The gravest threat to American democracy isn’t a politician, party, or governing philosophy. It’s not Washington, nor the media, nor technology companies undermining our country’s common fabric. No, the menace is both less visible to us and in our faces all the time: It’s an epidemic of anger that has overwhelmed the country and risks tearing it apart.
You don’t have to look far to see it. Anger courses through our news, our social media feeds, even our dinner tables. It leads to snap judgments and shouting matches. Anyone who disagrees with us is labeled and dehumanized—if they’re not on our team, they’re anarchists, racists, arsonists, oppressors, or worse. They don’t just have a differing opinion; no, they are intent on destroying us and our country.
The problem has become so pervasive that we often neglect to ask how we got here. There are countless causes, of course, but I’d put my finger on the fact that our millennia-old brains aren’t equipped to handle our newest, fastest forms of media.
About 20 years ago, the internet went mainstream, and with it came an infinite buffet of information — countless blogs, sites, newsletters, podcasts. For anyone to stand out in such a crowded field, they had to play to our emotions, particularly fear and anger. You make people afraid and angry by introducing threats. Our brains are highly attuned to threats—the early humans who saw the tiger in the bush were the ones who survived. All of a sudden, the screens in our pockets blared with warning signs—and as a result, we became angrier and more afraid.
But it wasn’t just the media that played to these baser instincts. Nation-states did, too. We have good reason to believe that, in 2016, hostile actors abroad engaged in sophisticated operations to interfere with U.S. elections, seeking to “sow discord” and “inflaming passions.” Their goal: Destabilize democracy and cripple America from within. Their strategy: Make us angrier and more afraid of one another.
To a surprising degree, they succeeded. Scarier still, it’s all gotten worse in the four years since. Angrier rhetoric pervades our politics now, and frighteningly, it’s moved beyond talk. People are showing up to political events with guns — lots of them. What was a war of words risks turning into a literal war, as heavily armed protestors and counter-protestors threaten one another. These scenes are a foreign dictator’s dream come true.
I’m not optimistic that our leaders will deescalate all this before Election Day. Anger can move voters; politicians know that. No one wants to lose an election because they didn’t “fire people up” enough. But I do think it’s reasonable to expect — and even demand — that some form of national reconciliation begin the day after the election.
Here’s what that might look like: Both sides respect the result of the democratic process. Both sides’ leaders commit to a peaceful path forward. If we don’t know what that path looks like — in other words, if the race is still too close to call — then both sides agree to a sane process to reach a result.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. But that’s just the first step. The second one has nothing to do with our leaders nor with this election. It has to do with us—the people being led.
My instinct is that many of us are tired of the way politics has invaded our lives. We don’t want our Thanksgiving dinners to devolve into political debates; we don’t like that our PTA meetings resemble cable news segments. We’re pretty exhausted by it, no matter our party affiliation.
No one piece of legislation nor the outcome of a single election will fix that state of affairs. Here’s what might: We must all dial down our rhetoric and our anger. We have to catch our snap judgments and pause before we fire back. If we read an incendiary headline, we have to resist the temptation to broadcast that outrage to everyone we know. We have to stop seeing the other side as a dangerous threat to our way of life and try to see them as people who may differ with us on some issues but might agree with us on others.
This is easier said than done. I’m the first to admit that I can be easily provoked (just ask my kids), but I’ve tried in recent weeks to be a little less quick to the draw, a little more patient, even when I disagree with someone. That gut check isn’t a cure-all — the country’s problems are deep and serious — but that private effort, I believe, can help calm our public life.
Civil discourse doesn’t begin in the halls of Congress. It begins at our dinner tables, in our homes and offices, and in our everyday interactions. It is time we build a democracy in which we can agreeably disagree. But that begins by building a society and a culture committed to civil — and civilized — dialogue.
Let’s commit to that on November 4th—no matter who we voted for on November 3rd. There’s no excuse to continue the vitriol of these last several months and years. And there’s a way forward that restores our democratic health — and perhaps most importantly, removes the anger that has coarsened too much of our public and private lives.
Rick Smith is CEO of Axon, a global company focused on de-escalating violence through police body-cameras, less-lethal force options, and related digital technologies.