I forgot just how much I dislike election years… But as November 3rd gets closer and closer, the temperature gets up all the more. Tensions are running high for most everyone and I’m no exception.
Over the last several years since this past presidential election cycle got underway, I have on several occasions wanted to write something but didn’t quite have the words to say and decided to take the path of silence. This post is very much an outflow of my own internal processing over these past four years. I didn’t post it before because I didn’t want to incite any anger or hurt anyone, a seemingly impossible task these days. That decision to hold back was probably for the best. To take four years to step back, read some history, listen to some new voices and barely scratch the surface of trying to understand how we arrived at this juncture has been fruitful. Maybe even now I should be holding my tongue, but we’ll see how this goes.
It’s probably good for you to know upfront that I didn’t vote for either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton this past election. Yes I did vote, but I did not give my endorsement to either candidate. This isn’t something I’m necessarily proud of (as I’ll discuss later). I share this because I hope you see that I’m coming at this issue with a relatively moderate view. No one is truly unbiased, and pure centrism isn’t necessarily an ideal to be lauded at all times, but I’m doing my best to write that way. We have enough divisive political content. I want to try and offer something different.
It’s a difficult topic to write on without angering someone but I hope I can pull this off. Here we go!
there Are Only (REALLY) Two Options
If you had to choose between eating a warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a handful of dirt (not that crushed Oreo’s and pudding concoction) which would you choose? I think all reasonable people that don’t have a gluten allergy and lactose intolerance would take the pie and ice cream over some gritty dirt in a heartbeat.
But what happens when the choice is between that warm slice of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate cake filled with hot fudge? All of the sudden the decision gets more difficult for most people. The conclusion becomes more situational… What did I have for dinner? Am I around people who will judge me for a particular food choice? Did I have enough fruit and vegetables today to justify all that chocolate?
While for some people, election decisions may feel like a choice between eating pie or dirt, others may relate more to the choice between the pie and cake. During a year like this, I think these people who see overwhelming positives to both candidates are a minority. I’m sure for many others it may feel like a choice between getting a gut punch or a kick to the shins, where neither option is ideal. For even the most staunch supporters of a particular candidate, how often is it because the other side seems all the more unbearable.
When a decision comes down to only two candidates who represent platforms that cover such a wide range of topics it should be much more complicated and situational than a choice between pie and dirt. The two-party system presents a false dilemma fallacy. The notion that this is black and white often keeps us from understanding the complex decision others, like us, are trying to make.
There are so many issues that have substantial complexity to them and deserve discussion and dialogue. The economy, national security, supreme court justice nominees, racial and gender equality, border security, immigration, education, tax policy, environmental regulations, energy policy, the criminal justice system, abortion, foreign relations, religious freedoms, cyber security, and now pandemic response just to name a few.
There are people who dedicate their entire lives to studying just one of these issues and come to different conclusions on the right way to address them. Every person who voted for Trump does not necessarily have the same opinions on all of the topics. And neither does every person who voted for Clinton. I think I’m safe to presume the same applies to this election.
If you completely align with one party’s beliefs, it makes the choice much easier. And sure, there are certainly reasons why a general consensus forms around each party’s platforms with general acceptance among wide swaths of the population. However, while aligning entirely with a party’s platform may make for easy voting, you may wish to consider if it should really be that easy. Considering party platforms have changed considerably over time (compare party platforms to what they believed even a couple decades ago), what’s to say they won’t continue to change? And does that mean you will change your beliefs to align with an ever-changing platform? Where is your anchor set?
Let’s remember we’re reducing a lot of complexity to just two (sorry third-party candidates) choices for most elections. Assume that other people are giving as much thought to this complexity as you are. They may not be. But it’s certainly a more charitable starting point if you presume they are and I would argue more productive.
you live alongside people on the other side
I have friends and family who hold views on both sides and I’m sure almost all of you do as well. Especially over the past few years, I have consistently heard people paint those on the other side with a broad brush. “Anyone who voted for X is fill in the blank.” Stupid, greedy, racist, lazy, ignorant, bigoted, unpatriotic… you get the idea. I’m sure most of you agree with me when I say this is incredibly difficult to listen to because we know people we value, respect, and look up to who fall on both sides of the political spectrum and we don’t think they fit these stereotypes.
Many of these people are incredibly bright, kind, generous, well intended, and patriotic people and fall on differing sides and there’s a reason for that. Picking a candidate to vote for is a very complex decision that people have to make. That doesn’t mean that people might vote for someone for reasons that are not admirable. But my experience has been, that more often than not the reasons given have been very much commendable even if they seem unsound.
When we see those across the table as people who are doing the best with what they know and believe to make a choice for the betterment of the nation instead of adversaries with malevolent intentions, we can change the tone of the conversation. I think one of the best reminders we can tell ourselves is that most people are trying to make the best choice for our nation and their communities and families and may come to a different conclusion than we do.
I know I’ve changed my views or at least broadened my understanding of topics over the last several years. I’m glad others have been patient with me as my views have evolved. I’m sure in the future I will look back at myself now and will see areas where my thoughts have changed. And very likely other views that have become more firmly established. That’s how we all work through these topics. I think we should extend that same patience to others that we expect for ourselves.
the morals of our leaders are important but not everything
It would be much easier if we only had to vote based on the issues, but we also take into account the temperament, morals, and likability of the candidates during an election. I think it is on this issue that we have seen the most strain. I realize those last two statements weren’t exactly the most cryptic but please stay with me.
For those that highly value the demeanor of those in leadership, cracks in authenticity and morality can be crippling to their view of that candidate and the party they represent. As a result, it can be easy for them to criticize those who support that candidate and are sometimes unable to understand how they could ever vote for them. On the contrary, those that highly value the policies and platform of the candidate can often overlook the implication of words and actions and do not always see that the way a leader carries themselves has a significant influence on the temperament of the nation.
Voting for a particular candidate does not mean someone endorses every act the candidate does and every word they speak. Someone who criticizes a candidate for an act they do or word they say should not, by extension, condemn all who voted for that candidate. Likewise, those who voted for the candidate should be able to make criticisms when they have been wrong and not take offense when others criticize the candidate.
As an example, FDR despite being a lightning rod for divisions in politics, is still considered one of the most highly touted presidents in our nation’s history for his ability to lead through incredibly trying times. He and his wife Eleanor championed a lot of causes, especially during World War II, that greatly improved the quality of life for women and African Americans in particular and were incredibly gifted at shaping the direction and sentiments of the citizenry. If you have a chance, look up just how many listeners he had for his fireside chats. People wanted to hear from him and be encouraged with his words during trying times.
Despite his ability to lead the nation, he had his own personal failings. FDR had an affair while married to Eleanor with Lucy Mercer before his presidency. In his final months before his death he spent time with Lucy without Eleanor’s knowledge or consent. After his death when Eleanor found out, as you can expect, she was crushed. In addition, he could be incredibly shallow in his friendships, use them for political gain, and abandon them like when health issues arose for Missy LeHand, his personal secretary. In addition to the failings in his personal life, the internment of Japanese citizens and rejection of Jewish immigrants during World War II are widely criticized today. A leader who was, and still is, widely celebrated for his accomplishments had his own personal shortcomings that are often overlooked.
Even the presidents that are often most praised have failed at times. My intention is not to stain FDR’s presidency but instead to highlight the mixture of good and bad that can happen at the same time.
All presidents, even the best ones, have had morality issues throughout history. Every person in the world, to varying degrees, has done something immoral in their life. That’s the complexity of the issue of morality. That doesn’t mean we diminish those errors or look past them. It also doesn’t mean we allow that to cloud our judgement so that we condemn those who supported that candidate or all other actions of that leader.
Party lines have to disappear when it comes to these issues of morality like adultery, lying, and slander, otherwise our credibility is lost. We should try our best to consistently judge the actions of our leaders while also having an understanding that every leader who has lived and ever will live has failed or will fail at some point. We are imperfect people led by more imperfect people. It’s therefore a given that there are always going to be morality issues and we’ll have to learn how to respond to them. We have to view every political leader with the same level of objectivity, regardless of party if we want those around us to respect our views. Once double standards occur, the ability to have productive conversations is hindered.
The tactics politicians and mainstream media use do not work for friends and family
Every time I was at the “judgement-free zone” of Planet Fitness, I would find it a bit humorous when watching CNN and Fox News up on the TV screens in front of me with their “Breaking News” and “Fox News Alert” ribbons at the bottom of the screen. Ever notice how those are on for nearly the entire shows even when incredibly trivial matters are discussed?
I’m sure we’ve all heard the story of the Boy Who Cried “Wolf!” right? When everything is urgent or alarming don’t we lose a sense of what topics are actually urgent and alarming? Or when one side is painted as being exclusively responsible for all the issues our country is facing, isn’t it easy to fall into tribal tendencies? Unfortunately, the media is largely driven by the number of eyes they can get on their content. And what has proven to be most lucrative is a form of reporting that is meant to be first and foremost entertaining to the masses.
Sure reality TV shows may be entertaining, but a culture can dissolve quickly when every household starts to reflect these same values and devolves into reality TV shows themselves.
Politics, similarly, are driven by the desires of the masses. FDR didn’t necessarily want to detain the Japanese Americans in internment camps or turn away ships carrying Jewish refugees during World War II. He decided it was politically advantageous to follow the opinion of the masses in these decisions because he would be up for reelection in the future. Andrew Jackson, a populist candidate elected by the masses for his heroics and selflessness in war, is now widely criticized for his treatment of the Native Americans, when at the time his decision to eradicate them from their lands was the popular decision among Americans.
Even Abraham Lincoln, who wished to give the Emancipation Proclamation earlier than he did, decided to wait about six months for the tide of the public to match his desires and values before giving the proclamation. Many people in the north were not ready for the idea of emancipation. Abraham had to wait on them to work through their own beliefs and for the appropriate moment to present itself. Politicians are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are right and what decisions the public wants them to make.
In that sense, they can often serve as a mirror to ourselves. They to a certain extent embody the values we broadly hold as a culture. And that should scare all of us.
The hotly contested shouting matches that are often depicted in political debates and on the mainstream news is in a similar position. They are walking a fine line of making the decisions they think are best and what the public demand is. There are clearly benefits for them to be outraged and aggressive, otherwise they wouldn’t do all the theatrics. That same approach to discord does not benefit us in the same way.
We’re dividing over these issues. Finding our echo chambers and refusing to come out. The aspects of politics and media we most despise are due, at least in part, to the culture we have fostered. If we can change our demand for better forms of political discourse, maybe we can turn the tide. But it starts in the little conversations with the friends and family we have disagreements with.
So what now? When I said I wasn’t necessarily proud of my decision to not vote for either party’s candidate it was because I feel like I should have been able to look at all of these factors and make a decision that would actually endorse a candidate in contention. I knew my vote wouldn’t change the outcome in 2016 and didn’t want to contribute to the election of either candidate. I had a gut punch/kick-to-the-shins outlook on the election and said “no thank you” to both. I plan to vote for one of these two candidates this year, and I’m not particularly thrilled, but I think there’s value in contributing to which platform is, in my opinion best for the country.
That being said, we can also fall into the mistake of thinking all change must start from the top of our government. We tend to assign all our praise and hope or blame and misery to the people in power. Unfortunately that mindset only feeds this issue more as the public becomes more and more dependent on the input and direction of these politicians and media that feed these thoughts. Patience, which I think is key to unity, can only occur if we believe the world won’t end if our candidate doesn’t happen to win.
In closing, I would like to offer one memory that I have that has left quite an impression on me. Just before my friend’s wedding ceremony, the pastor said a prayer for my friend asking God to help them develop a marriage that would positively influence their families, which would positively influence the community, which would positively influence the regions and then the nations.
How we treat those around us has a far more profound impact on our quality of life than any past, current, or future presidents, supreme court justices, or congressmen will ever have. People have lived good, fulfilling lives in the midst of all types of government systems throughout history. That’s not to say politics or advocating for the things that are important to us don’t matter. And that’s not to say that different government systems don’t influence the quality of life of their citizens. I’m saying that a good life starts in the closest relationships we have, and the fruit that comes from those relationships is what will nourish and build up our families, communities, and nations even in times of political division.
Change can be a long and arduous process, but it starts at home and works it’s way up from there. And that is what I am most hopeful for because it’s this type of change that we have the most control over.
In 10 years, when new people are in office and we look back at this chapter of our lives, will the discord we allowed between us and our closest friends and family over politics really be worth all the division we have sown? If not, maybe now is the time to change.