About a year ago today, I was sitting in the living room with my parents enjoying a glass of wine and discussing the issues of the day. Of course, a year ago today there was only one issue on our minds: the impending election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
We talked back and forth about different issues and reflected about how truly wild this election cycle had been. I remember laughing and saying how insane it was that a serious presidential candidate had referred to the size of his penis in an actual televised debate, when my mom looked at me dead in the eyes and with all seriousness said, “You know, he could actually win.”
At the time, I laughed at her. Like many people much smarter than I, I thought there was simply too much baggage, too many scandals, and not enough support for then-candidate Donald Trump to have any real chance at competing. What a difference a year can make.
It would be easy for me to focus on the negatives of Trump’s presidency so far. I could write about the mounting Russia meddling and collusion investigation that has haunted the President’s time in office and the effect that it could have on our democracy. I could talk about the way the President attacks journalism and basic facts, as well as the way news and media are presented in this country.
I could focus on the lack of qualified individuals appointed to run various governmental agencies and how dangerous and startling this is for our government as a whole. I could talk about healthcare, tax reform, gun rights, race issues and any number of other issues that seem to divide this country deeper than at any time I can remember in my relatively short life.
Any of these topics is worthy of research and discussion far beyond what I have the capacity to write in this yearly review. So instead of that, I would like to share three personal lessons I have learned about politics, humanity, and the world in this last year with the hope that you find it refreshing and different in this insane media climate.
The first is that there is a need for government, civics, and home economics classes in schools. When perusing social media (as I so often do), I am often stunned at the basic lack of understanding of American citizens about government on a surface level. How many of us could name our representatives in Congress, let alone those that represent us on the local level?
A 2016 poll done by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed that only 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the government, and 31 percent couldn’t name a single branch of government. How then are the American people supposed to understand the intricacies of a national government? How can we expect people to hold their representatives accountable when 61 percent don’t know which party controls the House and 77 percent can’t name either of their state’s senators?
These lessons used to be taught in middle schools and high schools, but are increasingly not being taught at all. It is in everyone’s best interest that we find a way as a society to fund these kinds of classes if we want a more civil and educated society.
The second thing I have learned in the past year is that it is not intricacies of policy or completeness of plans that drive people to the polls, but rather, it is ideas. Regardless of what you think of President Trump, it is the truth to say that he did not have the most complete economic plan, health care plan or wartime plan.
If a person were to go to candidate Hillary Clinton’s website, you could see elaborate plans, presented with relative nuance to reflect the complexities of difficult issues. In contrast, when asked about his plan to defeat ISIS, then-candidate Trump suggested that he personally knew more than all of the generals and that he would not share his plan because he didn’t want to give the enemies the answers.
To me, this was a clear dodge of a question he didn’t have an answer to, but to millions of Americans, this made perfect sense. This was not the only topic that this short and sweet method proved effective to all kinds of people. What was Donald Trump’s immigration policy? “BUILD THE WALL!” How about health care? “REPEAL AND REPLACE.” At the end of the day, the world has a short attention span and yearns for ideas. One candidate simply understood that better than the other.
The final thing I learned is that this country is divided in ways that I had not realized. In America, we cannot even agree on what a fact is, let alone what issues are important and worthy of addressing. If you ask an evangelical conservative and an atheist liberal when life begins, you will probably get drastically different answers. The debate on climate change wages on despite scientific consensus. We cannot decide if illegal immigration is a real problem, what to do about healthcare, or on anything related to many more important debates.
While there is no immediate solution to this problem, there is one thing that I think will help: take political conversations with people you disagree with offline and have them in person. I have done this in my personal life, and you would be amazed at how nuanced and thoughtful people can be when you go into the conversation with the intent to actually listen. This serves a double purpose of taking you out of your political bubble and engaging you with the real world. It may feel awkward at first, and I promise you will disagree often with the person in front of you, but by taking this step you are able to acknowledge another person as a human being and not as an avatar or a comment.
This has been a wild year, and it will only get more intense. We have come a long way, although I would not always say for the better. But while we fight our political battles and have our disagreements, it is vital that we as a nation maintain our sense of curiosity for ideas different than ours and our love for our fellow man. It is for we the people to hold those in power to this standard, for us to raise the standard that we have for our education, for our ideas, and for each other.