“Will you shut up, man?”
When Joe Biden groaned this now-iconic phrase in the first presidential debate of 2020, I’ll admit it, my jaw dropped. There I was, sitting at my kitchen counter, eating tacos with my 2-year-old daughter, and a presidential candidate was so fed up with his opponent that he actually told him to shut up.
To be fair, Biden didn’t say anything that the rest of us weren’t thinking. The debate between him and President Donald Trump had, up until that moment, been a horrendous display of catcalling and a nonsensical stream of consciousness.
It was the proverbial car wreck where you just can’t look away.
As a Canadian, I sometimes find myself watching the American presidential election with something bordering on entertainment. After all, while the result of this next election will affect me, I don’t actually live in the United States. But as a Canadian, I have to say, none of it surprises me. This is the obvious result of an increasingly polarized political climate throughout the West, not just the USA.
I have spent most of my adult life (and some of my pre-adult life) steeped in politics. I have a graduate degree in political science and spent over three years working as a political strategist and a deputy campaign manager for a federal politician here in Canada before switching to the private sector where I work with American school districts (another politically-charged environment). I’ve been in the debate prep sessions, watched candidates talk over each other on live television, and debriefed tactics. As disgusting as it was to watch the president of the United States and the former vice president of the very same country bicker on live television like an especially-poorly-written episode of Real Housewives, what truly terrifies me is not the conduct of politics, but the fact that politics is all about, well, politics.
Take, as comparison, the scientific method. When trying to explain some phenomenon, a scientist makes a hypothesis, creates an experiment to test said hypothesis, and then uses the results of that test to either prove or disprove their original hypothesis. If the scientist’s original assumption was incorrect, then they will adjust their hypothesis and retest.
The political method is slightly different. When a politician tries to explain a phenomenon, they turn to “ideology,” which is essentially an overarching theory of how the world works. When faced with any evidence to the contrary, rather than critically analyze their original position, a politician’s first response is to go on the offensive and attack that evidence and do everything possible to muddy the waters without ever stopping to consider that their original ideological point of view might need updating.
To be clear, while there are exceptions to this rule, this political approach has been demonstrated time and again by both Republicans and Democrats and dates back centuries.
The result of decades of ideological obstinacy and a refusal (inability?) to have an adult conversation that seeks to learn rather than to argue is that the political systems across the West are devolving to the point of idiocy as displayed in the now-infamous first 2020 presidential debate.
America, your sorry state of political affairs is not a blip on the radar – it is the product of decades of ideological warfare.
The sad truth is that while the American public – especially Millennials, the largest generation on the planet right now – desperately want to see a Lincoln-esque collaborative effort to repair the damage being done to our planet and to the American nation, our politicians remain entrenched in this “all-or-nothing, burn all bridges, scorched earth” style of politics that actually does far greater harm to humanity than good. It is a story we see playing itself out around the world.
As long as the political system is populated by people who continue to play the game of politics as usual, America will never be able to fix itself. There are some amazing people holding elected office who are working hard to bring about change from the inside (Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, I see you), but the work is overwhelming and the days are short. This divisive style of politics is the rule, not the exception, and it is being perpetuated by the way that media outlets, online communities, and even some religious organizations talk about it.
Looking in from the outside, I’ll be honest: having to choose between two rich, white, male, septuagenarians as the leader of your country does not entirely seem like progress as compared to, say, any other election in your nation’s history.
Even so, I, like most people, am watching this election closely, because, after all, we are all part of this fragile thing called humanity and unless we get our collective house in order, this political system of ours is going to drag us all kicking and screaming into a world that none of us wanted in the first place.
And still the hard-lined ideologues continue to scream at each other over differences in opinion while the rest of the world burns.
It’s enough to make us all echo those profound words of Joe Biden:
“Will you shut up, man?”
This Voices story was written by Kyle Wierks. Kyle is a former political strategist and campaign manager turned political reform and environmental sustainability advocate based in Canada.
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