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Think back to the election of 2008: do you remember seeing the map of the United States filled with red and blue states? Such electoral maps make America look quite separated by state and region. Yet, is this polarization really what defines American politics? As the election of 2012 approaches, polarity does seem to be more prominent than ever. Why? Read on.

 

Polarization

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As the Republican field has formed and concretized, the demand for the candidates to sign pledges has concretized as well. These pledges generally originate from right-leaning interest groups, and include stances ranging from marriage to abortion to taxes. By signing these, candidates promise to stay true to certain ideals, such as opposing gay marriage or tax increases. Seen by Conservative interest groups as a way to both get their name out and ensure that candidates will follow a prescribed set of ideals, the pledges could also mean boxed-in candidates.

Because candidates are being asked and pressured to take early pledges on hot-item issues, they will have less flexibility to float their own policy ideas come general election time. Further, if the incumbent President Obama is defeated, having signed the pledge would curtail compromise. If the new president signed a pledge during the campaign not to raise taxes under any circumstances, their ability to strike a bargain would be severely limited.

With candidates boxed in by pledges pushed by right-wing groups, thus alienating moderate voters in the general election, the path is clear for the Democratic Party to also become less moderate. Incumbent Obama will be able to run on issues that directly oppose those of the polarized Conservatives, thus making pledges of his own. Thus, the election of 2012 will be more polarized and partisan than ever.

Is this a problem? Polarized politics mean less ability to compromise and form bargains on issues, thus leading to gridlock. More gridlock means less being achieved.

Video: Polarized Politics from cbsnews.com

Can college students help turn the tide away from polarization?

College students are perfectly situated to help make an impact on the way that politics work in America. We still possess the youthful energy of an age not too far removed from teenage years, yet we are also influenced by the approaching shadow of “growing up” into a professional worker. In short, we have a unique opportunity to bring new attitudes and approaches to the governing process, and we should capitalize on this opportunity to usher in a less partisan and polarized political atmosphere. Here are three ways to help begin a trend to popularize the alleviation of partisan politics:

Don’t Polarize Yourself

While it’s great if you have a certain political ideology that you align yourself with, it’s not so great if you only surround yourself with that ideology. Previously, I wrote on diversifying your news source, and that is definitely something to keep in mind; you shouldn’t be receiving your news from just one news company. You may be only hearing one side without even realizing it.

Similarly, it’s easy to surround yourself with the same sorts of people on a college campus. Organizations with certain political alignments are important and great to participate in, but being overly involved in one or the other can lead to polarization of ideology and action. While I am certainly not telling you to stay away from such groups, just make sure that you don’t solely surround yourself with people that only enforce one type of belief. It’s important to hear and be impacted by a diversity of views.

Also, check yourself. Are you polarized? Do you make assumptions about the “other” party? Are you unwilling to hear anything from someone who doesn’t agree? You may want to ask yourself why, and if your hard-line stance is really one you want to hold.

Keep Things in Perspective

There are so many aspects of politics that get blown out of proportion. Presidents are pegged as not having the best interest of the country at heart, stances are boiled down to a single issue, and interest groups are given overly-simplified names. But, is there really a person who has taken on the incredibly stressful role of president that hasn’t had the best interest of America at heart? You can’t run for president without being patriotic! Why would you?

It’s the same thing as characterizing stances for tax brackets as either “protecting the wealthy” or “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.” These are such oversimplifications of complex policy ideologies that the actual root of the issues becomes hazy. Instead, keep things in perspective by concentrating on issues instead of characterizations.

Similar characterizations happen in the realm of interest groups, as well. Sure, there may be a “pro-life” group, but is the “pro-choice” side really against life? No- no one is against life. Such names automatically create polarization and hostility. Instead, use descriptions that aren’t as judgmental, such as “opposed to abortion rights” or “in favor of abortion rights.” Be fair!

Argue with Civility (and Humanity)

Political conversations amongst college students can be great- enlightening, thoughtful, and passionate. Yet, civility is also an important key. Arguing with civility is having a respectful conversation. It is perhaps disagreeing, yet respecting the other’s opinion and being able to accept that, although you may not agree, they have a valid point.

Let’s take a look at election tactics, shall we? Name-calling, personal attacks, and smear campaigns are all indicators that civil arguments are becoming extinct. It has become normal to discount, or even ignore, others’ opinions if they don’t agree with you. Instead, we should be embracing new ideas and opposing viewpoints as ways to expand our way of thinking. That’s the whole point of a two-party system, right?

Even worse, opponents are becoming dehumanized and grouped together. It’s easy to forget that every individual is different when their political ideology is their only defining factor. So, instead of mentally categorizing someone as a certain type of person, realize that everyone wants the same basic things from life. They want to be protected, they want to have a roof over their head and food to eat, they want to be happy.  That’s humanity.

Diversity of opinion is vital in making a democracy function. Yet, how are we all, as citizens of America, supposed to make smart, well thought-out policy when forced to choose between two increasingly oppositional sides? We shouldn’t have to. Argument should be fair, conversation should be bipartisan, and compromise should be common. And we, as college students and the next professional leaders, should do our part to make it so.

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