With the U.S. elections less than a month away, I am thinking more and more about our country and the leadership I think we need as a nation – in terms of domestic issues and international concerns. No matter who wins the election, the new president will need to rapidly change their focus and, to some extent, their leadership style. Having won the election, the new president will need to shift from rhetoric that differentiates and divides to rhetoric that unites. Those who were the former opposition become colleagues. They will need to “win over” the supporters of the other candidates. It seems obvious enough, but it is a lot harder to pull off – partly because of the process it takes to become President.
I’m not a political scientist (or even close), but there’s something potentially damaging to the nation about political campaigns. Campaigns are essentially conflicts, and like other forms of conflict they can be conducted in a manner that is productive or dysfunctional. Presidential campaigns are both productive and dysfunctional, in my opinion. They are productive in articulating the issues we face as a nation and examining how we can best address them from different perspectives. They force us to reflect on where we are and need to be going as a nation on a regular cycle – and allow us to have a say (a vote) in what happens next. The dysfunction stems from what should be a separate conversation becoming the focus of the conversation as well as a system that is adversarial in a manner that is not always issue-focused (or even relevant in some cases). I’ve already mentioned I am not a political expert – the comments section provides an opportunity to provide another – perhaps more informed perspective.
I’ll start with the dysfunctional aspects (mainly so I can end on a positive note). There are basically two broad ways to motivate people – hope and fear. Every candidate has used hope and fear to engage the populace and connect with constituents; wordsmiths craft messages that communicate “I am the person that can provide what you hope for and my opponents are or will create what you most fear.” Unfortunately (to me anyway) fear is an effective tactic. Expansive and unreasonable fear is even better. Many political advertisements focus on deconstructing the other candidate to indicate they are not telling the truth and their promises of the things you hope for will be replaced with them doing things you fear. Every four years we get a lot of information about why someone would be a scary choice for President. We also hear a lot about how mud slinging is bad – but apparently it works because everyone uses it to some extent.
I often watch political ads and debates and wish for more information about how that candidate is going to make our nation better rather than information about how the other candidate screwed things up or is a bad person. As the campaigns heat up, the attacks get more personal and the dialogue less respectful. I cringe when I watch a lot of political ads as well as during the debates. Where are we supposed to learn how to engage with one another respectfully rather than name-calling? Where can we see critical thinking skills used to tackle issues and move us forward rather than sound bites that trigger an emotional response? I hope the next President of the U.S. can become a role model for how to have respectful dialogue (even when we completely disagree) and how to work through conflict in a constructive manner.