Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans say they want more compromise and respect in politics. Although they usually want the other side’s politicians to do the compromising and give their own party the respect. Polls also show that even on contentious issues such as trade, immigration, and climate policy, Americans have broad agreements. A 2019 Civility Poll showed that 8 in 10 voters desire “compromise and common ground.” The vast majority of Americans claim to dislike the partisanship, rudeness, and lack of civility in politics.
And yet our actions do not reflect those statistics. They say the opposite. Politicians follow the cues their constituents send them. They engage in partisanship, refuse to compromise, spend time on Twitter or on television instead of legislating, and pick petty fights because doing so helps them get elected. Gerrymandering, partisan sorting, and primary politics all help make this behavior profitable for politicians. But another factor is us. These stunts work because we react to them. We give attention to controversy, and therefore greater recognition to the instigator.
Our actions encourage the very trends we claim to dislike: lack of compromise, partisan hyperbole and rancor, and politics played at a louder decibel with less content. We click on clickbait headlines. We get incensed by the latest controversy. Perhaps we post about it on Twitter. We retweet the latest Twitter fight. We give our attention to webpages and cable news channels that are filled with hype and anger. In our attention economy, this means ratings, better search rankings, and greater visibility. Some of us click simply out of curiosity. But even these clicks fuel the fire of controversy.
If we want to improve American politics and discourse, we must demand more substance from our elected officials. We need legislators to work on legislation and pass budgets instead of tweeting or going on TV. We need to have substantive debates about real issues, instead of bickering over insults and nonissues.
To do this, we must first begin to change our own actions. It is no use complaining about a problem, or about other people. We have to focus on ourselves and what we can control. We have to focus on what actions we can start taking (or not taking):
- We can stop clicking on clickbait headlines.
- We can step back from social media (or at least politics on social media).
- We can step back from the outrage over petty issues and look at the larger picture. We can stop letting our outrage at the latest controversy immediately sort us into political camps.
- We can make an effort to meet with people who disagree with us, and have respectful conversations that seek mutual understanding.
- We can write our representatives and senators about the issues we care about, especially the ones where we believe compromise is possible.
That last one is important. We need to make our voices heard in substantive and civil ways. Apathy means that only the craziest and loudest voices will be heard. Some of the Republicans who voted not to impeach or convict Trump, and some of the ones who voted to decertify the election results, did so because they feared their own constituents. They may have known the election was not stolen. They may have wanted to impeach and convict him. But the only calls they received were from people who were upset, who believed the election had been stolen (or who were downright crazy). These politicians feared primary challenges, and they feared the hate and death threats they would receive if they took a principled vote. Liz Cheney, Peter Meijer, and other Republicans who voted to impeach and convict Trump have received credible death threats.
This is one example. It happens on both sides, right and left, Republican and Democrat. We need to support our legislators in taking politically unpopular votes. Otherwise, they only hear from the nuts and the disaffected. If we want compromise and civility in politics, we need to demonstrate it through our actions. We need to make our voices heard in the right ways, while not giving our attention to the wrong places. Compromise and civility start at home, in our local communities, and in engagement between citizens of different backgrounds and viewpoints. We sorted ourselves into two political camps. We can begin the process of meeting in the middle space between our camps, by engaging in thoughtful, substantive debate over issues that matter.
Thank you for reading our post by Ben Connelly. Please refer us to a friend or follow us in the area below or on Twitter @mitm4america.