Perhaps there was a glimmer or two of the potential for better politics even in this presidential race. At the conclusion of the second presidential debate, in the midst of one of the most bitter, trivial, and personal campaigns in modern political history, the candidates were asked to name one positive thing they respect about their opponent. Donald Trump, refreshingly, took the opportunity to point out that Hillary Clinton “doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter.”
Clinton had a particularly moving exchange with a ten-year old immigrant. When the young girl told the candidate through tears that she was scared her parents would be deported, Clinton called the girl over to sit on her lap. "I'm going to do everything I can so you don't have to be scared,” she said. “And you don't have to worry about what happens to your mom or your dad or anyone else. I feel really, really strongly, but you're being very brave and you have to be brave for them too. Because they want you to be happy. Let me do the worrying. I'll do all the worrying. Is that a deal? I'll do everything I can to help, okay?"
Defined by Politics
It’s not hard to see why those moments are so rare. The race has tightened considerably leading up to Election Day. I cannot improve here on the extensive comments made by fellow believers on the inadequacies and failings of both candidates, and the singular danger to our democracy posed by Trump. The outcome of today’s election is important, but it should not be our primary concern.
Electoral revelations are only the most concrete signs of a more significant development in our nation’s politics and culture. It is now undeniable that the current state of our politics is causing spiritual harm in the personal lives and shared lives of our nation.
This is evident in the historic levels of polarization that we see today. The American people are not particularly extreme ideologically. In fact, Americans are actually closer to the center on political issues than their elected officials. Today’s partisanship is driven by a new kind of identity politics not principally based on race or gender but on political party itself. Politics has become tribal, with more Americans staking their identity in their political views and with those who agree with them than anything else. One recent study found that partisan bias—favoring someone in something like the awarding process for a college scholarship because of a shared political bent or affiliation—was stronger than racial preference. Our politics is defining us.
“A New and Deadly Disease”
Spiritual harm is reflected most clearly in our national anxiety. The American Psychological Association found that 52 percent of Americans are feeling additional stress due to the election—they call it “Election Stress Disorder”—and recommended steps people can take for relief. Teachers report students are fearful about the election outcome, even to the extent that they are having nightmares about it. Political campaigns understand and feed into this emotional pull of politics. Increasingly, political messages are not about policies; instead, the policies proposed on the campaign trail are about sending a message and propping up a desired narrative. Our politics is driven by and guiding our emotions.
The influence of political tactics is not confined to campaign dynamics. It affects how we are formed as people. Instead of our values influencing our politics, our political circumstances are shaping our values. As partisan citizens, we explain away the flaws of the candidate we support, and buy nearly any outlandish theory about the candidate we oppose. We even change what we believe to fit the moment.