A Narrative Response to the 2016 Election - by Hannah Skopicki
When I was a little girl, my father would always bring me to the polls with him on Election Day. He’d patiently answer every question I had while he filled out his ballot, ensuring I knew as much about politics as a three year old could possibly know. In November of 2000, as we were heading to the polls, my dad turned to me and asked, “Hannah, who do you want to vote for?” My smile filled half of my face; I knew my answer and was practically bursting at the seams to say it aloud. “GEORGE WASHINGTON!” I exclaimed with both confidence and excitement. My father, humoring my young mind, asked me why. I thought the answer was obvious. “Because he’s the father of our country!”
In 1789, George Washington was unanimously elected to be the first president of the United States, receiving all of the votes from the Electoral College. In 1792, he was once again unanimously elected by the Electoral College. Now, as politics appears to be increasingly polarized, it seems that political divisions run stronger than political ties. According to the Pew Research Center, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the average Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the average Republican, creating a large gap between conservative and liberal voices that permeates political discourse and campaign rhetoric.
Most Americans will be intimidated by these outrageous numbers, but very few will be surprised. Recent elections have been inundated with pointed fingers, monstrous accusations, and extreme outbursts. How did we get from the unanimous elections of 1789 and 1792 to the highly contentious election of 2016? This is not a history lesson or a call for complete agreement. A lot has changed about America since it was founded. We are now more progressive, industrial, inclusive, and more connected than we ever were, and this is a very good thing. However, we have forgotten one very important notion, that our goals generally are not as different as they appear. Both Republicans and Democrats include in their party platform that they seek, for example, to increase healthcare coverage for civilians. The differences are in the nuances, the implementation and the legislation required to achieve this end. These nuances could theoretically provide an excellent platform for discussion, debate, and even argument. With an open-minded exchange of ideas between leaders on both sides of the aisle, compromise could be attainable.
However, a lack of discourse and a lack of independent thought has pervaded politics in the United States. We seek comfort in surrounding ourselves with views similar to our own, and shy away from those whose viewpoints differ. This is both non-productive and potentially dangerous. According to the New York Times, when surrounded only by one ideology, rumors about “the other” become stronger and scarier. These so-called “Echo Chambers” may temporarily feel protective, but ultimately they halt our growth by impeding exposure to challenging ideas and never giving us the chance to defend, develop, and solidify our points of view.
It does not have to be this way. In Gallup polls, more Americans are self-identifying as “leaners” to one party or the other instead of strictly identifying themselves to a particular party platform. These leaners understand that having a party to connect themselves to is helpful, but they also understand that not being tied down to a singular viewpoint opens up a world of opportunities, allowing them the ability to change their minds, learn about new ideas, and become independent thinkers. These are registered Republicans and Democrats committed to educating themselves on the issues and creating their own political views. Views they can argue, defend, and develop with time.
I often am asked why I am fascinated by politics, why I am so drawn to such a contentious field. There is no simple or direct answer. To me, politics is about our ability to change, to formulate our thoughts, the art of legislation, and understanding that our ideas are flexible. I believe that politicians are drawn to the need to make a difference, to improve our world for both the present and the future. So when a child asks his or her parent who they are voting for, they are really asking that parent, “What are you doing today to ensure a better tomorrow for me and the rest of the world?” Through passionate yet respectful debate, through a knowledge that governance requires coalition and compromise, and through understanding that striving to be right means sometimes we are wrong, we change. To grow we must learn, explore and adapt. We can each find our own “George Washington” if we nurture our leaders AND ourselves. And if the person elected is not the person you voted for, fight tooth and nail to ensure your views are represented, because that, is the spirit of democracy.