Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Alex Graham, a second-year studying nuclear engineering and an officer in the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). While I have no interest in joining YDSA, I did have an interest in holding a discussion with someone knowledgeable about their politics. During the course of this conversation, we learned that while we hold different ideas, we do genuinely want to help our state and local communities. Yet, opportunities to speak to someone with opposing views are rare, especially in today's age of political polarization.
According to a nationwide survey from the Pew Research Center, from 1994 to 2014, both parties have moved further to the left and right. The same survey also notes the rate at which members from opposing parties view the “other” has been steadily increasing in a negative manner. According to the survey, “Among all Democrats, 27% say GOP policies are a threat to the well-being of the country; among all Republicans, more than a third (36%) think Democratic policies threaten the nation.”
With this, both parties begin to hold unrealistic views of the other. A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that “More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”
A successful democracy will not survive when over 50% of each party holds such negative views that they are reportedly “afraid” of the other. That is when individuals begin to retreat into their social groups. It is at that point, that a person with an opposing ideology, is no longer viewed as an individual with goals and aspirations for society but an individual who is a danger to the very society.
This rhetoric can be found on both sides. Politicians on the left will be quick to point at poverty rates and blame the right for not wishing to expand welfare, but fail to mention how worldwide extreme poverty has been halved since 1990. Both the United States Agency for International Development and the Brooking Institution forecasts that extreme poverty may be history for non-fragile states, but more fragile states will increase in extreme poverty. Politicians on the right will blame those on the left for high crime rates and being soft on crime, yet ignoring the fact that positive socialization, strong families/tight communities and a sense of belonging lead to a decrease in crime. Yet, it is easier to vilify the other and retreat into political collectivism.
It’s this kind of collectivism that will propel this nation further apart. It is this kind of rhetoric that makes us feel more alone and isolated. A Cigna study of over 20,000 adults aged 18 and over found that two in five Americans report feeling that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated. One in five Americans reported they rarely feel close to people or feel there is someone they can talk to. When people feel threatened, or afraid of the other as discussed in previous paragraphs, they revert back to collective identities; places where they will feel a sense of belonging. Not mediating institutions such as churches or high school sports, both of which have seen declining numbers of attendance, but political collectivism.
This election cycle, let’s remember that even though we have opposing ideologies, we still have the same end goal — to help out the greater community. We have to look past the rhetoric that is fed to us on a daily basis. That the “other” is a detriment, danger and threat to us. So, when we encounter someone that has opposing beliefs, let’s sit down, discuss and learn with them.