A few people with whom I’ve spoken have expressed disappointment that, in the recent presidential debate, the candidates spent too much time hurling accusations at each other and too little time expressing substantive positions on the important issues our society faces. (At least one friend, however, expressed disappointment that the candidates didn’t get into an outright brawl; I suppose he was seeking entertainment rather than information.) We may not be able to convince Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump to cease the verbal attacks on each other, but we don’t need to follow in their footsteps.
The United States presently faces significant challenges both at home and abroad. Our foreign policy is openly challenged by Russia on many fronts, and particularly in Syria the opposition to Assad is left wondering if their interests wouldn’t be better served by seeking alliances with the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and others instead of the United States. Even smaller countries more dependent on alliances with the United States, such as the Philippines, are becoming openly antagonistic toward their relationship with the superpower, as well as toward U.S. interests in their region. Credibility abroad is also undermined by domestic unrest at home, most clearly seen in the tense relationship between police officers and their communities as highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, but also in (perhaps less worthy) far-right movements as demonstrated by the standoffs of members and supporters of the Bundy family with the federal government. The protest against the closure of sensitive federal lands to motor vehicles led by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman, which involved defiance of the federal government by riding ATVs through Recapture Canyon, provides another example, albeit a lesser-known and less noteworthy one, of problems at home.
A United States with weakened credibility abroad will be less effective in preventing terrorism or negotiating agreements to improve security or the economy. Domestic disturbance directly impacts security at home and diminishes our freedom to live out our daily lives without fear of harm from either the government or each other.
Our next president, and his or her administration, will be charged with resolving many of the issues that we face as a society. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are capable of substantial success in doing so. At the same time, we can’t expect either to do so when we ourselves don’t demand the professionalism that we ought to be able to expect from them. If we prefer to see verbal attacks of the schoolyard variety, that appears to be what we’ll get. We show that preference by engaging in the same sort of behavior on social media and elsewhere. But we can change. If we start discussing substance rather than hurling insults and accusations, we will demand, through our actions, that our candidates do the same. By taking the issues seriously, we can force the candidates to act seriously.
It’s easier to share a meme suggesting that Hillary supporters are idiots or that Trump supporters are insane racists than it is to take the time to research and think seriously about the issues at stake in the current election. By doing so, we’ve put ourselves in a situation in which we are not only ignorant of the issues our country faces, but also of the candidates’ stances on those issues, if they have any. It’s simple to post a meme suggesting that Trump is insane or that Clinton is corrupt rather than to discuss seriously — without simply dismissing one group’s concerns as irrelevant — how to heal the divide between law enforcement and certain parts of our communities, or whether the United States can and should do something about human rights violations and the continual postponing of elections in Congo. Easy answers haven’t solved the problem so far. Forcing Colin Kaepernick to stand for the national anthem won’t magically create a satisfactory relationship between people and their government. Telling protesters that their grievances are fake won’t make those grievances go away. Pretending that what happens in the Philippines is irrelevant to us will diminish our security in the long run if ISIS really is taking a serious interest in expansion in the region.
For my part, I’m not going to share messages or memes that are based around accusations or even those that rely on the worst possible interpretation of something someone said. I won’t take you seriously as long as you do so, either. I hope you’ll join me and avoid sharing the unproductive rhetoric on social media. Instead, let’s learn about what’s going on in our communities and the world at large, and let’s talk about it like adults. Let’s think seriously about why communities with which we don’t identify are unhappy and what sort of creative solutions we can come up with in hopes of satisfying as many of us as are willing to be satisfied. Let’s show our candidates that we as a nation are united in our desires for real solutions, and that we expect a degree of maturity and seriousness out of them. By not hurling insults and burning bridges, we can retain a chance of influencing whoever wins for the better. Even if we can’t change the candidates in the short term, our informed involvement in civic life can make a good president out of a bad candidate.