I got into a political discussion with my family during the Bills game on Sunday, which is like getting a leg amputated during an execution.
It was a simple comment that spiraled out of control. A thought about the placement of an Associated Press article in the Sunday paper exploded into Benghazi and climate change and “the issues” that made Ryan Fitzpatrick chucking worm-burners in Houston look attractive by comparison.
For the record my parents are extremely Republican-leaning, Fox News-watching Americans. I, well, I am not. Suffice to say, this can become a problem from time to time. While I don’t believe I’m smarter or more informed than they are, I feel I’m better at seeking balance in my political exposure. They think I lack the necessary life experience to really understand.
These thoughts and feelings are incredibly dangerous. Dismissing the beliefs of others is not a positive thing. Being unable to agree on a base set of facts is decidedly worse. I dislike what politics can do to people and their relationships with others, especially loved ones. However, the importance of gaining some sense of political understanding cannot be overstated. It is important, even if it can drive you insane.
The most recent episode of This American Life addresses the political disconnect we face in America. The problem is this: the political landscape allows for you to live your life completely sequestered from an alternate reality containing millions upon millions of other Americans. This is not a geographical gulf, nor is it specifically based on gender or race or creed. It is simply based on what you think.
Basically, if you trend Republican you can believe a set of things that Democrats will never have to believe. Ever. You will not be wrong, nor will any Democrat who believes what they do. Bringing these worlds together is impossible, because they never have to be unified.
The infrastructure of each political party is incredibly deep. Each world is self-sufficient, with corresponding cable news networks and pundits for each side. Newspapers, magazines and eager bloggers provide a volume of (miss)information our country has never before experienced. It’s likely to only get worse.
Conformation bias is nothing new, but it is officially the status quo. It is an unfixable, ever-multiplying problem. I hate it. Human nature motivates us to seek out groups–to belong–but the armament of our politics is counterproductive in countless ways. When politics drive us apart, when it makes us more marginalized and less likely to talk, we are a lesser version of ourselves.
I have a remarkably Republican friend. The kind that spends parties discussing Obamacare and Jimmy Carter and calls it a good time. It’s a bit much, really, so much so that earlier this year I tinkered with my Facebook settings in an attempt to hear him talk less. When the maddening narrative of the Republican primaries still made its way into my feed, I turned off his updates completely.
Two weeks ago, that friend posted something important on Facebook. It was a cry for help, but the message only made its way to me with the help of others. He needed help–not necessarily mine–but help from anyone willing to listen. Because of my intolerance, I made it impossible for me to be there for him. In an attempt to escape his politics, I took away his voice altogether. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that being heard can be a matter of life and death.
No one’s mind has ever been changed by lawn signage or a single political message on a social media site. No heated political discussion has ever ended with someone swaying one way or the other. To have these discussions requires trenches to fight in, and our political shovels are well-worn.
Our conversations are incorrectly aimed to persuade rather than discuss, and so we seek out places where our ideas are accepted. While the areas of dissonance are unquestionably growing, an equal amount of space exists for blind agreement. Once you find it, ignoring the rest is easy.
Being high-fived by our Twitter feeds or urged on to buy gold from our cable news networks is no way to live. There has to be a better way to play this whole thing out. I’d like to think I’m somewhere between these two worlds. I believe my life isn’t defined by a patriotic color scheme, but there are no obvious signs of slowing this ugly machine down. Sometimes getting sucked in feels inevitable.
I was raised to expect more from this country. To want more from the people I care about, and more from myself. I still believe in the importance of the process and the need for real, rational discussion. I think voting, no matter who you pick for what reason, is something special.
I still believe this, but the last half-decade of political rhetoric have been trying. What happens today may not change the direction of our discourse, but I hope its finality will help us realize the importance of getting back to the middle. I hope the people I care about see the importance of taking this discussion past cable news shouting matches to a place where things can be accomplished.
Politics has given us two versions of the world to accept, but life exists in the space between.