Russian hacking. Election results. Discrimination. Hate Crimes. Police misconduct. Immigration. Abortion.
As a nation, we appear politically divided over everything from elections to bathrooms. What tends to be forgotten is that American politics has been formed through division and, more importantly, the associated debate and compromise. Respectful, reasoned - not reactive - debate and compromise seem to be the pieces missing from politics today, along with the recognition that no one side is ever fully right or wrong.
Compromises were made as the U.S. Constitution was drafted. For instance, allowing slavery to continue won some support for the Constitution, but it degraded and harmed people, cost lives and still plagues the country. Although some argued against slavery for humanitarian reasons, preservation of the union was the overriding concern. This experience teaches us we need to consider all aspects, as well as future implications, of issues as they are debated. Sometimes the priority of the day is not the correct priority for the future.
In the late 1780s, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists took to the social media of the day – newspapers – to debate the merits of the proposed Constitution. The Federalists, who supported the Constitution, argued the structure of government, particularly leaving some power to the states, was enough to protect the rights of citizens against infringement by both the government and “factions."
Federalists also believed the judiciary would be the least powerful branch. Anti-Federalists, who opposed the Constitution, argued there was not enough constraint on the federal government, there were not enough protections for rights and the judiciary would become too powerful. History indicates that the Anti-Federalists had valid points. Over time, the power of the states has diminished as the federal government expands to protect rights of various minority groups. And, the judiciary has developed into a powerful ally in the protection of rights against both the government and factions.
How are these examples relevant to politics today?
First, political debates must focus on issues and ideas instead of personalities. All perspectives need to be heard and considered on their merits, not on popular rhetoric. This applies to the average citizen as well as politicians.
We must consider the easy answers. The “bathroom” debate provides an example. Instead of arguing that people should choose their bathroom on beliefs in gender, why not look at the issue from a broader perspective? Most people have, at one time or another, experienced a long line when they really needed to use the restroom and the line for the other gender was shorter or nonexistent.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the country moved toward making public restrooms more accessible to all? When I was in the Venice, Italy train station, there was a bank of private stalls instead of gender-specific restrooms. Of course, such a solution could not happen tomorrow and might include some costs. Maybe private establishments could start charging for the use of bathrooms, as they do in Europe and did here in the United States when I was a child.
Second, we need to break through the factions and start working together. Politics, by its very nature, involves disagreement between different groups. However, the disagreements should result in the emergence of a consensus, not stalemate and in-fighting.
The U.S. Constitution noticeably does not mention political parties. One of the most frequent reasons I hear for lack of interest and confidence in the American political system is the lack of cooperation between the two main parties. Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty.
I am not advocating the parties hold hands around a campfire. Both should have clearly communicated policy agendas and they should pursue those policies. This will not increase the agreement. But if they work toward policy, instead of against each other, citizens will be able to vote based on policy, not personality.
Is this idealistic? To some extent, yes. But we need to realize the perceived political turmoil is a reaction that is not unique to the United States. Seemingly populist votes are occurring around the world. When I was in Slovakia two years ago, the tour guide explained how proud they were of their new president, who was a corporate executive and not part of the political establishment.
This should sound familiar.
If I could ask one thing of President Trump, it would be for him to start listening and building consensus among the factions. To paraphrase a saying, the answers are in the middle of the various voices.
(Kathleen Barrett is a political science lecturer at the University of West Georgia. She specializes in international and comparative politics, with particular focus on the national application of international human rights law.)