February 21 2017
People hoped that after the election, political tensions would recede. You’d be able to return to your social media feed to see baby pictures, funny jokes, and what your friends are having for dinner, without having to brace for political warfare. While that’s happened a little bit and politics isn’t as front-and-center as it was last November, tensions are still high.
Contributing to these bad feelings is a tendency to define the average person by the behavior of the fringe of their party. I frequently receive articles, sent by friends as well as strangers, describing something horrible that a Trump supporter has supposedly done. They know from my commentary that I am a libertarian/conservative, and voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton. They ask what I think about those terrible things.
I find such questions a little bizarre: Of course I think it’s terrible if someone is threatened or called names, and I don’t support white supremacist groups or other hate groups.
Do I really need to say that?
It wouldn’t occur to me to send any of my friends who supported Hillary Clinton stories about that terrible crime in Chicago where four teenagers tortured a disabled man while making statements against Trump. Nor would I send them reports of Trump supporters being beaten up outside the anti-Trump protests. I trust that they are just as horrified by those incidents as I am.
I assume that conservatives are more frequently challenged to disavow the fringe elements of their party than liberals are. Since the overwhelming majority of journalists are liberal themselves (and that’s a fact, not paranoia), news coverage of the left’s fringe tends to put their bad behavior in perspective as atypical. Thus those who riot at the left’s marches are depicted as the outliers in otherwise peaceful events, while a single bad actor at a conservative rally is portrayed as emblematic of violence that lurks, barely contained, at the movement’s heart.
But perhaps my Democratic friends are also receiving similar questions and being challenged to disassociate themselves from the behaviors of certain fellow Hillary supporters. They shouldn’t have to. They have chosen a side in our political system along with 100 million plus other voters. Voting for the same person doesn’t mean that you share the same beliefs about every—or even most—issues, and it certainly doesn’t mean you endorse everyone else’s behavior.
Before the internet and the explosion of social media, politics was truly local. People didn’t hear about every scuffle or off-putting remark or sloganeering poster made in the name of a candidate. Instead, they drew conclusions about members of a political party based on national and local leaders, as well as those they met in real life. You may have thought that the people you knew who voted for the other candidate didn’t understand economics or had the wrong priorities, but most of the time, you also knew that they were decent people who wanted the best for their family and country, and had just come to different conclusions about how to get there.
Today it’s tempting to assume that the people we know and like who aren’t on the same page with us politically are the outliers of their party. We focus on the worst stories and examples about our opponents, and assume that the fringe represents their core. That’s a mistake. Most Americans of all political persuasions are good people who want the best for the country and those around them. They may be cheering for one political party, but they recognize that both sides have their flaws and baggage. Keeping this in mind may be a first step to de-escalating political tensions among social networks, both online and in real life, and getting back to rooting for each other.