Politics can be frustrating. This, I know from personal experience, and anyone who has followed U.S. politics—especially in the last two years—is likely to agree. It’s frustrating because for many of us, politics are personal. So when politicians make promises they don’t keep, or do things we feel will damage our great nation, we sometimes lash out. I understand this instinct, but with the Internet adding fuel to the fire, too many are sacrificing human decency in their mission to “take down” the other side.
The dehumanization of politicians and public figures is not a new phenomenon. From presidents to popes, it seems that leaders and their staffers, or those aspiring to get there, have always been subject to round criticism and mischaracterization. To some degree, being turned into a caricature is just part of being in the public eye, or having power. To another degree, accepting caricatures as truth has the potential to literally destroy our nation.
The Trump Administration is a great example of how this works, and the consequences it has. A recent article published in the National Review, called “White House Staffers Are People, Too” made a great point regarding Trump’s strategist, Steve Bannon, who has been portrayed as Death itself by Saturday Night Live. Satire is a great thing until people take it literally, and now it does seem as if, as the National Review puts it, Bannon could put milk in his coffee and have it seem sinister.
Bannon has plenty of faults, but he is not literally the devil. It’s okay to protest and be critical of his political stances and his actions, but we enter iffy territory when we ignore the many dimensions that make people human. By dismissing someone outright and viewing them through a narrow lens, we lose the ability to find common ground, or at the very least understand intentions and nuance. Putting that “evil” stamp on someone is inherently flattening, and robs us of the opportunity to dig deeper (even if there’s nothing we like underneath, it’s good practice).
We’ve also seen the politics of personal destruction applied to individuals like Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. As the Washington Post has detailed, negative stories surfaced as ammunition in an attempt to scuttle Gorsuch’s confirmation. These efforts are malicious, and as the Post states, have nothing to do with judicial integrity, instead representing “an effort to destroy a judicial nominee because he had the wrong judicial philosophy and was appointed by the wrong president.”
This trend goes both ways. President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was the recipient of similar political attacks not long ago; then, as now, the man was not evaluated on merit but rejected based on his party affiliation. It’s worth noting that Garland holds bipartisan respect for his judicial integrity, not unlike Gorisch. While neither men are especially polarizing, the Supreme Court has become so politicized that the toxic climate has been projected upon them—and unjustly so, in my opinion. Yes, there’s a lot at stake, especially where the Supreme Court is concerned. But we owe it to each other to be humane in our approach.
These efforts are frightening, and they happen on both sides of the political spectrum. When political figures are “taken down” in this way, it discourages good people from seeking public service opportunities because they are afraid of how they will be portrayed in the public sphere. And we need these good people desperately. Without them, we are left with hardened, inauthentic figureheads. If that sounds like most politicians to you, it just goes to show that this problem is nothing new.
Left or Right, we all need to practice a lot more civility in our politics. I have a few ideas as to how we, the public, can do our part to avoid the destructive instincts that have come to plague the entire political arena. First, recognize that everyone—even those in power—are humans with intrinsic self-worth and layers we will never fully understand. Second, stay skeptical of what you read in the news by verifying information and exploring context. Ask yourself, is the information you’re receiving telling only part of the story? What is the motive, if any?
Unfortunately, the forces that wield the most political power—like the media and political establishment—are not totally in our control. Still, we can all do our part. Maybe if we sought to build bridges rather than destroy towers, we might deal with political frustration a little differently.