Our politics is fundamentally broken. The left-right divide is blurred. People are politically aggressive, politics has become a personality trait and opinions have become facts. Democracy is fading before our eyes.
Over this lockdown I found myself with a plethora of books that I had bought before my university year started, and also ones that have gone back a few years now. There are two books I read which answer the question “Why are we so divided by our opinions, and why are we defined by politics?”
The first book was The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by American social psychologist Johnathan Haidt. This dives into our human nature, why we divide, how we try to conquer, but also why we will fall on our own sword defending ourselves to death. It exemplifies the Darwinism and Machiavellianism in us. It’s why we are self-centred creatures, which ironically is exactly the reason we have survived for so long.
The second book, and possibly my favourite was Crisis Point by former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Republican) and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (Democrat), the two leaders who were elected in the historical 2001 50/50 Senate split. Having combined experience of more than 60 years, they go over how politics has changed and how the media play a large part in dividing an already broken society.
Politics is somewhat a fraudulent spectacle. When an election comes around some people just watch the news and then vote, others don’t watch the news and then vote, and others go out in full form campaigning for other people’s votes. We are so inured to the idea because it has been around for so long. It’s a bit like door knockers who come every now and then and preach religion to you, and you are either courteous and listen or you say you’re not interested. Or, in my own case, you were reading a book and then there was a knock at the door so you open it and they stare blankly at you and say “have a good day” and leave, at which point you look down and realise you had Secret Lives of the Nazis in your hand…
Campaigners and door knockers share similar qualities. They are never approaching you to tell you why they themselves came to a judgment, but to give the best possible reasons why someone ought to join them in their thoughts. You’ll notice that this is a trait shared by many professions across many industries. But politics is so durable that the modern-day politician has perfected the art.
We are naturally groupish creatures, whose intuitive gut feelings drive our strategic reasoning. That’s why we have such a broad spectrum of voters. The laziness of humans isn’t seen in what they do act upon, but what they don’t. This is why we have political parties that have diehard supporters and those that just vote based on what they saw on the news. What this does is form the basis of a two-party system; two groups that play to a large majority, accompanied by smaller further left- or right-wing parties.
Fun Fact: At the French Assembly of 1789, the Speaker of the House ordered delegates to stand outside and await further instruction. He then asked them to enter the chamber, but those who favoured preservation of the French culture and values were to sit on the right-hand side of the chamber, while those who favoured change sat on the left-hand side of the chamber. This was the birth of the terms left and right, which have stood for liberalism and conservatism ever since.
All the reasons I have just laid out explain why we can’t seem to be bipartisan anymore. Despite politics being created on the foundations of doing as much good for as many people, not a lot is getting done. Voter turnouts have been among the lowest in recorded history.
The problem we’re having now is that people are so determined to be correct, they never stop to question whether they may be wrong; as soon as we close the door on civility the soil becomes fertile for violence, and that has never been truer than the events that have transpired yesteryear and beyond. Every issue is being politicised because people need to have an answer, or there needs to be some sort of accountability. Humans have a moral compass that seeks out justice.
The media are the puppet that amplifies the divide in society. They have become a place that constantly hammers on any story they can dig up, not for the purpose of informing those who view, but for the purpose of inciting them and evoking emotion. Mainstream media are more interested in conflict than consensus. Ron Brownstein once summarised it as “Cars that collide head-on make more noise than those who merge peacefully”
There was a time where you heard about politics in the local newspaper, on the radio or on the TV news. Now that there are cameras everywhere, politicians have become afraid to speak their minds because anything they say will be thrown into a box and turned into a campaign ad in the next election.
We video the New Zealand Parliament in session, and everything they say is recorded and written. (I note that it has always been written for the record, but if you walk into Parliament these days all you can see is cameras.) What this does is damage the chance of any cross-party friendships and teamwork, which is something we really need. However, the history of politics has shown us that if you speak out against your own party, or are caught talking to the other side without permission, you tend to be ousted from your caucus.
This is a failure on all fronts. It is so important that we enable healthy discussion. Conflict is a beautiful thing because there is always going to be a result. The debates need to be harder, the answers even tougher. Political parties need to stick harshly to their morals, exploit any common ground they have for good: not to bait the other side, but to show the taxpayers that they deserve the millions we give. I am not paying for a fairground ride, I want to see them sticking it out in Parliament on longer days, ironing out the finer issues. I want to see elections that start to dissolve the big two. It’s so important that every single New Zealander’s voice is heard, even the ones with which we disagree.
At beginning of this article I set out to answer “Why are we so divided by our opinions, and why are we defined by politics?” The answer is that we are born and bred into highly competitive cultures. There’s a natural competition from birth to be the best. But we as humans don’t care how correct someone else is, we only tend to care when they starting invading our rights. This is where conflict ferments.
We need to believe we are right so that we can feel a part of something because of our group orientated natures. We are defined by our politics because that urge to be correct moulds our choices, and we take seriously the fact that our law and livelihood is changed by each government. The whole point of the democratic process is fighting for your rights.
They say the older you get the more conservative you find yourself, but I think it’s when you become more realistic that you are naturally pulled in that direction. We are self-serving creatures, defined by our own choices. In the world we are living in it’s no longer about mending the gap, it’s about making do with what we have until something better comes along.
The mainstream media play a large hand in distorting politics. Their interference cripples the right to aid the left, which makes every election an uphill climb. We need to disable the media.
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