Last night, President Obama and Governor Romney made news by being civil to each other. At the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York, they laughed at themselves and each other and praised each other’s families. This stood out because, the rest of the time, the gloves are off. We have no reason to think that will change after election day. The negative campaign ads will end, but the accusations, meanness, and hyper-partisanship won’t.
With plenty of exceptions, Democrats and Republicans will probably continue to paint the other side as liars or fools—especially as we approach the “fiscal cliff.” But instead of working to find common ground and solve our serious problems through compromise, I suspect that too many people on each side will go on attacking anyone who thinks differently. Ruben Navarrette has a good article about this on the CNN website, where he says “we’re a nation divided, where people can no longer agree to disagree without becoming downright nasty.” Furthermore, “we don’t just disagree; we’re out to destroy. We don’t settle for half a loaf; it’s all or nothing. The goal isn’t to find solutions; the objective is simply to win at all costs.” You can see this in the comments sections of political articles. For example, some of Navarrette’s readers call each other “complete and total morons” and warn against “drinking the Extreme Right’s Kool-Aid.”
Navarette says politics is becoming less cerebral and more emotional, and I would have to agree. Politics always involves some amount of emotion, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a great thing. And I don’t agree with the idea that reason must always “contain” emotion for our own good, since humans aren’t always that reasonable anyway. But here the political emotion is so negative and destructive that it is definitely getting in the way of reason. I remember how four years ago some conservatives were calling Obama the anti-Christ. What?! Since then I’ve heard critics call him a “dictator.” No matter how much someone might hate Obama’s politics, calling him that is an insult to those who actually do live in dictatorships, where people are tortured, disappeared, or sent to “re-education” camps if they step out of line. At this point in the US, thinking differently only means one is stupid, apparently, but not an enemy of the state.
Forms of government aren’t my area of expertise, but I wonder if this polarization happens in countries with multiparty systems. Does the discourse become so extreme and hostile? Maybe the great divide in US politics comes from having only two real choices. At least at the national level, it’s Democrat or Republican and nothing in between, unless you want to sacrifice your vote to support a third party that has a poor chance of entering Congress, let alone the White House. Each side paints a stark picture. On Facebook, some people are saying that a vote for Obama will mean the end of the American way of life. Others say voting for Romney will bring financial death to the middle class. There is no viable third contender to break up the monopoly (or duopoly) and offer a different vision.
In such circumstances, Democrats and Republicans don’t need to do their jobs that well—they only have to make the other side look worse at election time. It makes me think of the joke about two campers being chased by a bear. One asks the other, “do you think we can outrun it?” His pal answers, “I don’t know. But I don’t need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you.”