As tribalism deepens in the United States and around the world, political polarization follows. The tendency of people to group themselves based on ideology creates environments where beliefs outside of one’s norm aren’t present and ultimately lead to echo chambers that make people unable and unwilling to listen to other perspectives.
We can clearly see this in the way people become ardent fans and supporters of the political stars of the day. People across the political spectrum — from progressives to moderate Democrats to conservative Republicans — have their own politicians who they worship without question. For example, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former President Barack Obama, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and, lastly, President Donald Trump all have their strong supporters who find no flaw in their policies, beliefs or actions.
When people start admiring someone, it becomes inexplicably difficult to find flaws. I grew up in the ultra-liberal Oakland, Calif. and Berkeley, Calif., and now attend the University here in Ann Arbor. In both places, I have seen many people shout their love of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Sure, there is a lot to love. RBG has an inspiring life story that includes taking care of both her sick husband and young child while in law school. She has almost become a cultural phenomenon due to her years defending civil liberties as well as her role as a liberal dissenter on the Supreme Court. An article titled “52 Reasons Why Ruth Bader Ginsberg is My Favorite Human” provides a clearer understanding of how deep this kind of love goes.
Articles like this, however, also explain why this type of worship is dangerous and shows a lack of awareness and critical thinking. The author states that RBG is her “favorite human.” While this is obviously a hyperbole, it is important to remember that we know very little about politicians and, unfortunately, judges are political figures. How someone presents themselves in the public spotlight is not necessarily who they really are.
Consider some of RBG’s other actions. For example, her decision not to retire in 2014 while Obama was still president haunts me whenever I open Twitter and see “RBG” trending. If she had retired in 2014, Obama could have nominated her replacement, ensuring a liberal justice on the Supreme Court and keeping its relatively even balance of four to five liberal to conservative justices. If Trump is reelected, he will likely fill that spot and cause the Supreme Court to lean further toward the conservative side. RBG also joined the Court’s conservative majority to allow a natural gas pipeline to be built under the Appalachian Trail, a project both environmentalists and several Native American tribes oppose. Liberal Democrats’ lack of real critique allows RBG to escape the consequences of her actions, or inaction, that have caused harm.
On the other side of the aisle, let’s consider the cult of personality that surrounds Trump. The hypocrisy starts with more mundane things like his criticism of Obama for golfing too much — despite the current president golfing more than Obama at this point in his presidency. On a more serious note, he recently claimed that mail-in voting will lead to a “corrupt election” while he himself voted by mail in August. The Republican Party refuses to hold Trump accountable for the statements he makes that are a threat to our democracy. Sending federal agents to arrest protesters, as Trump did in Portland, Ore., is not just undemocratic, but, according to a Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, unconstitutional. But still, Trump’s supporters continue to defend him at all costs, while claiming to be the party of the Constitution. They only rebuke him on the most egregious of accounts, such as when he threatened to postpone the election.
Additionally, idolizing political figures often pushes people to believe in unrealistically simple solutions for complex problems. Take Sanders, who is adored by progressives and has a lot of support from college students. Many of his proposed solutions as a politician are oversimplified, yet not met with proper critique from his supporters.
Sanders fully supports Medicare for All, a single-payer health care system. It sounds so easy — Medicare works, let’s expand the program to cover all Americans. But Sanders’s view ignores political reality. President Barack Obama’s health care law took two years of negotiation and compromise for it to be narrowly passed in 2010. The Affordable Care Act was controversial when it was signed into law, and it remains controversial today; there have been repeal efforts as recently as 2017 and the Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the constitutionality of the health care law in November.
The Affordable Care Act is a much more modest reform of health care than Medicare for All would be, and the possibility of Medicare for All becoming law seems politically remote. Yet Sanders continues to push for it. Realism is important in politics, and supporters of progressive ideas seem unable to separate the ideal from the realistic. The lack of criticism for Sanders from his supporters made him a viable candidate for president, despite his lack of notable accomplishments in the Senate. Sanders is a senator of big ideas, but he does not have the ability to make those ideas American law. Even congressional Democrats are deeply divided over Medicare for All.
You can like political figures, love political figures or pick your favorite political figures. But it’s important to recognize that these people are not perfect, and we should not pretend that they are.
When we admire politicians, we don’t allow ourselves to think critically about their actions. It is necessary for our government that we praise people when they deserve to be praised, and criticize them when their actions don’t reflect the will of the people. Refusing to acknowledge the flaws in our beloved politicians not only leads to partisanship and polarization, but also a lack of accountability that can lead to dangerous results, as these people make decisions that impact us all every day. When we don’t question the actions of politicians, we give them the ability to do whatever they’d like with their power without adequate thought of how it may impact the very people and institutions they are supposed to protect and represent.
Lydia Storella can be reached at email@example.com.