The 2012 presidential election — the first time many current college students will take to the polls— may be the most polarizing race in decades. That’s the impression left by the Pew Research Center’s annual values survey, published in June, which found the deepest divide between Democrats and Republicans in 25 years. Many factors have congealed the grudges that choke Capitol Hill, some blame falls on the over-the-top rhetoric both parties have resorted to, showcased at their conventions in Tampa and Charlotte.
This election cycle has seen enough “wars” to make 18th century Europe jealous. There has been the “Republican War on Women,” the GOP counterpunch of the “Real War on Women,” “Paul Ryan’s War on the Poor,” and “Obama’s War on Religion.” Even a short-lived “War on Moms” captured the news cycle after Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen stated during a CNN discussion that stay-at-home-mom Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life.”
I would like to declare a war of my own: a “War on War-ons.” The increasingly popular tactic employed by both the left and right may fuel the news cycle, but it cheapens discourse and deepens the partisan divide by making it nearly impossible for those with opposing views to have a real discussion or see the other side of a debate. When matters of policy are dubbed “wars,” those standing on the opposite side of America’s social and cultural divides can be nothing more than soldiers in the trenches, sniping away without a peace treaty or compromise in sight.
The “War on Women” covers one of the most heated, uncompromising debates in American culture — reproductive rights. GOP victories in state and federal legislatures in 2010 saw a new wave of laws aimed at making abortions more difficult to obtain; the most brazen being a Virginia law requiring transvaginal ultrasounds before abortion procedures. The “War on Women” was coined when these invasive laws were met with backlash. The tag’s popularity increased as the messy GOP primary veered into social issues like contraception, pushed by hardened right-wingers like Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum, and an Obamacare
mandate requiring religiously affiliated employers to provide contraceptives
as part of employee health plans.
Seeing the success of the “War on Women,” tag, Republicans tried to adopt a moniker of their own. The right jumped on the controversial Obamacare mandate and framed it as a “War on Religion.” In an August TV spot endorsed by Romney. “Be Not Afraid,” the narrator states that “President Obama used his healthcare plan to declare war on religion,” while images of Obama, Romney, and Pope John Paul II whizz by.
The problem with “The War on Women” and the “War on Religion” is not that they aren’t real issues (see: “The War on Christmas”). The problem is how they are framed. I fully support a woman’s right to an abortion. But I do not believe that Republicans, whose voters include millions of women, are trying to curb abortion laws because they are rabid misogynists. Likewise, President Obama, a Christian,
isn’t trying to ensure coverage of contraceptives because he is a secret Satanist.
To assert that your opponent is somehow “declaring war” against a portion of the American populace with their policies is to paint them as bogeymen, cartoonish villains that can’t have any motivation for passing laws other than their boiling hatred for a group of voters.
What the debate requires to be anything other than a bare knuckle brawl is empathy, the ability to look at your opponent’s point of view. For social conservatives that believe life begins at conception, challenges to abortion are not an attack on women but a way to protect the unborn. In addition, social conservatives should consider the situation of women burdened by unwanted pregnancies rather than vilifying them as sinners. With his mandate, Obama is not trying to assault religion but merely ensure that women are not denied reproductive health coverage by their employers. There will still be intense disagreement on both issues, but a productive debate will take the view of the opponent into light, rather than over-the-top rhetoric that energizes the base but makes empathy for the other side out of the question.
If the partisan paralysis covering the nation is to break, it will start with a truce.