The business of politics is partisan, but in my lifetime, I’ve been witness to its increasing intensity — and ugliness.
I saw that firsthand recently as one of two moderators in the 2022 midterm election debate on campus between students representing the College Democrats and College Republicans.
Debates aren’t the place to bridge political differences, but at their best they should acknowledge the validity of multiple points of view, if only to sharpen arguments against them.
I thought our generation would debate better than our predecessors simply because we had watched how horribly older candidates have degraded political rhetoric. I was wrong.
Instead, in the opening statements at the student debate, both candidates reflected the nastiness of national politics. The dialogue was not better, not more intelligent. It was nothing more than a reflection of the divisions ginned up for cable news. From the economy to abortion to gun violence, the responses on every issue sounded like Twitter come to life.
We offered the audience the opportunity to submit questions. The last question was, “What is one thing you think the other party has done well for the American people in the last two years?” If you ask me, that’s a softball question, an underhand pitch, an opportunity to score easy-peasy political points with a bipartisan answer that might win over independent voters.
The Democrat’s first line was, “I think we can talk a lot about what the Republicans have done to help Democrats.”
The Republican’s first line was, “The best thing the Democrats have done for America these last two years is make sure that we’re going to have a Republican majority for the next 10.”
I interrupted after a while and re-asked the question. I made them answer it. The Democrat found it in his heart to talk of the bipartisan legislation passed in the Congress. The Republican said something about the lower cost of medicine. I’m sure you can tell I still wasn’t impressed.
I left the debate with many more questions about my generation’s political future than I came with. Aren’t we the ones to fix things? Aren’t we the ones to take this country forward? I always thought that. Now I ask, can we be?
I honestly don’t care all that much about what happened in the debate.
One debate on one night on one college campus isn’t the issue. It’s the debilitating sickness in our rhetoric. It’s our inability to respect those who disagree with us. And it’s been that way my whole life.
I was born in 2002, post 9/11 America. When I’ve flown alone, I left my parents at the security checkpoint, not my departure gate. September 11 has always been a day of remembrance. I have never seen a September 11 that wasn’t 9/11.
I have never lived in an America that was at peace. We went into Afghanistan before I was born and exited the country my freshman year of college. We’ve declared wars on drugs, and wars on poverty, wars on the border — and we’re starting to declare wars on each other.
Older folks always talk of the unity Americans felt on September 12, 2001. A national tragedy transcended political beliefs. On that day, we were all Americans.
There has been no day like that for me. There has been no day that we’ve been truly united since then. There’s been no day where we all said, “What can I do?”
I thought our generation would figure it out. I thought we would do things differently.
“Tomorrow” has always been the implicit promise of American politics. We’ll fix things in the next congress, after the next election. Tomorrow’s generation will be better. Tomorrow’s America will be more respectful, more understanding. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
It makes me think of the plague of frogs in Scripture. Exodus teaches us of the plagues the Lord sent to soften Pharaoh’s heart and release the people of Israel from slavery. A plague of frogs overwhelmed Egypt. There were frogs everywhere: in beds, kitchens, crop fields, the servants’ houses, the pharaoh’s palace. Finally, the pharaoh says, OK, the people can go if you release the frogs. Moses asks, “When would you like me to remove the plague?”
With each plague, the pharaoh says what I think of as the craziest-slash-dumbest things in all of Scripture. “Tomorrow.” Release them tomorrow. We’ll sit with the plague one more night.
What the hell?
He kicks the can down the road, puts off the solution to the next day. We have done the same thing in American politics. We decided that tomorrow we will be better.
I don’t trust that plan. I thought our generation would avoid the nastiness that has soiled those who came before us. But we are falling into the same trap. We choose to be right, we choose to go viral, we choose our egos.
The day before the election, an adviser was expressing frustration about the divisiveness of our politics, lamenting that we were too dependent on staying in our own echo chambers — Republicans reading the Wall Street Journal and watching Fox News, Democrats reading the New York Times and watching CNN. It was horrible.
Because I’m a little bit of a jerk, I asked, “What do you do to break through your echo chamber?”
“Well, I can’t read conservative news, I just won’t do it.”
I thought, “So it’s everyone else’s problem but not yours?”
This isn’t the path forward. If you want to blame someone for the divisiveness of politics, look in the mirror. It’s my fault, it’s your fault. But we can avoid the trap.
We can choose to work through our divisions toward unity. To give up the need to be “right” and paint all opposition as “wrong.” To identify the values we share and build a political future around those ideals. To give up doing the same old, same old.
I still believe that our generation will lead America toward a better way, but it won’t be easy. It will take active listening to those we disagree with, valuing productive dialogue over point-scoring demonization.
All Americans, not just those who agree with us, are our fellow citizens. Recognizing that is the first step we must take to lift the country out of the rhetorical muck.
I believe we can choose better. I believe we can move forward. But it’s up to us. It’s up to you.
This essay is adapted from an address delivered in Professor John Duffy’s Great Speeches course. Sam Coffman is a sophomore American studies major with minors in journalism and public service.