It is hardly news that United States politics have become polarized over the last half-decade. What is, however, especially troubling, is the strategies politicians have employed to make it that way: specifically, the idea that has been spread that those who disagree with you politically are, at heart, evil people.
Think of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. Think of the countless nicknames Donald Trump called Democrats over the years. Think of the rhetoric lobbed by both sides about the fundamental immorality of the others: not that they were merely ignorant, nor incorrect, but instead truly evil because of their political beliefs. The widening divide in our country can be attributed to this idea—that if someone supports a different political party than you do, if they harbor different political beliefs, then they are dangerously malevolent.
What’s the effect of this? People become more divided, and less likely to change their opinions. A person is less likely to listen to and rationally consider the viewpoints of someone who just called them an evil human being. Bipartisanship becomes more difficult to accomplish.
So, why do politicians do this? Because it serves their purposes well. Sadly, it is easier to motivate people with fear and anger than with compassion. An “us vs. them” mentality works well in terms of driving up political participation, especially when the “them” are heinous monsters.
The problem with this strategy, however, is that when the election is over, and one person is expected to run the entire country, people are unwilling to accept it. The hatred that “us vs. them” rhetoric creates does not simply dissipate when election results are finalized. The lack of bipartisanship in the country, the inability for Congress to act, all stem from this rhetoric: because when the other side is evil, the motivation to work with them is nonexistent.
Are the millions who voted for Donald Trump, or the millions who voted for Joseph Biden, truly evil people? Our election choices are shaped by the complex nuances of our socioeconomic status, of our cultural and religious background. Of course, many people don’t want to see the other side that way: it is far easier to perceive those with different views than you as a faceless horde of monsters, rather than three-dimensional people with their own motivation and struggles.
There are some out there who think the damage is done, that the country has been so fractured it cannot heal, that the partisan divide can never be bridged.
I do not think that is true.
Neither, apparently, does President-Elect Joe Biden, who in a speech on November 7th said the following: “And to those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”