By Billy Binion
If you’ve tuned into the news at all within the last year, you’re aware of at least one thing – the political climate has reached a boiling point.
There was the 2016 election, uncharacteristically venomous and unrelenting in its penchant for drama. In May, we saw a congressional candidate body slam a reporter for simply asking a question on health care reform. And most recently, there was the tragic shooting in Alexandria, VA – where a gunman opened fire on the GOP’s practice for the Congressional Baseball Game, critically wounding Congressman Steve Scalise (R-La).
But the most striking part of the recent press coverage has been the resulting call for unity on both sides of the political aisle, perhaps more emphatic than ever before. The annual baseball match went on as scheduled last Thursday evening – Democrats vs. Republicans – in what could have been an ominous metaphor for the polarized partisan environment we’re in today. However, the real story seems to be that, for one evening, both parties played on the same team.
"Tonight we're all Team Scalise," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
House Speaker Paul Ryan echoed her sentiments, stating, “"What we're trying to do is tone down the rhetoric, lead by example and show people we can disagree with one another, we can have different ideas without being vitriolic, without going to such extremes."
A plea for civil discourse. Given the current state of affairs, where anyone with a different opinion is branded a member of the opposition, that sounds like a fantasy.
Which is why it wasn’t all that surprising that it took very little time to return to the status quo. President Trump hopped on Twitter to hurl some insults at “Crooked H,” a mere day after he claimed that “we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good." And Pelosi blamed Fox News for the toxic political climate in the very same breath with which she asked for prayers for Scalise. Back to business as usual.
But divisive rhetoric isn’t the only tactic used to confront our partisan adversaries. In recent months, we’ve seen a new trend towards silencing anyone who might challenge our convictions. The president has barred several journalists from various press briefings, and he notoriously hosted select media outlets – all conservative – at a special White House reception. Both Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, and Karen Handel, a Republican, blocked certain reporters from covering their respective campaign events during the Georgia special election. It’s a stark departure from the mudslinging, but it’s arguably just as damaging.
So what can we do to alleviate this hyperpartisanship? Speaker Ryan might have the answer.
"There are not enough relationship-building exercises," he said.
It sounds simple, but when hatemongering seems to be the principal political tactic, it’s enticing to employ tunnel vision when we disagree.
Step out of your personal echo chamber and reach out to a friend or acquaintance who holds an opposing viewpoint. Have an honest conversation, and try to grasp who they are, where they come from, and why they believe what they believe.
Don’t just listen to the “other perspective” – actually work to understand it. Seek out a balanced view from news sources across the full political spectrum.
Engage the next generation in the discussion and teach them to empathize with each other, especially when they disagree.
And finally – search for and share instances of people coming together from opposite ends of the spectrum for the common good. People tend to emulate what they see, so let’s actively promote this productive positivity. The recent calls for unity in Washington, D.C. serve as powerful examples.
Perhaps Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) put it best when he was forced to publicly grapple with the fact that the Alexandria gunman had volunteered for his presidential campaign.
“I am sickened by this despicable act. Let me be as clear as I can be: Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms," he said. “Real change can only come about through nonviolent action, and anything else runs against our most deeply held American values."
In a society where political polarization has become standard practice – where we jump to demonize the “other” – we must remember that the cowardice of a gunman does not characterize any particular politician or group at large. The violent action last week in Alexandria does not represent what America stands for. The unanimity seen directly after the attack – that’s what America stands for.
Tragedy has a remarkable way of bringing people together, providing a bridge that people of all persuasions can cross. Let’s not allow partisan politics to diminish that approach. Let’s keep it moving forward.
Billy works for AllSides.com as Editor and Content Director where he writes about politics and media bias. Previously, Billy worked as a Communications Consultant at NATO - in that capacity, he served as a writer and editor for several of their publications and assisted with media and video design efforts for multiple international exercises. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia with degrees in Global Development Studies and Music, and currently calls Washington, D.C. home.