On Jan. 8, 2011, a mentally unstable man fired multiple rounds into a crowd. One clip later, 19 were shot including Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords. Five were killed.
As a nation, we were shocked. Why did this happen?
Inevitably within mere hours, political pundits started the blame game, accusing each side of the isle of violent or uncivil political rhetoric.
Amidst the chaos, comedian and satirical news host Jon Stewart broke character to speak in a serious vein. He claimed the actions could not be blamed on one. This coming from a man who admits our political atmosphere is “toxic.” However, he did remark, “It is a worthwhile goal not to conflate our political opponents with enemies — if for no other reason than to draw a better distinction between the manifestos of paranoid madmen and what passes for acceptable political and pundit speak. It would be really nice if the ramblings of crazy people didn’t in anyway resemble how we actually talk to each other on TV.”
Now, a year and a half later, the Pew Research Center reports political ideology divides Americans more than religion or even gender. The survey, which has been on-going since 1987, measures participants’ attitudes on 48 values, from the role of government in the economy to the environment. Attitude differences were measured between different political and social groups including gender, religion, race, education and income.
In the past 25 years, divides within groups varied, most by only one or two points. That is, in all groups except for political affiliation. The chasm between Republicans and Democrats has nearly doubled from 10 to 18 points. The next highest divide is race at 12 points.
Divisive politics is nothing new. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson exchanged attacks so uncivil in the election of 1800, we couldn’t publish them. However, the current division is not just limited to campaign season, but rather a constant state of our political discourse.
In the past, it seemed, despite political differences and heated campaigns, politicians from both parties could come together to create new legislation. Bipartisan efforts permitted Dwight D. Eisenhower to create the interstate system. Richard Nixon worked with Republicans and Democrats to create the Environmental Protections Agency. Even Republican icon Ronald Reagan worked across the isle to pass immigration and tax reform.
Today, reaching across the isle can be political suicide. Increasingly, states are becoming either blue or red and sticking to that ticket. In February, Senator Olympia Snow (R-Maine), a known moderate, announced she would not seek another term. Her reason: “Two truths are all too often overshadowed in today’s political discourse: Public service is a most honorable pursuit, and so is bipartisanship. … That is not happening today and, frankly, I do not see it happening in the near future.”
For all the talk occurring on the political stage, little of it is constructive.
American journalist Robert Quillen once wrote, “Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.”
Today, it seems we have too little discussion and too much argument. Tweets and sound bites simplify complex issues into slogans that overlook their intricate nature.
Thus far, I have focused more on the problem than any solution, in part, simply because I don’t know the solution. In many ways, I think individuals are the solution. I believe individuals are much more understanding and polite than internet forums and political pundits would have us believe.
Even at the end of his monologue, Jon Stewart offered hope for common ground, ”(F)or all the hyperbole and vitriol that’s become part of our political process, when the reality of that rhetoric, when actions match the disturbing nature of words we haven’t lost our ability to be horrified. … Maybe it helps us to remember to match our rhetoric with reality more often.”
There is much more connecting us than dividing us. When we actually sit together at the table and have honest discussions rather than heated arguments, perhaps we can finally bridge any canyons that seem to span between us.
Katie Harmer is the opinion editor for The Universe. This viewpoint represents her opinions and not necessarily those of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.