The political discourse of shouting, speaking in platitudes, making vague and nebulous claims, blatant lies, mis-information, and xenophobia has dominated this election cycle. Individually none of this is new in politics, but they are combined and accentuated to create the worst political discourse that I can remember. While it is easy to blame particular candidates, demographics, or industries, the blame for the degradation of our national politics lies with We The People.
First, political campaigns react to nothing more strongly than polls, perception, and donations. No political candidate could afford repetitious lying or unapologetic scapegoating if there were either financial or electoral consequences. Relatedly, the ubiquitously vilified American media are largely, at the bottom line, private corporations which aim to turn profits. Contemporary coverage and narratives are more often driven by our desires than by civic duty. Our clicks and views tell outlets what stories will lead to greater ad revenue and bigger audiences.
Next, our understandable frustration with our economy, foreign policy, and other issues has turned the American people against anyone with prior political experience. This is an erroneous approach. By analogy, if an airplane crashes due to pilot error, no one would fire the pilots and hire accountants—instead, better pilots would be employed. Likewise, we should not replace our current politicians with surgeons, businessmen, or preachers, but instead with better politicians. Indeed, when a plane crashes, hundreds can die in an instant, but when a country is led by misguided policies, thousands can die in needless violence, hunger, or disease. The aversion of the American people toward those with even a basic understanding of legislation and governance has decreased the political discourse among presidential candidates and will undoubtedly decrease how we are served by our government.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, we have allowed ourselves to under-fund crucial programs in civics and humanities at both primary and secondary levels. By viewing education as merely a means to employment, teaching only performance on standardized tests, and obsessing over science and technology education, we habitually let our children down by ignoring coursework and lessons which instill citizenship. Studying the humanities, for example, has been shown to increase empathy, a trait badly needed in our public discourse about immigrants, refugees, and Muslims. Greater requirements and resources for courses in history, political science, and government would create a more informed, more engaged, and more diverse electorate than we have now. More knowledgeable voters would have a greater ability to discern fanciful promises from practical solutions, and have a greater understanding of the context and contents of our Constitution.
From school funding decisions to clicking sensationalist headlines, and from tolerating xenophobic statements to shunning policy nuance, we have built a political discourse that reflects the worst in us. In this election, our candidates represent how little we collectively think about and pay attention to public policy. In order to change our politics, we must change ourselves. Thomas Jefferson tasked us to do so, famously writing, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” It may be too late to change 2016, but by improving our civic knowledge and engagement, we can lay the groundwork for a better 2020 and beyond.