Stubborn partisanship is the ugly stepchild of open political discourse. It crouches beneath our dinner tables, drooling and licking its chops before it pounces on just the right scrap of conversation. It trolls our online message boards, lingers beside our water coolers at work, crashes our family reunions and eviscerates lifelong friendships without remorse. Bankrupt of nuance, it traffics in the underbelly of modern politics – turning productive debates into foolish ones.
A vote for a candidate is neither an oath of unwavering loyalty nor a pact to refrain from levying any criticisms whatsoever for the duration of the candidate’s term. It is not only perfectly acceptable, but absolutely required, that we call our elected officials out when they make unnecessary mistakes or intentionally refuse to do the right thing. This is a fundamental right we did not discard when we exited the voting booth. This is a fundamental responsibility we must not shirk in the name of party loyalty.
Registration with a political party is neither an unqualified endorsement of every fringe aspect of the party’s agenda nor an acceptance of its worst stereotypes. The fact that your neighbor self-identifies as Republican does not mean he wants to take food from the mouths of underprivileged children or dial the country back to the second century. Likewise, merely registering Democrat does not make someone a rampant socialist or an out of touch liberal.
If it seems as if this is stating the obvious, it is true. But the obvious has gotten lost in all the vitriol these days. Perhaps if we take a bit more time to hear each other out, we will discover in each other a genuine desire to do right by our neighbors, and to protect our children’s futures – even if our preferred paths are divergent.
When we make these discoveries, we may find ourselves more receptive to ideas that once seemed intellectually forbidden, based on artificial lines we have drawn instinctively over the years. It has not helped that modern campaign messaging often seeks to brand ideology as if it were a household cleaning product, or that our talk show pundits are quick to castigate the opposition with half-truths masked as clever sound bites. The fact that we have a polarizing president has also not helped, but his personality does not dictate our discourse.
When we strive to hear – rather than simply listen, vet both sides of an issue before we pick a side and even assume the best about our supposed adversaries, there are plenty of tangible benefits. We are better informed as voters – forcing our candidates to bring some substance to the table, rather than relying on 30-second TV clips financed by special interests. We challenge our candidates on a broader array of topics, preventing candidates who are incompetent in governing from winning office based on a handful of hot-button issues.
We are smarter consumers of leadership when we remove the shackles of stubborn partisanship. And smarter consumers make for better products.
Blake A. Shuart is a Wichita attorney.