Today’s political divisions are not only influenced by ideology, age, and educational attainment, but are increasingly influenced by geography. More urban areas tend to vote Democratic, or for more progressive or liberal candidates, while more rural areas tend to vote Republican, or for more conservative candidates. In 2016, of votes cast in rural areas, Republican candidates beat out Democratic candidates by 28 percentage points. In urban areas, Democratic candidates beat out Republican candidates by 24 percentage points.
Political discourse has become nearly impossible, as the two sides drift further and further from each other and become more and more distrustful of each other. A 2016 Pew Research Poll showed that the majority of Democrats and Republicans said that the other party made them feel afraid, angry, and frustrated. In 1994, 74% of Republicans viewed the Democratic Party unfavorably, and 21% very unfavorably. That is now up to 91% unfavorable and 58% very unfavorable. On the other side, Democrats who view the Republican Party unfavorably is up from 59% in 1994 to 86% in 2016, and very unfavorably is up from 17% to 55%. When asked why they identify with their parties, the top answer for Republicans was because Democrat policies are bad for the country. The second answer for Democrats was because Republican policies are bad for the country, following Democrat policies are good for the country. For those who lean toward one party, the top answer on both sides why they lean toward that party was because the other party’s policies are bad for the country. Political differences are also often seen as more than just a difference in opinion. Pew found that 65% said that political views say a lot about a person’s character. Both parties consider the other party to be more ideological than their own. What is clear is that people are largely motivated by animosity for those with other political opinions.
We can point to our two-party system as a reason for this divide. A 2017 study on competition in politics funded by the Harvard Business School found that in our two party system, it is in the parties’ interests to focus on ideology, rather than on delivering progress and solutions. In a political climate with less differentiation between parties and with more competition among parties, elected officials must deliver results, or will lose out to another party. When parties shift away from the center and differentiate themselves more from their opponents, especially in a duopoly like ours, they no longer need to deliver results, they only have to appeal to the ideologies and loyalties of their base and be seen as the lesser of two evils. They may even intentionally avoid solving problems to keep the fight alive for their base voters and special interests.
Having friends from the other party made a large difference. Those who have friends in the other party are less likely to have cold feelings about people in the other party. Unfortunately, 45% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats say they have just a few or no friends from the other party. Unfortunately, since people with different ideological viewpoints are being increasingly isolated from each other geographically, it can be difficult for them to make friends in the other party.
After WWII, we enacted international exchange programs to foster friendship and cooperation between countries. It is hard to hate and dismiss people when you know them and have lived among them or invited them into your home. I propose setting up exchange programs within the US, where kids from rural, red counties can stay with a host family and go to school in an urban, blue county for a period of time, and vice versa. This helps to humanize the other side and may even give some understanding into why they believe the way they do. Even if the experience doesn’t change political opinions, it may change the way people interact with each other when they get to know each other on a personal level.
Additionally, encouraging developers, entrepreneurs, and professionals to move to small towns and rural areas can help not only to revitalize the economy, but also to foster friendships between believers in different ideologies, creating a more civil and less polarized debate climate.
In order to solve the problems our nation faces today, we must think realistically, not give in to ideologies. The reality is that in order to enact effective, sustainable solutions, we need buy-in from constituents across the political spectrum. We need to make tradeoffs and compromises. We must change our policies and rules toward elections that entrench our two-party system and reduce the barriers to third parties and independents in order to increase competition in politics. We must bring the political climate back to the middle, where the pressure on elected representatives is to deliver results, not to champion ideologies.
If elected to Congress, I will strive to bring unity by leading by example.