If you haven’t noticed, it would appear that a lot of things are broken in this country. According to politicians of various stripes, a myriad of institutions in America are broken as of late: democracy, capitalism, society, families, religion and more. This isn’t just a left-wing or a right-wing approach, either; politicians on both sides are claiming things are broken. This message has been carried forth all across the ideological spectrum recently. Indeed, individuals and groups who should be ideological polar opposites have begun to come to agreement on this basic premise as of late. We see conservatives and liberals alike who believe that that many tentpole institutions that uphold the very bedrock of our society are failing.

Their immediate solution is to blame the other side: When liberals say democracy is failing, for instance, they mean that conservatives are acting in concert to restrict voting rights. On the flip side, when conservatives say democracy is failing, they mean that liberals are enacting laws to skew elections in their favor somehow. We saw this unfold in real time recently, when the Democrats’ so-called “election reform” plan fell apart after they couldn’t garner enough votes to ram it through the Senate. After the legislation failed, party officials admitted to The New York Times that Democrats now would simply have to spend more time and money to register people to vote in Republican-controlled states. In other words, the bills were really about making it easier for Democrats to win elections, not preserving democracy from imminent threat. Conversely, the state-level restrictions passed in Republican states are really about making it easier for their party to win, not about preserving election security. While that may seem obvious in retrospect, it doesn’t match the doomsday rhetoric spewed by both parties.

This phenomenon applies not just to election laws, but to a whole host of other issues as well. When politicians say that some bedrock of our country is failing apart – whether it’s, say, conservatives saying our families are under threat, or liberals claiming that capitalism is collapsing – they’re usually trying to do a couple of things. First and foremost, they’re trying to scare you into voting for them. Fear is a great driving motivator for voters, and it’s far easier to scare people than it is to actually sway them through logic and reason that your argument is correct. Indeed, these days you hardly ever see the latter in politics. If a politician can convince you both that something you hold dear is at risk and that the other party is putting it at risk, he’s pretty much sewn up your vote. Savvy, if unscrupulous, politicians have been using this tactic to rise to power for centuries, long before there were competitive, fair, democratic elections being held in our country.

This approach also conveniently distracts the media and voters alike from asking candidates the tough questions about what they actually want to do to solve any problems. After all, if the other side threatens the stability of our very way of life, who cares if the candidate has any real proposals to actually make things better? They end up being heroic just by showing up on the job and thwarting the other side. That’s why it’s so easy for politicians to become rising stars on either side just by repeating partisan talking points. A lack of accomplishment becomes not a hindrance to their career but a virtue, and yet another chance for them to pin blame elsewhere.

The problem with this strategy is multifaceted. By undermining faith in our institutions – including in the opposing party and our government – politicians are further dividing society, making it impossible to actually get anything done. That paralyzes all of government, allowing candidates to restart the blame cycle yet again. The question is, how can we as citizens interrupt the cycle?

We can do it by rejecting apocalyptic rhetoric from politicians rather than simply accepting it hook, line and sinker, and instead ask candidates tough questions about what their plans really are. If something is broken, we need to ask them not only what their solutions is to fix it, but also how they intend to bring people together to get that done. If we start to do that, perhaps we can elect people who actually want to solve the real problems this country faces, instead of inventing new ones to terrify us all.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
Twitter: @jimfossel

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