Every four years, we Americans go collectively crazy. We spend vast amounts of money in what resembles a circus, but is actually a two year long marathon to elect a President. Each election cycle feels just a bit more contentious and disappointing than the last.
Until this year. This year’s election cycle seems to have reached a whole new level of crazy.
In the past, I’ve been drawn to elections and politics, democracy in action. I volunteered on a Presidential campaign, worked on Capitol Hill, moved to Washington, D.C. and spent $150,000 to go law school because I believe that words like citizenship, equality, freedom, and justice have real meaning and application to our lives.
But I’ve already had more than enough of the insults, name calling, half truths, and mischaracterizations to last at least four more years. And this election cycle is just getting started.
IN THE FACE OF DISASTER
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would always say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster.’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.
~ Fred Rogers
Whenever tragedy strikes lately, someone brings up this beautiful quote from Mr. Rogers. Maybe this reference sounds a bit dramatic, but I think it’s safe to say that our political discourse is in a state of disaster. There’s too many people shouting and not nearly enough listening or quality conversation.
As I researched the attribution of this quote (It’s legit.), I learned and remembered a lot about Mr. Rogers. I had no idea he was a published author many times over and that he devoted so much energy to educating parents about how to talk with their kids about “scary things,” including tragic events in the news.
I love that his approach works in almost any situation. There is always a ray of hope to be found. Once you’ve found one, it’s always easier find another and then to bring the whole drama back down to size. It’s actual size, not the size it seemed based on doomsday media coverage or our heightened emotions.
The other thing that struck me about Mr. Rogers was his calm, warm demeanor. I remembered it immediately, and it brought tears to my eyes. In a recent op-ed called Bipartisanship Isn’t for Wimps, After All in the New York Times, conservative Arthur C. Brooks quoted the Dalai Lama and called it warmheartedness, which he defined as our duty “to be respectful, fair and friendly to all, even those with whom we have great differences.”
Brooks takes it a step further, bringing political blanket statements down to reality:
Rejecting polarization is more than self-improvement; it is an exercise in self-respect. Perhaps you, like me, are close to people who differ in their ideology. When I hear fellow conservatives say that liberals are stupid or evil, I can’t help but remember that they’re talking about my friends and family, and I take that personally.
Visiting Dallas regularly to see friends and family and living in liberal San Francisco, I can attest to this polarization personally. I know good people on both sides of the aisle. I’m sure you do too. More thoughtful discourse starts with us among our family, friends, and fellow citizens.
LOSS OF LEARNED OPINIONS
In the midst of our polarized political climate it’s easy to gloss over what we miss out on because of all this clamoring. We miss out on the opportunity to develop truly learned opinions through real discussion with people of differing experiences and opinions.
Without adequate study there cannot be adequate reflection; without adequate reflection there cannot be adequate discussions; without adequate discussion there cannot be that fruitful interchange of minds which is indispensable to thoughtful, unhurried decision and its formulation in learned and impressive opinions.
Our minds are rarely changed in the course of one conversation, but our opinions are broadened and tested. The best of the competing arguments stick with you as you hear more about an issue. They hang around nagging to be considered and in time they might even convince you to change your mind. It does happen. Or they might just shift your opinion a little. It’s not all or nothing.
To begin these much needed conversations, we need to take a collective deep breathe, channel a little of Mr. Rogers’ warmhearted demeanor, and balance our own opinions with some facts.
FOLLOW THE FACT CHECKERS
Finding some fact-driven resources you can respect will allow you to use their reporting as a gauge for the accuracy of others’. So the ray of hope I’m focusing on within our muddled political discourse are the fact checkers — three outlets specifically dedicated to fact checking politicians and the media. I’ve included a little more about each below.
- FactCheck.org — “A nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. … [It’s] a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.” No fancy legend just narrative explanations of the truthfulness of various claims. Best of the bunch.
- PolitiFact — “An independent fact-checking journalism website aimed at bringing you the truth in politics, a division of the Tampa Bay Times.” Check out this page for the legend associated with their Truth-o-Meter ruling.
- Washington Post’s Fact Checker — This one’s a little different. It’s a column published by Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post with the stated goal of getting at “the truth behind the rhetoric.” Check out this page for the legend associated with their Pinocchio rulings.
Like anything human, these organizations won’t be flawless. The people behind them have their own opinions and biases, but their stated goal is objectivity, and that’s a good start.
In times of disastrous political discourse remember that individuals do make a difference. Ground your opinions with the help of one of fact checkers. Follow them on Facebook or get their emails. Send them a question you want fact checked. Do your part to help change the tone in a productive, thoughtful way.
P.S. — The quote above from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter is one of my favorites. He was talking about Supreme Court opinions and bemoaning the court’s jam packed docket. I copied it from one of my law school casebooks. It motivated me to study and served as a reminder of why I went to law school and the type of opinions I still aim to maintain, even though I often fall far short of his lofty ideal.