It’s hard to go even five minutes on social media without stumbling across a political post. There’s no question this election is the most politically charged we’ve had in decades.
It’s hard to know when this radical polarization began. When I started college around 10 years ago, I believed myself to be a Democrat and most of my friends were the same. I had a vague dislike for Republican politicians, but I also knew that my dad voted Republican because he wanted lower taxes and fewer regulations.
I knew and was friends with women who were conservative. I (accidentally) only seriously dated conservative men, even when I identified as a feminist and a progressive.
But then something changed, and I believe it was around 2015. It strangely coincided with my own political “awakening,” but during that election, I began to slowly but steadily lose friendships. It started with my questioning feminist ideology around the patriarchy (I couldn’t understand their refusal to condemn Islam’s abuses against women.) I didn’t like Donald Trump, but I didn’t like Hillary Clinton either. People whom I had known for decades to dislike Hillary were suddenly touting her as a feminist icon.
During the 2016 election, I began to slowly but steadily lose friendships.
This was, of course, after she defeated Bernie Sanders. I was really appalled at his Occupy Wall Street movement, his push to eliminate student debt, and his friendly track record with totalitarian regimes. But many of my college friends, with whom I had been so close only months before, could not understand why I didn’t wholeheartedly embrace his policies.
I no longer could have intellectual discussions with friends or family about policy or politics. If I wasn’t going to jump on the Bernie and Hillary trains, I was a traitor and a racist. Most of my friends and a lot of my family stopped speaking to me.
Why Was a Presidential Election the Final Straw?
My experience is not isolated. Millions of Americans have experienced the same tragedy — friends, neighbors, family, turning their backs on relationships over something as far removed and petty as a presidential election. Truly, presidential elections should be one of the more minor events in American political life.
But there are three major factors that have made presidential races increasingly contentious:
People spend more time focused on national politics than local issues.
They perceive the president to have a lot more power than he does.
The government, in general, has way too much power, which makes for much higher stakes.
Local Politics Affects Your Life Much More Than National Politics
I can’t think of a more prime example than 2020 to showcase the importance of local politics. Both the COVID lockdowns and the push in various cities across the country to eliminate or defund the police have been a result of local politics.
City councils, with the power to eliminate or massively reduce the police force in their hometowns, have a much greater impact on the day to day lives of the Americans living in those cities than any president will. We’ve already seen the destruction and violence that has resulted from a lack of policing during riots. In Minneapolis, after the city council threatened to “defund the police,” they received so many threats of violence and death that they were forced to hire private security. Of course, if the city council makes good on its threats to defund the police department, they haven’t laid out what private citizens are supposed to do to protect themselves. Presumably, regular people can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars a month on their own private security force.
City councils have a much greater impact on the day to day lives of their citizens than any president will.
The COVID lockdowns have also demonstrated the massive amount of power that county and state-level bureaucrats, including governors, wield over their citizenry. While Governor Noem of South Dakota has refused consistently to enforce any lockdown orders, other cities are still in stages of lockdown worse than anything we saw in March or April. If California’s lockdown guidelines were instituted nationwide, almost the entire country would be locked down. Even in it’s least restrictive tier, Governor Newsom’s lockdown guidelines don’t offer an option for going back to pre-COVID lifestyles.
Perhaps less newsworthy but still important, local politics controls how your city and county deal with the homeless population, how your school funds are distributed, and if you’ll be forced to accept low-income or transitional housing built in your neighborhood. These decisions affect much of your everyday life, yet most people spend little time worrying about the consequences of local politics.
The President Has a Lot Less Power Than People Think He Does
Presidents throughout American history have exercised varying amounts of power in their office. FDR used his position to radically expand the powers of the Executive Branch via the growth of dozens of regulatory agencies.
According to Article II of the Constitution, the president has the following powers:
Act as commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.
Grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
Make treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur.
Appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States.
Most of these powers must be approved by one or both houses of Congress. The President also must sign bills into law, although Congress can override his veto with a sufficient majority. He also can issue executive orders. Generally, these orders instruct members of his branch of government, which today includes all of the federal law enforcement and all regulatory agencies, on how to conduct business. The President can’t make law by executive order, and executive orders can be overturned by the Supreme Court or Congress.
He leads the military but can’t declare war. He can sign bills into law but can’t enact his own laws.
One segment of politics over which the President enjoys particular control is immigration. Per the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), the President has wide discretion to control immigration to the United States when he believes that it’s a matter of national security. Seeing as the President is tasked with controlling the military and defending the borders of the nation, having authority over immigration seems appropriate.
But as to the President’s direct authority over American citizens, he has very little. He leads the military but can’t declare war. He can sign bills into law but can’t enact his own laws. Whatever policy agenda he wants to achieve ultimately lies in the hands of his Congressional counterparts.
But the Federal Government, in General, Has Too Much Power
The crux of the issue with American politics today is that our government is just too powerful in general. From local city councils that put ideology above the lives and safety of their citizens, to Senators who play politics with health care deals or COVID relief funds, there’s a small group of people with an undue amount of power in this country.
There’s a small group of people with an undue amount of power in this country.
People would be a lot less invested in the results of elections if they felt those elections would have little effect on them. But sadly, that’s no longer the case. Whether the perception is true or not, national politicians receive a lot of air time for whatever is their cause du jour. If children are taught anything about civics, history, or politics in school, the focus is almost exclusively on the national dynamics of Democrat vs Republican politics, instead of on small-town issues or principled policymaking.
A Path out of the Divide
The irony is that we’ve truly lost the essence of our own name. Perhaps we can keep America, but “United States” no longer describes us. We certainly function less and less as individual States and more as a conglomeration of a few densely populated cities that make policy decisions for the entire nation. Numbers are their only claim to authority. We also, sadly, can’t claim today to be United. I’m not sure that Americans agree on what we want from our government anymore. Fewer and fewer of us still want freedom.
The fundamental divide in our country is between those who recognize that too much government power and investment in politics is the issue, versus those who think we need more government power and more investment in politics.
Spend more time on local politics; they’re easier to get involved in and will have a greater impact on your daily life.
I can’t think of a single nation in history that benefited from fundamentally identifying its citizens by their political party or ethnic group. If we want to save our country from itself, we have to come back to a common understanding. We need to talk about what makes us American. What we believe to be American values. What makes us proud of our country, even if it needs work.
We also need citizens who spend more time concerned with fixing their own small part of the world, rather than the entire country. Spend more time on local politics, which are not only easier to get involved in, but will also have a much greater impact on your daily life. Improve your own life so that you’re available to help others.
There are plenty of enemies outside our doors. We don’t need to make our neighbors into enemies as well.