The Danger of Political Parties: We Were Warned

Why don’t we just stop yelling at each other?

A few days ago, during a socratic seminar in my Time to Think class, my teacher interrupted our discussion to congratulate the class on our ability to debate like rational human beings. In a time when the country seems split down the middle and with politics as polarized as ever, it seems that we have forgotten the key to having an effective argument: acknowledging validity of the other person’s ideas.

Humans have this really cool ability to communicate with each other through the advanced language system that we’ve been building and editing since the first person ever pointed at something and gave it a name. These days, however, we have all mastered our mother language, but for some reason, we’ve lost the ability to really communicate. Sure, we can tell each other our ideas and argue till the cows come home, but are we really gaining anything from our conversations? Think about the last time you turned on your TV to watch CNN. You most likely read a caption on the bottom that said “BREAKING NEWS: New Allegations Against President” then watched a reporter try to interview a few experts before eventually bringing the issue to a panel discussion. If you’re anything like me, this process has probably brought you more anxiety and frustration than a working sense of the day’s news, which, by the way, is not the way cable news is supposed to work.

An interviewer asks a question and gets no response or is interrupted, a panel of experts talk over each other for ten minutes straight, there’s a split screen between a daily White House Press Briefing and a running commentary by a senator from the opposite side of the aisle; all of these scenarios are more confusing than educational and convince me that the only source of news I need is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. But here’s the problem:

I identify as a liberal, someone who typically favors candidates from the Democratic Party and believes in a welfare state, so I tend to find get my daily news through more liberal-leaning sources of media; The New York Times, CNN, PBS, and the occasional satirical late night television host. I hear the words Republican or conservative and I’m immediately prepared to disagree with the source and brace myself for an argument. But here’s the thing, that’s really bad.

Labels cause a lot of trouble and the moment someone or something identifies as either liberal or conservative, most audience members have already decided whether or not they’re going to agree or disagree with the source. I’ll admit it, I’m guilty of this. Political parties are so polarized in today’s day and age that nobody even dares to be a moderate. Unfortunately, parties are typically simplified down to a few controversial policy points and whoever happens to be the party’s most popular, recognizable member becomes that group’s symbol. This is not the way things should be done. Once we generalize politics down to two angry groups arguing all day long and refusing to compromise with each other, we enter a dangerous political climate that can only hurt our country in the long run.

We have this notion that if a Democrat wants to introduce some form of policy or nominate someone to the Supreme Court, all the Republicans will vote against their decision and vice versa. These days, a Republican President has very little sway over legislation if he/she doesn’t come with a matching House and Senate. Politicians are so stuck in their party’s lines that they forget to collaborate and consider issues from all points of view. Just because a social reform comes from a Republican doesn’t mean it’s going to cut some program’s budget or discriminate against a group of people, that’s not what the party stands for, but most Democrats will dismiss the Republican suggestion immediately. If they’re looking through the proposed plan, they often search for that which confirms their pre-existing expectations. I would argue that it’s this confirmation bias that makes our government seem so useless.

George Washington, our country’s arguably most widely accepted and appreciated president, warned us all about the danger of political parties all the way back in 1796. To this day, his words drip with premonition and leave me wondering if he was truly capable of seeing where our politics would wind up a two centuries later. In the words of our first president:

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions… the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it (Washington, 1796).

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