Many of my Republican friends face an impossible choice. While ideologically opposed to Hillary Clinton’s policies, they are appalled by Donald Trump’s fear-mongering and hateful campaign. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, whom should they support?
I am not an American citizen, so I am spared this choice. But this election is about so much more than choosing a president, or Clinton and Trump the individuals. It’s about so much more than what will take place this coming November.
It’s about what we reward in politics, and what we can do to make it change.
Donald Trump gained monumental support by pointing fingers. He fanned people’s justified grievances into an inferno of righteous indignation. “He tells it like it is”, people say. And in many ways, he does. But Trump doesn’t speak the language of general analysis: He “tells it like it is” through vicious ad hominem attacks, mocking statements, and derogatory personal slurs.
Trump’s meteoric rise in the GOP can’t be understood as an isolated event. His success, as well as the rhetoric surrounding it, reflect a deeper trend.
Elected politicians on all levels have limited time and resources. And one resource they must maintain is public support. So when a politician sees a problem, he or she can’t simply address it. They must ask themselves which approach the public will reward.
Sadly, we often reward politicians that take strong stands against people or phenomena, instead of politicians that painstakingly try to work towards solutions. It’s easy to reward a dashing ideological statement or a pointed remark. For one, it stands out. And all you have to do is “like” and “share” it.
It’s harder to commend someone for compromising, negotiating, collecting signature and cutting deals. In short, for everything that makes democracies function.
Our preferences affect politics from the local level up. When a young politician sees a problem in his district, he has a choice. He can either devote most of his time and resources to advancing a better policy, or focus on vocal campaigns against existing policies. He knows which choice will earn him easy brownie points and further his career.
When the representatives on Capitol Hill have to choose between compromising over the federal budget and shutting down the government, they know which positions will help them within their parties.
When a candidate for presidency has to choose between outlining a positive vision and pointing vitriolic fingers, he is facing another version of the same choice.
Trump is merely the most visible example of this choice. He took it to the next level, moving from negating positions to attacking individuals.
But in today’s politics, and due to our own choice to reward negativity, it’s Trumps all the way down.
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This election season makes my anti-Trump Republican friends feel helpless. What can we do when we are opposed to both options? But regardless of what we can and can’t do this coming November, we do have the power to go against the deeper trend that got us here. We can monitor the way we respond to our politicians, and make sure to reward the right kind of political approach.
Social media didn’t create the problem, of course: Public opinion was always susceptible to hate-mongering, and ambitious elected politicians always wanted to advance their careers. Put the two together, and you will get the demagogues of ancient Athens, the dictators of Russia, and the destructive orators of the declining Roman Republic.
But when Facebook and Twitter are the arena of public opinion, anger and fear are quicker to spread than ever before. Angry posts fan people’s feeling of us versus them and good versus evil. They make us feel good about ourselves. And they get more likes and shares.
That said, social media is also part of the solution. for the first time in history, each and every one of us has direct access to the ears of the people representing us. For the first time we can show them which choices We The People will reward.
Will we reward hate-mongering by liking angry posts that demonize others? Or will we use the new cyber platforms to engage in constructive, open minded, compromise-oriented debates?
Will we reward us vs. them rhetoric, by mocking whoever votes for the other camp (if your response is “yes, these ignorant red necks are rewarding hatred and ruining us all, I’m afraid you are not part of the solution)? Or will we try to understand their why’s, and build bridges?
It’s Trumps all the way down, but we can change it from the bottom up.