The Poison of Partisanship

We live in a time in America when everything is politicized. Everything is viewed through an us vs. them lens of political partisanship. And it is tragic and toxic. Why is it such a politically partisan thing to state that one is "pro life," for example? Step back from the years of abortion debates along partisan lines and ask yourself that question. You'd think that people from all political parties, all backgrounds and walks of life could unite around the conviction that all human lives, from embryos to the elderly, are imbued with a God-given dignity that must be protected. You'd think we could unite around protecting precious lives against abortion, torture, sexual violence, war crimes, police brutality, gun violence and the like. All because we believe in the sanctity of life. But alas.

Environmental care is another issue that has been poisoned by partisanship. It boggles my mind and grieves my heart that wise stewardship of natural resources is a politicized issue. Why is it so rare and scandalous to have someone who is vehemently anti-abortion and yet also passionate about environmental protection (as I am), because both are about honoring God and his creation? You'd think it wouldn't be so hard for people to unite around the simple, compassionate logic of protecting the created beings of unborn life AND protecting the created world that declares God’s glory. And yet somehow we've pit these in opposition to one another, along partisan lines.

Everything has been politicized. "Facts" are now even politicized, with Trump fans and Trump critics appealing to different sets of facts on any given issue.

This is in part an outgrowth of the changing media landscape, which allows for (and has benefitted financially from) a multiplicity of partisan media channels. As my friend Ryan pointed out to me recently, one's choice of media is now a claim of political identity. To say one reads The New York Times or listens to NPR is now just as political as to say one reads Breitbart or watches Fox News. And that is crazy and sad. (And the media is as much to blame for this as are the consumers; we're all too comfortable in our echo chambers).

When the supposedly objective truth-tellers of society are politicized, we are really in trouble. What can be done? I humbly suggest two simple courses of action for the everyday American:

1) Be willing to break rank with your party and candidate. 

It should go without saying, but just because you identify with a particular political party or voted for a particular political candidate does not mean you therefore must support, defend, and get on board with everything that party or person does.

This is especially important for Christians, whose allegiance to the ethics of the kingdom of Jesus Christ means their allegiance to a political party can never be primary or absolute.

It's OK for Republicans to celebrate some of what President Trump does while vehemently speaking out against other things. You are not a traitor or a liberal if you disagree with Trump on torture and his posture toward immigrants and refugees. It's OK to be happy about his anti-abortion policies and Supreme Court justice pick and simultaneously outraged at his degrading comments about women, minorities and disabled people, all of which undermines the pro-life notion of the dignity of all human life.

Similarly, just because you're a registered Democrat does not mean you have to embrace the party's positions on everything. You are not a traitor or a fundamentalist if you break rank with your fellow progressives on the bizarre insistence on funding baby killing, even while celebrating the work on many other fronts.

We're losing the ability to do this. Partisanship is so strong that it has become a zero sum game, an all-or-nothing proposition. If you're not with us on everything, you're against us. This was the unfortunate message sent by the Women's March last week, which went out of its way to say pro-life feminist groups were not welcome.

But the world is too complicated for such simplistic approaches. We need to be OK agreeing with "our side" on some things and seeing wisdom in the other side on other things. Or maybe we should see most issues as needing the perspectives and input of both sides. The problems of this world are complex, and while "compromise" may not be the answer for solving them, collaboration certainly is. The best ideas come when a variety of people's voices are respected and heard. Which leads me to my second proposition:

2) Diversify your exposure to ideas. 

One antidote to the poison of partisanship is a culture of listening beyond our bubbles. This has been saidmany times and in many ways since November's election, but it really must be reiterated. It's so important.

The media we surround ourselves with has profound power to amplify our existing biases and further entrench us against the "others" on opposing sides of various issues. This is exacerbated by the fact that we can more easily than ever opt in and out of media that we like or dislike. But there are ways to resist this. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Read books and do deeper dives. Rather than just the bite-sized headlines-and-tweets intake we've grown accustomed to, read long-form pieces and especially books (a wide variety of them).
  • Go on a media diet. If you're reading this now, you're probably reading too many things on the Internet each day. I'm certainly guilty of this. Too much of anything is unhealthy, and this is very true of media. Turn off your TV. Go dark on social media for a few days.
  • Talk to actual people. In person! Go to a coffee shop to read and maybe talk to strangers. Learn how to have civil conversations with people who disagree with you. Join local clubs or civic organizations where you'll rub shoulders with a diverse array of people (church is good for this too). Build friendships with people from different political parties. It'll be uncomfortable, but you'll become a more nuanced, wiser person because of it.
  • Balance your media diet. It's good to be informed, so going off media completely isn't advisable. The key is narrowing down your media diet to just a couple healthy staples that you check regularly (but not too regularly). Pick a few reliable sources, preferably a smattering that represents both left, right and center-leaning perspectives.
  • Listen to NPR when you're driving. At least listen to the news reports at the top of each hour. I think they do a pretty good job objectively reporting news, though their commentary shows do tend to veer left.
  • Focus on your local community. Get to know the real problems, real people, real politics of your immediate context. Build strong families, schools, communities: what Yuval Levin calls "mediating institutions." Attention to the local will ground you in the tangible and relational in ways that fixation on the national/global cannot.