Words are not violence. But in these fraught political times, they certainly matter.
During the hotly contested mid-term election, many of us were inundated with political communication. The political messages we give and receive these days are often strongly worded, designed to speak to lizard brains rather than rationality. Candidates and groups hoping to influence you know they’re often fighting a losing battle to hold your attention.
The problem happens when political hyperbole drifts into apocalyptic language or dehumanization. Partially because of that, we currently have a political system where Americans are less likely to tolerate political differences and have less faith in working things out through the ballot box. As many as 1 in 4 Americans, according to a poll released last January, say it’s sometimes OK to use violence against the government, with 1 in 10 saying violence is justified “right now.”
One way to counteract political propaganda is to pay heed to how our buttons are being pushed. You probably can’t help repeating your side’s talking points every so often. But you can manage your triggers and force yourself to hold and test multiple interpretations.
How do you know when political messaging goes too far? One tell is that a victory by the other side is equated to the end of the world. You might hear that if Democrats win, it will result in the shredding of the Constitution and the end of America. (More than one candidate who ran this fall said something along these lines.)
If you’re a Republican, you most certainly won’t like many of the governing choices being made if Democrats win. But the past two years haven’t ushered in a woke, socialist dystopia in the U.S. either. Facing considerable constraints, Democrats have sacrificed some of their liberal priorities to focus on items with broader appeal. And they may have to give up some power anyway.
Another clue to look for is when a group gets caricatured. Perhaps you know someone willing to argue that all Republicans are racists. How anyone thinks they can see into the hearts of tens of millions of voters to know exactly what they believe is beyond me. There’s no doubt many Republicans have different views on issues related to race, ethnicity and unity than many Democrats. But it’s also true that the views of both sides can resonate across racial and ethnic lines. It’s telling that President Donald Trump, despite withering criticism about some of his statements, increased his support among Black and Hispanic voters in 2020, compared with 2016.
That doesn’t mean that elections don’t have very serious consequences. Efforts to cast doubts on elections when we don’t like the outcome are troubling, as is continued insistence, despite evidence to the contrary, that the 2020 vote was decided by fraud. Kansas voters seemed to reject these concerns in the August primary in the race for secretary of state, and voters around the country rejected many of the most pivotal but certainly not all of the candidates promoting election denial in the mid-terms.
Through it all, remember that you can be a partisan and watch your mouth at the same time. Don’t fall into the trap of describing the other side in less than human terms or saying that a political party’s victory will usher in an apocalypse. The odds are it won’t, and there will be other elections in two years and four years, when fortunes can be altered again.
When we see exaggerated political language being used, we should call it out and encourage those expressing it to reframe their views. They don’t have to change too much. You can strongly criticize what you disagree with without demonizing the people with whom you disagree.
And if we’re truly exercising leadership on this topic, then we should hold our own side accountable first. Saying that someone has the wrong ideas might not feel as gratifying as saying they are dangerous or evil. But it certainly makes it easier to contemplate living in a world where your side’s power ebbs and flows.
Sure, politics can be about getting what you want done. But unless it’s also about keeping our social ties strong amid change, our politics won’t serve anyone well for very long.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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