By Stacey Roberts
The way Americans think about politics is the root cause of America’s political problems:
The party I don’t support isn’t just wrong—it’s evil. And so is everyone who agrees with them.
The party I do support isn’t just right about a bunch of policy ideas—it’s infallible. And so is everyone who agrees with them.
The worst member of my party is automatically better than the best member of theirs.
They want to take away your rights and freedoms. They want to destroy the economy. They want to open America’s front door and show our enemies where we keep the good silver. They want to destroy the country, so we have to stop them. By any means necessary.
My daughter can’t marry one of them. All my friends and I have resolved never to date any of them. My uncle is one of them, so I’m cutting ties with him. (I hope you enjoyed last Thanksgiving at my house, Uncle Phil, because never again). My neighbor is one of them, so I’m going to let my dog poop in his yard, then I'll build a fence.
Tax cuts will fix the economy. Or more massive spending. If we ban things like guns and abortions, there won’t be any more gun deaths or aborted babies. If we legalize all guns and all abortions, there won’t be any more gun deaths or aborted babies.
If we close the border our immigration problem will be solved. Or if we open it. If we give more money to other countries, they’ll do what we want. If we stop giving them money, they’ll do what we say.
Free trade will solve all our foreign policy problems. Or embargoes. Or massive military buildups and drone strikes. We should send weapons to our allies. Or cut them off.
Increased fossil fuel production will fix climate change. Or banning the use of oil. If American companies make more profits, things will get better. Or if we tax all their money away.
If you support these policies, you’re unAmerican. Or if you oppose them.
If the half of the country I don’t agree with would just pack up and move to some vast uninhabited wasteland somewhere, all our problems would be solved. If the other party would just stop putting up candidates for election and trying to get their policies enacted into law, we’d all be better off.
We define politics and government in terms of the impossible:
That law will never pass. I’ll never be able to afford to go to the doctor or retire or send my kids to college. Prices will keep going up. So will the national debt. They take their money right out of my paycheck every week but it’s never enough and will never be enough.
The institutions the nation bought with blood and taxes and sacrifice are useless. Our elected leaders are bought and sold like blue-chip stocks by the same people who buy and sell blue-chip stocks. National loyalty has been replaced by party fealty or religious belief. Patriotism is a competition no one can win.
Ordinary citizens have no voice in policymaking. We’re drowned out by extremists wielding partisan megaphones. We’re outspent and outmaneuvered by well-funded organizations with single-issue agendas and compliant media outlets.
The best thing to do under these circumstances is give up.
But there was a time in our history when Americans were masters of the possible:
Settle a wilderness. Form a government the world had never before seen and make it work. Take over a continent. Build massive industries and engineering marvels. Drag the country out of a Great Depression into a world war, win it, and become a superpower. Strive for equality and justice. End oppression. Imagine bold and great things, then make them come to pass.
Up until the last few decades, we weren’t the people or the country that gave up. We were the ones who leaped into the breach and held everything together against impossible odds.
We can do it again.
There is no group more powerful than the combined citizenry of the United States.
There never has been. American unity and sense of common purpose turned impossibilities into realities.
We can decide the policies of the nation. We can say what our elections should be about and what the people who win them are going to do with our will and our money. We can fire professional political operatives. We can put partisans out of business. Extremists can howl to empty halls and wonder where their audiences have gone.
There will still be millions who cling to their political hate and despair. They will sit with their arms folded and tell us that nothing is going to work. That the problems America faces are too big to be solved, and whose fault it is.
In times past, they were the same people who said Britain would never give up her colonies, that the untamed West was too wild to settle, that we should let half the country split off and go their own way. That the Depression wasn’t fixable, and Europe’s war wasn’t winnable. That equal rights for every American was unachievable and unnecessary.
That this is just how it is and how it will always be.
That’s the part that’s really unAmerican.
Politicians aspire to be like their voters. If our elected officials are mean-spirited, petty, hyper-partisan extremists, it’s because that’s how they see us. If they engage in personal attacks on their opponents, if they say that everyone on the other side is evil, if they equate policy disagreements with treason, if they attack other Americans over mere differences of opinion, that’s because they think those things will convince us to vote for them. If they abandon national duty for partisan lockstep, if they stubbornly resist compromise, if they say all is lost unless their side wins, it’s because they think this is what we believe.
It’s like the French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin said during the Revolution of 1848 when he saw a crowd of citizens running past: “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.”
Our politicians aren’t leaders—they are followers. They live their lives in fear of being turned out of office, so they look to us to see what we want and then pretend to provide it so we’ll keep re-electing them. But instead of us telling them what we want, they have figured out how to tell us what we want. By way of partisan fear-mongering, media outlets that have agendas other than reporting the news, and a bizarre redefinition of what it means to be a good citizen, they have gotten us to cede our power and control over the direction of the nation to them without oversight. They know zealots always show up on Election Day, so they match their rhetoric to the most extreme voters.
If every citizen voted, if every American made clear that they want more compromise and less pointless battle, if we all saw each other as allies instead of enemies, our politicians would either rise to that high ground or be sent packing. They act the way we do, so we need to provide a better example.
It takes enormous courage to question things you see on the news or on the Internet. It takes guts to let go of a grudge, to forgive your enemies, to move past slights and perceived injustice. It can be scary to let go of the safety blanket of party loyalty. It is hard to change beliefs you’ve held your whole life.
Until we dare to think differently about politics, we’ll just keep getting what we have now.
And that is what’s really destroying America.
Stacey Roberts is the author of “No One Left But All Of Us” and the founder and executive director of the Valley Forge Project. He can be reached at email@example.com.