August 2, 2019
Now that the Democratic primary debates have begun, the United States is formally into its next national election cycle. Two things will happen over the next 15 months – the nation will experience our democracy at its best, and we will witness our humanity at its worst. As parents and grandparents, we need to make sure our children understand and are inspired by the former, and are only minimally influenced by the latter.
Politics has always been an anxiety-producing blood sport for adults. But, as our growing political divisions have seeped into our family systems, and our omnipresent technology has worked its way into every nook and cranny of our daily lives, our politics has become one of our primary values markers. In the fall of 2017, PEW research found for the first time in 20 years of tracking the divisions between people that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are greater than the differences between educational levels, religions, races, and genders. The biggest gap between us has been increasing our political orientation, and how this gap is damaging the mental health of the nation is slowly becoming obvious.
PEW found in a 2016 study that many Americans have gone beyond frustration with those of other political positions and have become afraid and angry at those on the other side of their political orientation. This fear and rage has been a time-release capsule that has been growing since the Nixon era and only reaching new heights in this century. Many Republicans were disgusted with Bill Clinton, and just as many Democrats repulsed by George W. Bush. By the time Barack Obama won in 2008 and again in 2012, a significant population of Republicans had become inconsolable. With Donald Trump’s election in 2016, there is a new level of disorientation, including talk of “post-election stress disorder.” Columnist Dana Milbank proposed a new mental health condition – THUD – “Trump Hypertensive Unexplained Disorder.”
In the past few years, increasing numbers of Americans reported needing mental health treatment for their emotional reactions to the political situation, with the levels of stress rising for many demographics specifically, particularly among young adults and women, as well as racial and LGBTQ communities.
One study found significant increases in the stress hormone cortisol among young adults before, during and after the election, a hormone associated over long terms with creating physical health problems.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rates of anxiety, depression and behavior disorders among children, ages 6-17, have increased incrementally between 2003, 2007, and 2012. One in five children ages 3-17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorders, and suicide rates increased markedly between 2007 and 2015 when young girls taking their own life reached a 40-year high. And, these levels pre-date the 2016 election!
Political rancor and division is not the sole cause of our children’s mental health issues, But, we are naïve to think that these coping challenges among our vulnerable are unrelated to the political process. On Nov. 10, 2016, for instance, a young girl taped on her phone a bunch of her fellow students chanting “build the wall” in the lunchroom at Royal Oak Middle School in Michigan.
The young girl’s seven-second clip went viral and created so much social pressure from the community that she had to change schools. Religious liberty author and activist Usma Uddin has now suggested in Teen Vogue that it is time to speak of the “Trump Effect” on kids.
Despite the shortcomings of our election process, it still demonstrates the political system’s highest values: During election years we have passionate, insistent, table-pounding, argumentative debates about the policies and practices that shape and regulate our common life. We remind ourselves of the highest ideals of the ancient and contemporary religious and philosophical wisdom that have shaped and continue to shape our society and culture. We also tell and re-tell inspiring stories of the heroism, courage, prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, sacrifice, and longsuffering of current citizens and the ancestors who created and kept working at the reform of our system of government. Finally, once the last vote is tabulated, the United States manages to transition to the next political chapter with some degree of grace and peace.
But, while democracy is exhibited at its best, elections also cultivate the worst in our human nature. They always have. But, technology is making the destructive side of our politics more pervasive and potentially corrupting of character. Advertisements, political literature, tweets, Facebook posts, fund-raising letters, robocalls, speeches and interviews display pettiness, dishonesty, bald-and bold-faced lying, hatefulness, cruelty, and pandering to fear and prejudice. In addition, individuals and groups engage in obscene uses of power, wealth and technology with the intent of manipulating the democratic process itself. U.S. culture will stay awash in these negative forces until the Democratic Convention on July 13-16, 2020, and after the Republican National Convention between August 24-27, the entire nation will engage in a political street fight for three months until voting day on November 3.
The American electoral process has always been a hot mess. But, it is one of the best messes in human history. Our seriously flawed system is a tale of imperfect humans attempting to build a more perfect union among an unfinished people growing in greater diversity and pluralism, with most of those people uncertain, fearful, unprepared and resistant of the demographic changes. Every election outcome is risky. There are always dangers when the highest virtues consort with the deepest vices, and the U.S. matures as a nation in every election only in direct proportion to our ability to assure that the best of our democracy dominates the worst of our humanity and not the other way around. After every election, the nation takes one or more steps forward or back, and sometimes we do both at the same time.
Many Americans are worrying, as we should, that this election cycle has more at stake than previous ones. Among the many precedent-breaking patterns of the Trump Administration, perhaps the most concerning one is that the country’s worst election year impulses are now part of our daily existence. Our society is suffering from toxic overload, and the increased pressure of a national presidential election will have deleterious effects on all of us, but especially our children. As we move into this political chapter of the nation, here are several things we can do for our young people.
First, we need to protect our children’s youthful idealism, one of the fundamental resources for the renewal of our nation through the generations. Their idealism will get tempered through life, but we should not want this to happen too soon. Make sure they have a steady diet of stories featuring heroines and heroes, positive virtues, and examples of women and men rising above challenges and hardship. Second, we cannot completely protect our young people from the political toxins that will enter the national bloodstream over the next year, so take time to talk with them about the hateful, immature political messages that will occur in the public commons, and even within your own family and extended family system. Without demonizing him completely, make sure your son or daughter knows that Uncle Frank’s obnoxious, confrontative or vindictive comments are not representative of the best in mature behavior. Third, monitor your children’s social media, and have conversations with them about what they are seeing without your knowledge or consent. Fourth, have dinner table discussions regularly about recognizing truth from falsehood, accuracy from inaccuracy, and the importance of critical thinking that is seeking justice but is also modulated by compassion and understanding of the imperfection of the human condition. Fifth, teach your child about assumptions, the pre-existing ideas we all have about how the world works, and confirmation bias, the human tendency to recognize and accept only the information that confirms what we already believe.
Lastly, look for resources to help you keep your center through our upcoming period of political hyperpartisanship. You might become familiar with Stanford sociologist Robb Willer’s research on empathy, respect, and the importance of using techniques of “moral reframing” in your political conversations.
Or, check out Better Angels, an organization seeking to bring together “red and blue” Americans in the hopes of healing their divides by finding common ground. Better Angels began in Ohio after the 2016 election with 10 Trump and 11 Clinton supporters. The organization now holds workshops and trainings across the United States. Bill Doherty, a family therapist, and community organizer created a structure and program for the initial group that helps attendees learn how to talk across political divisiveness.
Two very practical resources come from left-leaning Sarah Stewart Holland and political conservative Beth Silvers, who wrote the book, I Think Your Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations. Holland, a one-time Capitol Hill staffer who is now raising a family in Kentucky wrote the book and started the podcast, Pant Suit Politics, with her college friend, Silvers, because both women wanted to provide resources for difficult conversations that keep curiosity, nuance, good manners and goodwill at the center.
The political season is back and the very best of our democracy and the very worst of our human nature will be on display for the next 15 months. We need to get ready. Our mental health depends on it, and so does our children’s.