What Are We For? Chronic Negativity in American Politics

A highly contagious disease is currently moving across America, becoming more firmly established by the day, and it’s killing us.

I’m not talking about COVID-19. I mean chronic negativity, to which a frustrated Joe Biden alluded recently when calling out congressional Republicans for their relentless opposition to virtually every Democratic proposal.

“What are you for?” he asked the GOP, and then said it again for emphasis.

I’m not necessarily all in on Biden, but I thought his point was well taken. It seems that we spend far more time being critical these days than we do attempt to solve the myriad problems we face.

Politically speaking, the near-even ratio in the Senate between the two major parties has turned governing into a game of Tic-Tac–To, where almost every move is immediately countered and no one ever wins.

It’s not that negativity isn’t a natural human response to differences of opinions, or that it isn’t often justified. The problem is, it usually leads down a dead-end road. Confronting someone who disagrees with you is perhaps the least effective way of changing their mind, thus wasting all that anger and energy.

As architect and philosopher, Buckminster Fuller put it: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

The 1960s civil rights movement is a good example.

Positivity doesn’t have to mean surrender or naivete. Sometimes it’s a useful path to that “obsolete” alternative.

Take the current schism over COVID treatments, for example. Right now, we appear to have three groups — those who buy into the advice of Dr. Fauci and others and get vaccinated, those who believe the virus is a complete hoax (or part of Bill Gates’ master plan) and those who, for a variety of reasons, have simply decided to forego getting a shot.

Forget the second group, but the third group might be open to change if this hadn’t been turned into a moral/freedom issue.

As many of the anti-vaxxers love to point out, this is America, and they should have the option of making choices about their health. What makes this issue stickier, however, is that someone in vaccine denial is more likely to infect others.

Still, browbeating these holdouts — and posting gleeful stories whenever a highly visible anti-vaxxer gets COVID — will probably accomplish little except for deepening the gulf between the two philosophies.

Instead, I’d like to see an article headlined something like “So you’ve decided not to be vaccinated.” Without preaching, it would list ways that unvaccinated people could best move within this treacherous world of COVID with maximum safety for themselves and others. This would acknowledge (if not necessarily accept) their choice, yet also includes some information about the disadvantages and dangers that choice entails.

When people are confronted or belittled by the other side in an issue, it tends to harden their resolve. A more positive approach might entice them to change their minds without it feeling like a defeat.

To me, the worst thing about negativity on a personal level is that it may damage otherwise strong relationships on the basis of one individual misalignment. If your link with someone comes from the mutual enjoyment of gardening or food or a particular sports team. whether you are in total agreement about politics, COVID, or religion is often irrelevant. So just don’t talk about those things.

A few other suggestions for how to combat chronic negativity:

  1. Stop allowing politicians to choose our priorities for us. All Democrats are not Communists, nor do all Republicans have a prized copy of Mein Kampf on their bedside table. Chances are few Americans would have worried five minutes about the vague concept of “critical race theory” had not some politicians dragged it out of the closet to suit their own agenda. The middle class in America has some legitimate concerns about such issues as inflation, tax law, etc, but those never get talked about.
  2. Remember that from a political standpoint, it’s always more advantageous to be against something than in favor of it. The latter usually requires some sort of plan of action, the former can be addressed through a few angry and unfocused speeches.
  3. Look at issues in the abstract, not the people associated with them. Once it becomes personal, the discussion has gone off the rails.
  4. It doesn’t always matter whose fault it is. The concern here is that this often becomes the first matter addressed in a debate, thus bringing the conversation to a halt. Whether COVID-19 originated in a bat cave or a Chinese lab has little to do with how the virus should be addressed now. When firemen arrive at a blaze, the question of who started the fire is always secondary to putting the fire out.
  5. Let the past go. It’s one thing to re-examine slavery or the Civil War in hopes of finding some lessons for the present, unrealistic to remain angry about them.

What we have now is not how America was originally conceived — as a birthing place and showcase of ideas and a wide-open setting for healthy debate. It is the impulse to quash that debate that we should most fear.

Darrell Laurant
Founder at Snowflakes in a Blizzard | + posts

Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."

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