Nastiness and dirty tricks have been a part of politics ever since democracy was invented. In ancient Rome, politics was brutal—Julius Caesar, for instance, was aided in his rise to power by some pretty dodgy voter suppression tactics. John Quincy Adams passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which many believed were enacted in order to silence criticism of his administration. And it’s hard to forget the “mushroom cloud” ads run by the Lyndon Johnson campaign against Barry Goldwater.
So politics have never been particularly ethical or unifying, and polarization isn’t a new phenomenon. But it does seem as though the divisions between left and right in this country are widening to a dangerous extent.
Case in point: an anti-Proposition 8 ad in California features two smug Mormons storming into a lesbian household, ripping the wedding rings off the inhabitant’s fingers, and ruthlessly ripping their marriage license in half. As they smugly stroll out, they wonder what to ban next, while a voiceover tells Californians not to let a Church (sic) take over their government.
(Apart from the obvious unfairness to Mormons, this ad is notable for its dreadful acting. Apparently, the people making it couldn’t afford good actors, so they went with some decidedly second-rate performers. My favorite parts are the overdone expressions of horror on the lesbian’s faces and the scene where the Mormon thugs take a moment to cackle evilly (bwahahahaha) before starting their dirty work).
This ad is obviously ridiculous—it’s an over-the-top example of the straw man fallacy, and is clearly trying to play on anti-Mormon fears. (Fortunately, it wasn’t very successful, as Proposition 8 passed).
But this ad isn’t only unfair and bigoted—it also reveals a deeper problem. Evidently, many, perhaps most, proponents of gay marriage see Mormon opposition solely as the result of bigotry and hate. It’s arguable, and I argue, that conservatives spend too much time on the issue of gay marriage, far more time than the issue really deserves. But their opposition is based on strongly held moral beliefs, not on irrational bigotry.
Proposition 8’s passage must be stressful for the gay community—but it is disturbing that gay marriage supporters can’t realize this. They attempt to stereotype and demonize opponents of gay marriage as bigots, without even attempting to understand, much less respect, their opponent’s position.
This phenomenon is not, of course, limited to the Left—the Right is equally guilty. A Pew poll taken shortly before the election showed that twelve percent of voters thought that Obama was a Muslim, in spite of the fact that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to support that claim.
How did these voters come to believe this? It could only have been through word of mouth. Over the campaign, I saw dozens of email forwards—from more or less responsible people—pushing claims about Obama that five minutes Googling—or simple common sense—could have instantly debunked.
In this election, many conservatives wanted to believe the worst of Obama. Another myth supporting that statement is the idea that Obama is not fit to be President due to the existence of a picture showing him not putting his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. This was a major point for a lot of people—yet accepted national anthem etiquette says nothing about putting one’s hand over one’s heart. Many conservatives harped endlessly on these two—and neither had any basis at all in reality.
After the election Peggy Noonan wrote that she was glad that the election had been decisively settled, as opposed to narrow, litigatious election, as in 2000. I agree. It seems that things are at a point where liberals and conservatives cannot conceive of the other side as being anything but knowingly harmful, objectively immoral agents of destruction. (Would this be a good time to point out that one cannot judge subjective intent by objective consequence? In other words, no matter how poorly the other side performs, that is not sufficient evidence to suggest that they meant for any negative consequences to happen).
America faces some big problems—and in order to have any hope of solving them, both sides will have to reach some degree of cooperation and unity. If they don’t, there is simply no way that the federal government will be able to solve important issues such as the national debt, Social Security, and education.
Sadly, I rather doubt that liberals and conservatives will draw together—on the contrary, I believe that they will draw farther apart. Television, radio, the Internet—all are becoming more opinionated and passionate, and much of that opinion is simply nonsense, which is still regarded as gospel by millions. I hope that things will change—but if the situation continues as it is, then the country will become more and more polarized.