Recently, while I waited at a stop light, a motorist pulled up next to me and yelled into my open window, "YOUR CANDIDATE SUCKS!" He was responding to a bumper sticker my daughter had put on our car for the presidential candidate she supports. Did he think he was persuasive? Did he think I’d change my mind because he was yelling at me?
There seems to be a lot of yelling at each other lately.
People on both ends of the political spectrum are loudly making their opinions known on their Facebook pages, in their Twitter feeds, and even stopped in traffic. And they’re doing so without always checking the so-called facts that they’re espousing, or listening to what the other “side” has to say.
They are spurred on by partisans on both sides and by many in the media who demonize the other side in order to attract more followers, more contributions, higher ratings—entities whose goal is not to fix problems or to set facts straight, but to simply further their own interests.
All this anger and unwillingness to listen currently typical of the American public is also now typical in Congress. Gridlock and paralysis are the new norm as the members of Congress stick blindly to their party lines, rather than acting in the best interest of our nation.
Although this jarring political discourse isn’t civil, constructive, or even particularly informed, there is a potential upside to the mayhem we are living through.
It shows that the American people care again.
Not too long ago, the biggest problem with engaging the citizenry was apathy. Our challenge is no longer to try to wake the sleeping giant. Now our challenge is to convert the energy currently expended hurling epithets at the other side into an enthusiasm for fixing the problems being roared about.
Who would have thought such wonky topics as Medicare solvency, financial oversight, or healthcare reform would have moved beyond political science classrooms and into Pittsburgh corner bars, Arizona street rallies, Seattle coffee shops, and Huntsville town halls? But for those and so many other issues to move from mere talk (or shouting, as the case may be) to policy improvements, the sides that are butting heads throughout the public and that are gridlocked in Congress have to begin...working together.
But how do we, as divided a country as we are, even begin to do that?
First is to embrace the fact that whoever is elected the next President, even if he isn’t “my guy," is the person we are going to have to work with. After this election, about half the population is going to be disappointed in the results. How many on the “losing side” will hope our newly elected President will fail? How many will spend the next four years looking for opportunities to prove it? Could these people be any less patriotic?–Yet this was a problem after both the Bush and Obama elections.
So we have to “eat our broccoli.” Stop being sore losers and resolve to work to make the next presidency as successful as possible. I understand how difficult a hurdle this is. People are more comfortable smugly pointing to mistakes, real or imagined, than helping to fix the problems. It is harder work to find common ground, identify acceptable compromises, and actually take action, than it is to complain about the “other side” that is making things so difficult. Of course it is the job of whoever is elected to include and engage the minority, but it is also incumbent on those whose candidate won to be gracious, and to reach out an olive branch.
The different sides actually have a lot more in common with each other than the political parties, radio talk show hosts, or cable news would like us to think. For example, conservatives progressives, and libertarians see open government as an important value—for very different reasons. But who cares why? This is common ground that can be pursued. Another example is the rising concern about the close relationship between Washington and Wall Street. It energizes both Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street activists. There are clearly places of strong disagreement about the role of government, but why not take the time to work on the important issues where there is agreement?
The good news is that the advent of social media is giving the average person a far greater capacity to be heard and have an impact. The capacity to take political action, let your friends and family learn about the issues you care about, have an open debate about it with those who disagree with you—all from your laptop in your living room—is a new power we didn't have even a decade ago.
So step two is already happening—at least, sort of: people are engaging in the political arena. Who between the ages of 17 and 70 hasn't posted or tweeted or forwarded an email about a public policy issue—whether at the federal, state, or local level—in the past year? It is no longer considered rude to talk about politics in personal conversations (although many people are rude in the manner in which they engage in “dialogue”). Many have learned that they can have a voice that persuades others and can even have an impact on policy when they organize in enough numbers.
I say “sort of” because, although we have surprisingly high quantities of engagement, we don't have a high quality of engagement. People tend to be lazy in discerning whether that “fact” they are posting is actually true. Do people really not care? Do they really want to perpetuate an untruth just because it supports their candidates or beliefs?
Which leads us to the next step. Pay attention to the sources of your information and how credible they are. Do they tend to show one party as always wrong, stupid, corrupt, un-American? Then they are not likely to be putting forth real facts, or putting them in honest context. So check your facts. Heck, check the “other guy’s” facts, too. Make it a goal to fact-check one of your own assumptions every day. For example, did you realize that although Republicans have repeatedly attacked President Obama for saying, “you didn’t build that,” to small business owners, as though they had not been responsible for creating their own businesses. However, PolitiFact points out that the statement was taken out of context, ignoring Obama’s broader point about the common need for infrastructure and education, and rated Romney’s claim False.
And on the other hand, Democrats have slammed Governor Romney for saying he “likes to fire people.” Again, according to PolitiFact, Romney “was referring to what people should do if they don’t like their health insurance company.” PolitiFact found that “it was inaccurate to say Romney was referring to jobless workers. We rated the claim False.”
Both of these jabs are cheap shots, but are repeated ad nauseam even though they are false.
(This is not to say that all lies are created equal: the vile birther lie is simply unparalleled.)
Step four is to stop being jerks to each other. We need to stop taking the easy way out and retreating to our respective corners where we only listen to the people on our side and refuse to listen to anything the other side has to say. All of us have family or friends who we love, but with whom we disagree politically. We need to start by listening to why they see the world differently, and finding where we agree. They also care about jobs, the Afghanistan war, and powerful special interests corrupting the system. All of us need to extend the respect and civility to strangers we disagree with that we extend to those who are our “crazy” friends or family members. There must be room for respectful discourse.
And the final step is to look at the concept of compromise and to realize that process is not a sign of weakness, a symptom of moral turpitude, the source of all evil. Compromise is what gets things done, and done in a way that best addresses the needs of the day. Our country can’t afford to tolerate the gridlock any longer. Look for moments when politicians brag about refusing to find common ground with political adversaries. Let them know they don’t deserve an atta boy for that. In fact, let them know that is the reason you voted against the last person in their seat and you will throw them out, too, if they keep it up.
Those of us who care deeply about good government need to harness this moment of public engagement before the energy dissipates and people conclude that their voice is useful only for creating angry Facebook postings but not for contributing to genuine reform. We at POGO are going to be reaching out to you. We’ll be highlighting important issues where we think progress is possible, and providing you the opportunity to let your elected and appointed officials know you are paying attention to a policy that is in play. I hope you reach back so we can all get on with fixing this mess. But don’t forget to check our facts!
Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight.Follow @daniellebrian