Recently, a young man I was speaking with discovered I wrote about politics. “Which side?” he immediately asked. I hemmed and hawed, mumbling something about fairness. “Yeah, but which side?” he pressed. I admitted to favoring the left most of the time, and this satisfied him.
That’s yet another example of how whatever middle used to exist in our politics, it has shrunk to the point where it no longer matters, leaving us with two sides who despise one another.
A new study out from Lincoln Park Surveys suggests that independent voters aren’t really all that independent; they clearly lean towards one party or another. In fact, many independents define themselves that way because they are more to the right than Republicans or more to the left than Democrats. Only a small sliver of voters are actually up for grabs — almost everyone makes up their minds well before the election.
This is something that goes beyond the usual difference between left and right. We’re becoming more consistently polarized in our views. According to a 2014 survey by Pew Research, far more people identify as “consistently conservative” or “consistently liberal” in their views than in 2004 or 1994. We’re also more likely to have friends who agree with us politically and live in areas where our views are dominant the more to the left or the right we lean.
In short, we increasingly live with and talk to only those people who share our views, to the exclusion of others. This is dangerous.
Here’s an example of why: studies and experience show that hostility to LGBT people diminishes when a person actually knows, interacts with, and likes an LGBT person. Queer people are everywhere, and increasingly visible. We are less scary, because we’re your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, and your fellow citizens. It’s a lot harder to think of someone you know as a threat.
But when we don’t know a group of people, we can very easily turn them into monsters.
Among Democrats, 27 percent in the Pew survey say that Republicans are a threat to the well-being of the country. Among Republicans, 36 percent believe the same about Democrats.
And then we go online and make it worse. We can wade into the maelstrom of Twitter, where one of the stars of the new Ghostbusters movie (go see it, it’s great) was driven off the service by a disgusting deluge of racist images and tweets. This is a place where outrage fuels outrage, where cruelty is simple and easy, and where the big-mouthed, angry Donald Trumps of the world delight in turning those they disagree with into monsters and targets.
But we can go further. Look at the comments section of any news article and see a torrent of hate and bigotry, or go to any other site where people can be as hideous as they want without fearing any repercussions, and you’ll see dehumanization and ridicule and just plain meanness.
And I can’t do it. I can’t.
While there are plenty of policies I believe the far right has proposed that would be pretty harmful, and there are people — Donald Trump especially — who are doing real damage to the country, I can’t believe that of Republicans as a whole.
When I think of Republicans I don’t picture some faceless stereotype. I think of my parents, my grandparents, my family back in Pennsylvania. I think of all the good, decent, fair-minded, and kind Republicans I’ve met in my travels and right here in Connecticut.
Republicans or Democrats aren’t a threat to the country, and neither are conservatives or liberals. Surely you’ve met people who believe very different things than you do, and surely at least a few have been kind and open. Surely we can fight for what we believe in without declaring total war on one another.
Extremism is the enemy. The urge to turn someone else into a non-human, a non-person, a monster . . . that’s the danger.
We live in a time of radicalism and danger, when it feels like everything is at stake. We also live in a time when it feels like our country is in the midst of a messy divorce, one America from another.
Most of all, this is a time when so many of us are getting swept up in huge global forces that we have little to no control over. It’s easy to be angry, to feel helpless. But even though the winds are strong and our strength is failing, I urge everyone to please remember not just your own humanity, but everyone else’s, too.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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