Democracy requires disagreement and the skills to manage it. Let’s model the best of that practice.
(© iStockphoto/Francesco Scatena)
This has been one tough presidential campaign cycle. It’s been tough on friendships.
Supporters of candidates within each party have always sniped at one another. Other years, some say, have been just as contentious—1964, ’68, ’72. I well remember the angry schisms that opened up between gender and race, young and old, in the 2008 Democratic primary season. But this year feels different.
This spring one UU minister I know announced that he has been unfriending, unfollowing, and blocking posts on social media, and linked to a Slate article called “The Democratic Primary Ruined My Friendship!” Republican friendships have been just as strained, creating ruptures “among people who have for years been political allies, whose friendships were forged through common battles, often standing shoulder to shoulder” who are now questioning the state of one another’s souls, reported Peter Wehner, a conservative New York Times opinion writer, this spring in “Friendship in the Age of Trump.”
The people who have come to hate each other “are a small, unrepresentative group of political obsessives,” Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Slate article, citing a 2012 Pew Research Center study showing 84 percent of social-media users rarely or never mention politics. If that’s true, then I—like one prominent UU who commented on my minister friend’s post— “seem to know a disproportionately high percentage of them.”
As a rule, I don’t like to talk politics. I hang back in those heated political discussions around the Thanksgiving table or at college reunions. On social media, my political participation is mostly “liking” other people’s posts.
However, I admit to being one of Goldberg’s political obsessives, every four years. I love checking RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight, and PolitiFact: the delegate counts and polls, the fact checking, the opinions from outlets I’d never know about otherwise. It feeds the data hound in me.
Over the past months I’ve quietly seethed when reading posts by friends that tear down other candidates and those candidates’ spouses and supporters, and that circulate horrible memes, often based on dubious evidence from fake news sites.
For the sake of friendship, I too was tempted to announce I would unfriend or unfollow anyone who posted anything negative about another candidate, until after the election. But one thing I value about social media is how it gives me a view outside the little bubble I usually travel in. I resisted.
I found another antidote. I let Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal TV show rip on my laptop, segment after segment. Fast-talking, fearless, and wickedly funny, she talks me down and makes me laugh. In one of my favorite segments, she cooed, “Presidential elections are like children—they’re all the most important,” while running quick clips of candidates in 2016, ’12, ’08, ’04, and ’00, saying exactly that.
The most important election of our lifetime, Sam Bee argued, was actually the 2010 congressional midterms, a year when many moderates, progressives, and especially youth didn’t bother to vote. That election brought eighty-seven Republican freshmen into Congress—a large portion of the tea party bloc—who shut down government, attempted to reverse Obamacare sixty times, and refused to vote on immigration reform, gun control, judicial appointments, or much of anything else. State legislators elected that year did even worse: bankrupting school systems, redrawing congressional districts, and restricting women’s access to abortions—“all the things that directly affect your life a million times more than the presidency,” she zinged.
That resonated. Four years ago I did something I’d never done before: I stopped lurking behind my computer screen and took to the street, my own street. I rang neighbors’ doorbells to talk to them about a candidate for Senate who had really gotten me excited, Elizabeth Warren.
I live in the most conservative county of one of the most liberal states. I showed up at a volunteer training in a rented office in a small city nearby, packed well beyond maximum capacity. The staff political organizers were young and smart, all working on multiple tech tools at once. The canvassers were mostly retired professional women. On different afternoons I was paired with some wonderful, accomplished women—a retired lawyer, teacher, minister, town planner.
One day after canvassing, I knocked on the door of a neighbor in failing health to bring her some soup. I still had my Warren button on my coat. “I can’t stand that woman,” she hissed. “I just want to scratch her eyes out.” Taken aback, I managed to stammer, “Well, I guess that’s why we have elections in this country—so we can decide these things and still be good neighbors.”
Most of the people who opened their doors were polite, some even happy to see us doing this work. Combining a traditional ground game with the latest technology, the basic strategy was simple, all targeted to the final three hours of Election Day: identify supporters, then make sure they actually go to the polls.
Phone banking that night was even more uncomfortable than ringing doorbells: “I know you’ve gotten a zillion calls already,” I’d launch in, breathlessly. “I’m a volunteer, sitting at my house making calls, and I just want to make sure: Did you vote today? Do you need a ride?” It worked. Over the past four years, I’ve often reflected on how well spent that time was.
I believe this presidential election is important. It’s already a historic first. But the presidency is just one branch of one level of government. The past eight years have shown how hamstrung the executive can be without allies in other branches.
What’s struck me is how easy it is to get caught up in the reality-show infotainment that news coverage of presidential campaigns has become. Not only are the campaigns numbingly overlong, obscenely costly, and corrupted with influence peddling, but the cultishness of focusing on a few personalities at the top distracts us from the places where our political energies could make the most difference.
Thirty-four Senate seats are up for election this fall, all of the House, and thousands of state legislative and executive posts. If you’re serious about trying to make change through government, if you want to build a movement, I invite you to pick a candidate for Congress or state office. Go to Emily’s List, Berniecrats, or a site that speaks to you. Put that energy arguing with family and friends to work toward getting somebody good elected. I’ve got my eye on a dead-heat Senate race in a nearby state, where a progressive woman candidate is challenging the incumbent. Or if you can’t stomach any more campaigning, join a town board.
Each presidential campaign cycle seems to have less and less to do with governing or democracy, and more to do with deepening our divisiveness. Democracy requires disagreement and the skills to manage it, listening and tolerance. But our political discourse increasingly assumes the way to relate to those who differ with us, across the political spectrum, is to loathe and make fun of them. We UUs say democratic process is one of the central tenets we aspire to practice, our Fifth Principle. We may not do it perfectly, but let’s model the best of that practice. And let’s be kinder to one another.
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.