Is there a way back from a broken political culture?

While a return to “normalcy” isn’t possible no matter who wins, it’s still imperative that we stop cutting off friends and relatives who vote for a different candidate.

A polling station sign in New Jersey in 2008. Credit: Man Vyi via Wikimedia Commons.
A polling station sign in New Jersey in 2008. Credit: Man Vyi via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Many Americans are anticipating a return to normalcy once the votes have been counted and the presidential election determined. For some, that just means an end to the constant bombardment of election ads on television, the Internet and even via unsolicited text messages turning up on your phone. For others, it’s a more specific hope that the outcome will mean the defeat of President Donald Trump.

Love or hate him, Trump is a unique figure in American political history and perhaps the most polarizing. His unorthodox manner, coarse discourse and contempt for the political establishment have fueled rage from both supporters and opponents.

Trump didn’t create the bifurcated political culture that currently exists in the United States in which the two partisan camps have taken on the aspect of warring tribes that no longer watch, listen or read the same media, and view each other as an existential threat to the nation. However, opinions about him have exacerbated it.

The fear-mongering about both Trump and his opponents, added to the conspiracy theories in which he is either viewed as a would-be authoritarian about to destroy democracy or the last line of defense against radical left-wing tyranny, has created a particularly toxic situation. One of the key elements of a successful democracy is the willingness of both sides to accept defeat and the legitimacy of a system in which their opponents might wind up in control of the government.

Hanging over all of this is the threat of violence. Democrats believe that gun-toting white supremacists are liable to react to the election results. On the flip side, the buildings being boarded up in cities and suburbs around the nation in anticipation of rioting and looting from the same people who took to the streets in the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter demonstrations testify to the fact that in 2020, political violence has, along with the unprecedented vituperation on Twitter, become normalized.

So it is hardly surprising that we’ve all been hearing accounts of people who have cut off communication with friends and relatives, including parents and children, simply because they were voting for a different candidate.

Some claim that this is a matter of protecting their mental health since being forced to listen to opposing views about Trump is too much for many to bear. That’s almost understandable considering that in this year of a pandemic, all too many of us have been living in actual and virtual cocoons in which we can shut ourselves from the annoyance of having to deal with those who have a different perspective.

Others are blunt about their judgmental attitudes in that they believe it is simply wrong to have anything to do with someone who holds wrong opinions about Trump or any issues. Some research shows that liberals are more intolerant of conservatives than the other way around while other surveys show that each side is equally intolerant of each other.

Either way, it’s clear that it’s now perfectly acceptable to treat a friend, neighbor or relative who holds a different view about politics as not merely mistaken, but a bad person who should be shamed or shunned into changing their minds.

As regrettable as it is from a personal standpoint to allow politics to end friendships and even sever family ties, it’s even more dangerous for democracy for such attitudes to become prevalent. If voters aren’t willing to accept that their side was defeated legitimately or to acknowledge the legitimacy of their opponents, then democracy doesn’t work.

As bad as this might be when it is done in the name of Democratic or Republican talking points, it’s even worse if it is carried out supposedly in order to defend Jewish values. And it is at that point when we start to accuse each other of being other allies of Nazis and anti-Semites or useful idiots for Marxist Israel-haters that American Jews have crossed a line that should never be approached, let alone crossed.

The issues at stake in this election are earth-shaking. But if this election turns out to be merely one more battle in a war in which we think we are fighting for the sons of light against the sons of darkness—to quote the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls—then any talk of normalcy with or without Trump is absurd.

That we arrived at this point is clearly a function of the way politics has replaced the role religion used to play in the lives of many Americans, and intermarriage statistics illustrate why.

Over the course of the last 50 years, the once-vast share of Americans who didn’t want their children marrying outside their race or faith has declined exponentially, according to long-term tracking polls. But resistance to marrying someone affiliated with a different political party has increased exponentially. By 2016, nearly two-thirds of those polled opposed political intermarriage. That’s more than double the number of those who held that opinion in 1958. More Americans are now hostile to political intermarriage than those who feel the same way about race or faith. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that there are now more interracial marriages taking place than those between Republicans and Democrats and supporters or opponents of Trump.

In such an environment, normalcy doesn’t have much of a chance, and neither do friendships or families. But as much as concern for the political beliefs you cherish is not to be dismissed, sacrificing those most important to us for the sake of politics will cause as much personal harm as the threat we think our opponents pose to the nation.

No matter which side you are on, this election is the moment to step back from the political brink and stop treating those we know who differ from us as if they are evil people unworthy of either respect or credit for having good morals. Listen to them rather than merely lecturing them about their faults. Most of all, don’t act as if political disagreements are akin to a religious war. If we don’t, the hurt we are doing to ourselves will be as great, if not far greater, than the damage we think our foes will do.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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