Thinking independently in politics
Here’s a riddle: What is one thing that the Framers of the Constitution did not take into account when writing that precious document and that Thomas Jefferson warned against?
The answer: political parties.
No, when planning the Constitution, ratified in 1789, the Founding Fathers did not have parties in mind, the Federalist Party starting in 1791 after President George Washington began his first term in office in 1789. Yet the polarization in politics today is so distinct that it seems like nowhere in government affairs is safe from party loyalties.
Politics have always been polarized in the United States, so what is the big deal? According to The Washington Post, the incredible division of parties in the past was usually over one broad policy such as the New Deal or, unfortunately, slavery. Says The Post, “New divisions only emerged when they successfully pushed the old division that had dominated political conflict to the side,” meaning that parties aren’t always fastened in a heated debate over each and every national issue. These risings and fallings of polarization are called conflict displacement.
What’s happening today is called conflict extension, states The Post. Conflict extension is new and refers to the polarization of more significant issues rather than just one, such as abortion, job funding, and health insurance.
Mr. Snobeck, who teaches political science at Eagan High School, says that the ideologies of the two parties are moving farther apart. In short, “Liberals have become more liberal; Conservatives become more conservative.”
“I think it has a lot to do with our two-party system,” continues Mr. Snobeck. “You have to choose one [party] or the other. There’s not a middle ground. There’s not a [significant] third, fourth, or fifth party.” Another factor, he explains, is that the people who vote at primaries and caucuses are passionate for their party and lean far left or far right. These passionate voters then vote for far left or far right candidates.
Regardless, these divisions can make it more difficult for party leaders to bridge the gap and resolve the problems facing the nation.
“I think it’s very sad because you look historically at how the Republicans and Democrats got along… and they sat down, and they crafted policy together,” says Ms. Hanson, another teacher in the social studies department. “If you have all the Conservatives [running the government] or all the Liberals doing it, then they clash, and people get mad.” She explains how, in today’s politics, a leader of one party would be attacked if they reached across and worked with the other party. “… they’re supposed to be working together for all of us, for the betterment of America, and not for the betterment of the Conservatives or the Liberals.”
The media also plays a role. What information news sources publish and which sources people choose to listen to can shape opinions. Countless Americans heed to media outlets that express the same ideas as they do, often not willing to understand the opposite view. Media, also, is sometimes tailored to left-leaning or right-leaning perspectives and uses outrageous headlines to gain viewers.
When skimming the headlines, finding multiple sources with multiple positions is relevant to understanding others’ views as well as your own. Mr. Snobeck adds, “Look at: first, where the information is coming from, second, how the questions are being asked, and third, who are they sampling in their surveys.”
The news Americans listen to isn’t the only factor in people’s opinions; the family a person grew up in, the religion a person believes in, and the friends a person hangs out with are all things that impact their opinions. What’s important, according to Ms. Hanson, is that people humanize the opposition they come across instead of blindly villifying those who don’t agree with them. “We are Americans first,” she remarks, “and then we are political parties after.”
At Eagan High School, polarization isn’t as evident. When asked about their political opinions, many students had their minds made up on issues such as gun control, corporations’ rights, and marijuana legalization, while other students weren’t sure of or didn’t know enough about those issues to form an opinion. A few students weren’t even sure about which party they belonged to, and another few said they didn’t gravitate towards either side. Those who did lean mostly leaned left with a few students leaning right.
However, not all of an individual’s political views aligned with a particular party. For example, a self-proclaimed Democrat was in favor of the death penalty when that party’s platform is against it, and a Republican believed that there should be laws protecting abortion and birth control. No one’s views fit entirely in either party.
But how do high school students get their views across when they aren’t old enough to vote? How do students work towards middle ground amidst two sides of blatant opposition?
Mr. Snobeck suggests meeting with legislators and discussing the issues that matter most to you. “People always say that politicians are bad and corrupt, but that’s not true. I don’t feel like I’m corrupt or a bad person, and I’m involved in government. The people involved in government are you and I. Until people that disagree with government step up and get involved, it’s hard to complain and get mad at people in government.”
In the end, people believe what they want to believe, regardless of truths or falsities. The gap between parties is widening, and in order to stay true to your opinion, you need to be active in government and understand others’ perspectives. We’re all Americans, after all.