It’s been a week since the first presidential debate — if you can even call it that. As entertaining as it was, I stopped laughing when I realized that this was what American politics have become: no more than a sandbox quarrel between two toddlers fighting over a toy.
It’s not funny — and frankly none of our current political discourse is humorous.
Underlying the near hour and a half couple’s therapy session that was the debate is a fundamental problem severely prevalent in today’s society: political polarization. Defined as “the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats” by the Pew Research Center, political polarization is not a new phenomenon, yet it has grown since the last election cycle in 2016 as levels of animosity and division, including negative views shared by partisans toward members of the opposing political party, continue to increase. For example, in a December survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, it was reported that 55% of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” when compared with other Americans and 47% of Democrats say the same about Republicans — both numbers significantly higher than the last election.
Political polarization poses a huge threat to democracy. Fostered by both fear and hatred, such polarization leaves no room for progress and leads to inaction within the government. This “my way or the highway” ideologically rigid mentality evident in both parties significantly “lower[s] the probability of achieving the compromise that should be at the heart of legislative functioning,” as emphasized in a recent Gallup news release. Don’t get me wrong: Political polarization can be beneficial to a certain extent as healthy disagreement and conflict between the parties lends to the useful tension that fuels democracy. That being said, we’re at a point in United States history where partisanship has become synonymous with patriotism and the need to destroy the other side becomes the ultimate goal. This is precisely how democracies cripple and ultimately erode.
While the debate presented this growing divide clearly, another everyday example is the political discourse found on social media. Scrolling through my Instagram post-debate, I found most of the stories to be a reposted graphic reading the words in the bolded letters “If you vote for Trump, you’re a racist.” Trust me, while I wholeheartedly agree with the bottom part of the graphic that says “Donald Trump will not denounce white supremacists because he is one,” since it’s quite inarguable that President Trump is a misogynistic racist, I don’t think calling every single supporter or the broader Republican party racist is beneficial — as demonstrated in the comment section of the post just before it was disabled.
Such graphics not only ignite unnecessarily hateful rhetoric, but they also (more importantly) destroy any chance of growth or compromise, contributing to the political divide between red and blue. If there’s any chance of “converting” MAGA-hat wearing Americans to understand the implications of having Trump in office again, this isn’t the way to do it. We must take another second to educate them instead of merely attacking.
To combat partisanship and political polarization, conversations between members of opposing parties need to make room for empathy. Someone who has empathy is “capable of understanding and recognizing others’ needs, goals, feelings, priorities and perspectives by engaging in active listening and focusing on reflective responses that clarify and strengthen dialogue,” as defined by the USC Center for Third Space Thinking. This soft skill must be applied and used greatly within our current political climate.
Ignorance isn’t bliss and there is most certainly no place for ignorance in this election.
Voters must overlook their own privilege and start viewing current issues not only from their own limited perspective, but also from the perspectives of those who will be most affected by the onset of a second reign of the Trump administration. To stop political polarization before it reaches the point of no return, voters must place empathy at the center of their political discourse. By applying this mindset, political divides can become less threatening to the advent of society and over time may result in healthy bipartisanship. Learning to take a second to listen and communicate effectively with each other among neighbors, friends and family is the first step in overcoming a divide that has unrightly labeled the Black Lives Matter movement a political issue instead of a humanitarian issue.
For the sake of humanity, don’t forget to vote by Nov. 3. Let’s change history together — because frankly, it’s about damn time.
Aisha Patel is a sophomore writing about soft skills in relation to current events. She is also co-chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Manual Focus,” runs every other Tuesday.