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This is America, but it doesn’t have to be

<h6>Courtesy of Mark Nozell / Flickr</h6>
Courtesy of Mark Nozell / Flickr

After days of waiting, the American people have elected Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States and Kamala Harris as our next Vice President. The palpable anxiety and tension from an admittedly, but justifiably, lengthy process of counting votes has been alleviated. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will be tasked with governing an economically crippled nation still in the throes of a pandemic and one that is bitterly divided politically. They will need to make their victory a victory for all Americans by uniting the country and facilitating a cooperative, principled, inclusive, and free political culture — a culture that young people like us now have the numbers and willpower to build. The days and weeks ahead will give us opportunities to shape and strengthen our democracy but only if we make crucial decisions. This path is not a given; it must be chosen.

Those of us born in and around the turn of the millennium have grown up in an era of extremely partisan politics, particularly at the Congressional level. During primary contests, candidates market themselves as more ideologically pure than opponents in order to court those voters who participate in primary elections. These voters are generally more enthusiastic and less centrist than general-election voters. Candidates may also use certain policies in lieu of explicitly claiming ideological labels, such as how support for a still-unpassed Green New Deal has become a euphemism for progressive values.

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Another manifestation of this phenomenon is when politicians are identified by their alignment with their party’s chief representative. In the last few years, for example, Republican politicians across the country have touted their record of voting with President Trump’s stated or official policy stances, seen here in a recent ad from Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler. These behaviors result in more elected officials who can refuse to compromise on the basis of arbitrary ideological distinctions or explain away empty legislative records by wrapping themselves tightly in their leader’s coattails. In either case, cooperation between both parties is nearly impossible.

Increasing partisanship is both politically lucrative, as members of both parties have received more national media attention, and politically feasible, as those same politicians continue the trends until establishing an effectively impenetrable base. Meanwhile, compromise with colleagues across the aisle is vilified or decried as hypocritical. On a higher level, both major parties realize this and have given up on trying to shepherd complex legislation through either chamber if it requires support from the other side or might give the other side a political win. Instead, both parties jockey for partisan majorities so as to ram through whatever legislation they decide suits their national image best.

Working together results in only spurious success, as the nation can see with the millions of Americans who still await a second COVID-19 relief package. Despite its obvious benefit to the entire country, both sides engage in distraction and lever-pulling, such as how Republicans dubiously claim that the Democrats simply want to “bail out” badly run urban districts. Both sides repeatedly escalate things, only egged on by the ideological puritans in their corner, and they dispose of principle and procedure in a greedy attempt to maintain unquestionable power. The most recent example was clear when Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee changed the rules to no longer require members of the minority party to be present for the vote to take place. Meanwhile, another COVID relief bill sits undiscussed and unsigned.

This bare-knuckled politics also extends to affiliated voters, as leaders use policy stances as walls instead of bridges. On the contentious and deeply personal issue of abortion, for example, Democrats are divided as to whether self-characterized “pro-life” voters who support restrictions on abortion access should be welcomed into the Democratic party, particularly in the South. Both parties engage in taking voters for granted as they and their pollsters segment prospective supporters into voting blocs as distinct as possible.

Both parties also transpose the aforementioned policies and ideologies onto aspects of prospective voters almost as if to say, “Well, of course you’re a (Circle one: Republican / Democrat), you’re (Insert personal characteristic here).” Not only do these labels further divide Americans from one another, but they also often lead those same parties to take voters for granted. Rather than working for positive change on behalf of their constituents, parties claim certain parts of the population and abandon others, as if we are all trophies to win.

The culmination of this uncooperative, unprincipled, and exclusive political behavior is a less free political culture and, ultimately, a less free society. Leaders in our country nowadays benefit more and more from turning us against one another, from labeling us by parts of our identity, from segregating us from fellow Americans, and finally from converting us to do the same. We begin to feel obligated to cancel others like us if they do not also subscribe to the same or a tolerably similar political ideology. We seek comfort in those who understand us rather than engaging in the difficult but rewarding work of bridging differences for the common good. Our country is worse off for it.

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All these factors are not only increasing in importance but are coming to define our national government and our political discourse. However, there is still hope. The creed of every American is to never give up hope that tomorrow can be better than today. Young people like us can be that hope. We can do this by creating a cooperative, principled, inclusive, and free politics we can be proud of and with which we can lead the world. We can decide today to cancel “cancel culture.” Accountability is foundational to any democracy, and bigotry and hatred have no place within one, but just as crucial is the ability to grow and to receive the grace and redemption granted, if not by our Creator, then by our fellow man. We can, to adapt a quote from Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” write in the tiring prose of government and not the frivolous poetry of campaign. We can work together with those with whom we disagree to forge bonds and meet the existential threats that face the world’s people today. We can elect candidates who will choose principle over party and work tirelessly for the good of the country because those who disagree with us are still Americans. Many of us may even choose to become those candidates one day.

We can lift our fellow Americans up and choose to judge them on the merits of their ideas, the courage of their conviction, and, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the “contents of their character,” rather than their most salient characteristics or those others might portray as sources of division. We can dismantle the systemic remnants, and, where necessary, knock out the still-bared teeth of voter suppression, racism, and oppression in any form by making Election Day a national holiday, creating automatic voter-registration programs, and demolishing partisan gerrymandering practices. We can invest in one another’s talents. We can make it as easy as possible to do good, and unthinkable to do otherwise.

We have shown that we can hack it, not least through higher turnout in this election in general and in key battleground races. It is despicable that young people have to shoulder the burden of rebuilding America’s political discourse while the generation now in power refuses, but we must accept that it is now our responsibility. We can do this, and I fervently believe that we will.

Dillion Gallagher is a sophomore in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at dilliong@princeton.edu.

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