America’s always been pretty divided. During the Revolutionary War, the country was split between loyalists and patriots. Soon after the revolution federalist and anti-federalist factions were philosophically split over the structure of the new federal government. The Civil War was the most deadly and geographical division. The New Deal era again saw philosophical divisions over the expansion of the federal government. The 20th century once again saw racial division take center stage, typified by Martin Luther King Jr.’s anger for the “white moderates” who allowed Black people to be lynched and denied rights.
Donald Trump is the poster boy for the rising international movement towards nationalism. For America, that often translates into white supremacy. His opponents, the Democrats, have been happy to define the campaign as a referendum on Trump and what they see as his willingness to inflame racial tension. The Democrats label Trump a threat to the soul of the nation, and they promise a return to normal.
America has lasted nearly two and a half centuries, but most people believe that it’s at the end of the line. It’s easy to remember the glory days with factories everywhere, American exceptionalism at its peak, jobs for everybody and an open road ahead, but it’s hard to remember how minorities did not have equal rights during that time, how women were pretty much relegated to secretary work and how we actively didn’t care about the environment. Comparing our age to the Civil War or Cold War is an easy analysis, but glosses over a deadlier past.
However accurate they may be, most people believe this election to be a make or break one for America. On one side are the Trump supporters who sense a rising tide of anarchism and anti-American sentiment, and want to beat it back with brute force, and on the other side are Joe Biden backers who want to put out the fire of the Trump presidency while using incremental change in response to calls for racial justice.
It doesn’t help that there has been a growing number of people who have tied their political beliefs so closely into their identity that any attack of their views feels deeply personal. People are less willing to compromise or even just have an actual argument because it feels like someone is disproving part of their identity rather than just discussing a belief that they happen to have. There are only two sides, and both claim that the other presents a mortal threat to the country.
With our constant connection to each other over the internet, it’s easy to think that racial animus will be easier to solve. White people whose parents or grandparents fled to the suburbs can’t completely ignore Black people. Geographic isolation should be less of a barrier. Unsurprisingly, Americans found a way to make the internet another way to kick the can of racism down the road.
Instead of everyone in a town getting the same newspaper, we can pick and choose which online newspaper we read. Instead of there being a few main news channels, there are ones specifically devoted to certain political parties. Social media, initially having held so much promise as an online “marketplace of ideas,” quickly became the worst offender.
The determination of who runs the government has always been high-stakes, but it increasingly feels like every election pushes us further away from each other. It’s not productive to stress so much over what other people believe. Calling other people names is unproductive because it just alienates them from you and your viewpoint, and it’s just plain obnoxious. Writing is usually a good way to privately release emotions while not insulting anyone else.
Unfortunately, people use Twitter as their political diaries, which only serves to stir up even more spiteful emotions. Because we can read other people’s diaries, we read ones that make us feel good. By doing this, we allow our unproductive emotions to fester. We substitute Twitter politics for real-life politics and think everyone else thinks like we do. It’s easier to ignore people in real life because we can go home and pretend those people don’t exist. Suddenly, there was a constant source of affirmation that your beliefs were the correct ones and the ones held by most people.
Nobody has, in the course of human history, liked to be proven wrong or called out for an opinion. But now it’s easier than ever to avoid that. We send more messages about politics and see less people that we disagree with than ever. We can laugh at, screenshot and share 280-character tweets that we disagree with, and don’t have to listen to a more sophisticated message that actually challenges our beliefs and presents a fair case for opposing beliefs.
Social media rarely convinces anyone to be of a different political persuasion, but it’s great at cementing political views. It is a live confirmation bias machine, updating nightly and adjusting to whatever bias you need confirmed. It definitely has some merits for politics, including the ability to coordinate protests and petitions, but it also acts as an unproductive outlet.
Writing that “this politician sucks” or “this person is horrible” is sure to inspire even more responses that both confirm your belief and fosters anger. It warps the ability of writing to sooth fruitless spouts of resentment, and its instantaneous nature prevents us from cooling down before sending a message we might regret.
Social media also has a way of exaggerating politics. Not only do many Americans say that this election is the most important in the country’s history, we throw around “existential” and “greatest in history” like “important” isn’t good enough anymore. With millions of Tweets sent per day, the best way to grab attention is by dramatizing language.
There’s no remedy for this – each person is incentivized to exaggerate in order to capture attention – but it’s part of why so many people forget the horrors of the past and insist that a victory for the other side would destroy America. It’s difficult to discern when someone means what they say, and this constant tension is a frustrating way to talk about politics.
At this point, social media is entrenched in our culture. The only way to avoid its effects on politics is by not using it to talk about politics. It’s tempting to think that social media represents an accurate representation of the average American’s views, but our feeds often mirror our own biases and distort the arguments for views we oppose. Reading your local newspaper or listening to people talk about politics in real-life allows for a more sophisticated sample of views, as it’s not so easy to bash and strawman them when talking in person or reading an argument longer than 280 characters.
In order to convince someone of your argument, you have to know what they value and how they see the world. Listening to or reading other people’s views is a surefire way to increase your odds of guiding them to your side, and you might just learn something from them too. Social media, with its character limits and curated feeds, is not built for this kind of reciprocity. Instead of communicating urgency with exaggeration, as social media encourages us to do, we would be better served by abandoning social media in favor of talking to people and reading more nuanced mediums like books, newspapers or essays.