December 10, 2018

The rise and fall of political snowflakes

I can now definitively say that I’ve been unfriended, blocked, bullied and viciously insulted by supporters of both President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump. A badge of honor? Perhaps. But it’s also a sign that we have slipped into a very undemocratic morass of political intolerance.

Post-election, we are beginning to see a long overdue awareness on the left that identity politics may be the antithesis of liberalism — and certainly a huge part of the reason the Democrats lost the White House. But the fact is, both sides engage in a form of identity politics, and in the past few years, both sides have taken identity politics to a whole new level: Politics have now become an integral part of one’s identity. 

You don’t like my candidate? That makes me feel bad, out with you! You don’t like my party? That destroys my self-esteem, goodbye! You think a tad differently about this issue, there must be something seriously wrong with you; I will never speak to you again even though we’ve been friends since kindergarten.

Both sides are now overrun with political snowflakes, delicate and easily offended.

This began with how supporters of President Obama dealt with any criticism of him. Essentially, there was zero tolerance of it. How much of this is due to not wanting to be called a racist by the people who call anyone who criticizes Obama racist, and how much is due to the cult of personality that he exploited, we will discover after a little distance from 2016. 

The fact that one of the pillars of (real) liberalism is tolerance for different viewpoints, the fact that one can disagree on a host of issues and still fall under the umbrella of (real) liberalism, did not seem to matter to these Obama supporters. Criticism of Obama was not to be tolerated. Period.

Trump supporters became a mirror reflection of the Obama supporters they had mocked mercilessly. One was not allowed to say, “I agree with him on some policies but I’m concerned about his lack of experience/stability.” If one did not rave — rave! — about his candidacy as though it were the Second Coming, then one was called a variety of vicious names, incessantly bullied and ultimately blocked out of their bubbled existence.

In a democracy, politicians are merely politicians. They are not rock stars, religious figures or, most importantly, a reflection of your self-esteem. The personal is not political, and the political is most certainly not personal. In fact, the ability to criticize our politicians is an integral part of freedom of speech — it is both a right and a responsibility.

Interestingly, I did not find this level of fanaticism with Hillary Clinton’s supporters. Perhaps they were not as passionate about her. Perhaps I had already “lost” the types of friends who would engage in this sort of election McCarthyism. 

Social media — where everyone is a political analyst — have no doubt contributed to this political intolerance. The selfie turned into the political selfie. People respond to political criticism as though you are telling them that they need to wear more makeup. People also rationalized their behavior during this election with the line, “The stakes are too high.” Yes indeed, the stakes were high. But dogmatism is not a healthy response to the relativism that created the high stakes. 

Extremes beget extremes. It is a law of nature and thus of politics. Obama created Trump by sticking to an ideological game plan that was conceived in 2008 and never re-questioned. Who will Trump create? More precisely, who will Trump supporters create?

The way back begins with a word that Obama and Trump supporters use but don’t personify: individualism. I am an individual. You are an individual. Like leaves on a tree, we both can look very similar from a distance but up close, we are distinct. And that’s OK. It’s not only OK, it is integral to the principles on which this country was founded.

Character dictates the next step: “Let’s agree to disagree.” I don’t have to try to persuade you, and you don’t have to try to persuade me. Our self-esteem doesn’t depend on it. We are bigger than the sum of our politics. It is one important part of who we are, but there are many other parts. And frankly, I would much rather be surrounded by people I disagreed with politically but who had the emotional maturity not to make that an issue of our friendship, than people who I agree with but who treat everyone else with disdain. 

If there’s one positive that can be gained from no doubt the ugliest election in American history, it’s this: When we rise above the ugliness, we are not just ensuring the maintenance of friendships that should never be broken over political differences, we are moving the country out of the cesspool that we’ve been in for the past year. Be a mensch: agree to disagree.

Karen Lehrman Bloch is the author of “Passage to Israel” (Skyhorse) and “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday).