and place of residence are not only powerful influences, but they are also largely beyond our control and often taken for granted. The American experience is amazingly diverse, and we should keep this in mind when we engage in political discourse.

It is incredibly easy to disregard our political opponents as evil or innately wrong, because discrediting those with whom we disagree is the easiest way to validate our own opinions. But if we are truly interested in making a political impact and interested in educating and changing those minds which are open to change, then we must engage in a political discourse that fosters that mentality.

Amanda Zhang can be reached at amanzhan@umich.edu

 

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