"Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.”
—Romeo & Juliet (Act V, Scene III) by William Shakespeare
America’s two-party system has always lent itself to deeply entrenched partisan politics. Consequently, Republicans are naturally pre-disposed to oppose Democratic proposals and in-turn Democrats are equally pre-disposed to push back on measures introduced by their colleagues on the other side of the Congressional aisle. Republicans and Democrats have always been pitted against each other with each party’s faithful allowing for very little wiggle room that can result in any show of bipartisan common sense.
Nevertheless, debate between the two parties was traditionally expected to be grounded in civility, notwithstanding notable exceptions on the fringes of each side. Despite their differences, mainstream Republicans and Democrats could always listen to each other and acknowledge the other side’s arguments without having to necessarily agree with them. Such an approach, of which the late Senator John McCain was the torch bearer of for so many years, was previously the lifeblood of the two party system and the foundations upon which Washington has endured.
Ideological Rigidity vs. Civil Debate
However since the election of Donald Trump, the fissures between Democrats and Republicans have widened to critical levels. Common sense and practical thinking have been replaced by blind ideological rigidity, and civil debate has been usurped by hate-filled rhetoric and a frenzied vilification, both political and personal, of those with whom we disagree. Democrats, as much as Republicans, are equally to blame for the breakdown in discourse. American politics now seems to be stuck in a vicious and ever escalating cycle with each side unwilling to break the link.
More disturbing, is how the breakdown in civil communication has spilled over from Washington into mainstream America. The current political environment has caused Americans to become increasingly more entrenched. Furthermore, while ordinary citizens seem equally unwilling to listen to other viewpoints just as much as their representatives in Washington, the problem is not solely limited to politics. Rather the hysteria and frenzy has expanded into social, cultural and business issues. For example, rather than dismissing Nike’s decision to feature Colin Kaepernick in their latest ‘Just Do It’ campaign as a publicity stunt, those that disagreed with the decision flooded social media with videos of them burning sneakers, pledges to boycott the brand and even death threats. Similarly, Pepsi caused reflex outrage for releasing an ad starring Kendall Jenner that was criticized for apparently being “tone deaf to Black Lives Matter’s issues,” again resulting in online outrage and threats of violence. Other examples of knee-jerk outrage are plentiful, and as common sense and intelligent debate are sacrificed, in the end the only winners are perhaps Adidas and Coca-Cola.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Such partisan animosity is glaringly obvious when one considers how Americans consume news and use social media. How many mainstream Americans on the left refuse to watch Fox News due to their differing viewpoints and how many mainstream Americans on the right have ridiculed CNN and MSNBC as fake news? Moreover, Twitter has allowed us to curate a constant stream of information specifically tailored to our core beliefs. How many unfollow an individual that expounds alternative perspectives that differ from our own or worse yet troll those individuals? As a result, rather than breaking them down, social media and the way in which we consume news have made the walls of partisan animosity rise ever higher and the scope for civil and intellectual debate all the more fleeting. Whatever happened to being intellectually curious and peacefully agreeing to disagree?
The original cause of argument between the Montagues and the Capulets was intentionally never mentioned in Romeo & Juliet. In doing so, Shakespeare powerfully conveys the utter destructiveness of pre-disposed partisan animosity, entrenched viewpoints and an unwillingness to break the cycle. The current knee-jerk method of communicating with those that are different is creating the type of irreparable divide and conflict that plagued the Verona of Romeo & Juliet. Both sides must be reminded that the exploration and engaging of other viewpoints does not necessarily result in having to agree with them, that civil debate echoes much louder than senseless and frenzied hyperbole. Shakespeare’s warning in Romeo & Juliet is clear. Failure to heed it could inevitably cause the same irrevocable damage that will impair our future loved ones and the society they eventually inherit.