In the early 1990s I was part of a mission trip to northeastern Mexico. One day a colleague and I accompanied a missionary into the jungle beyond the end of the road. We visited a home outfitted with the most primitive furnishings. The homes in this area contained dirt floors and earthen stoves. They had no electricity or running water. Nonetheless I encountered some of the happiest people I have ever met. I remember distinctly as the three of us Americans walked down a dry river bed to get back to our vehicle, noticing blades of tall grass in front of us separated by small hands. Peeping through the grass were two small faces watching us coming toward them.
As we drew closer to these children, the grass snapped back in place and they turned to run up a hill to one of these simple homes. To my surprise, moments later they came running back, each with a small bag of tangerines. As we approached they came down to meet us, lifting the bags toward us as a gift. The missionary, who knew this area very well, reached into his pocket and brought out a handful of penny candy, which he gave to the children. The sheer joy that this small amount of candy brought to those children is still etched on my mind some 25 years later. No doubt they arose from their bed that morning with no expectations of having candy and when a few pieces were given to them, their reality greatly exceeded their expectations.
A friend and classmate I knew in graduate school often told me that he had no expectations, therefore, he would never be disappointed. Although this was not entirely true, given that he was pursuing a graduate degree, he obviously had learned to manage his satisfaction/dissatisfaction level.
Personal satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) can be thought of in proportion to the difference between one’s expectations and perceived reality. A person with unrealistically high expectations is destined to live in a constant state of dissatisfaction. However, a person with realistic expectations is more apt to experience greater levels of satisfaction. This rule on satisfaction holds true in virtually every area of life, from the purchases we make – to the careers we choose – to the homes where we live. This rule even holds true in the political process as it relates to the candidate for whom we choose to vote.
In a recent Rasmussen Poll (February 2016) Americans were asked about their perceptions of Congress. Only 11% rated Congress as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ with 60% giving them the lowest rating of ‘poor.’ This poll resembles others taken over the past several years that reflect Americans’ dissatisfaction with the job performance of elected officials.
It seems to me that the high level of dissatisfaction with the American political process is less about incompetent elected officials and more about broken promises. Politicians and political parties often make promises that they cannot possibly keep in order to be elected. This dynamic occurs across the political spectrum. Is it any surprise that elected officials have been compared to unethical salesmen who will promise anything to make a sale? Herein lies the problem for the electorate. Our expectations are set based on the promises politicians make, and the delivery is almost always inadequate, thus leading to dissatisfaction.
It is my opinion that the dissatisfaction driving the narrative of this political season is more about unrealistic expectations than it is about any candidate’s performance or qualifications. Given that few Americans have a comprehensive understanding of how government works, and the complexities that exist within most of the issues being discussed by Congress, their expectations are often developed based on conversations with family members, colleagues, or from a favorite media outlet. This in turn leads to their unrealistic expectations of elected officials. Those officials then make lofty promises in order to be elected. And when those promises go unmet, the spiral of dissatisfaction continues.
Balancing diverse concerns and interests is what our system of government has accomplished somewhat effectively for nearly 250 years. Yet today there is a relatively new player that is challenging the process. This new player, referred to in general terms as social media, has become pervasive in the lives of Americans. Although I enjoy using many social media platforms and I believe that the positive greatly outweighs the negative, we need to recognize the impact it has had on many of our societal interactions and in our levels of satisfaction. Sadly, social media has amplified and perpetuated two dangerous outcomes: the simplistic explanation of complex situations and a gravitation toward homogenous ideological communities.
The misrepresentation of complex issues has been fueled by the 140-character banter made popular on Twitter. I believe that Twitter is a very valuable tool in our communication arsenal, yet, it is not capable of communicating the nuances of the complex issues that our law makers are required to address. I am a fan of brevity but the most complex and important issues cannot possibly be addressed with overly simplistic or brief statements. These statements serve to raise expectations for some, yet many of these tweeted promises involving very complex issues will make an exact outcome highly improbable.
A second impact of social media is the ease with which people become immersed in homogenous virtual communities. Obviously there has always been a certain degree of homogeneity within American communities, however, unlike the local barbershop conversations of the past, where vigorous debates could and often did occur among friends that represented diverse thinking, today many are quick to ‘unfriend’ those with different religious or political views. It seems that we are increasingly isolated in communities with like viewpoints. Indeed, a new era of walled cities, designed to keep the ‘others’ out, has emerged in the virtual space, discouraging diverse thought and perpetuating inflexible, mob-like ideologies.
Along these lines, I have heard the argument that this all began in the late 1970s with the growth of talk radio. I accept that talk radio contributed to today’s extreme ideological alignments, given the extreme positions that are necessary to garner ratings. Yet, if talk radio was the beginning of the polarization of thought and opinions, social media has provided a platform to take it nuclear.
I believe that balancing these varied and diverse views is in the best interest of our Union and that intellectual tension should be celebrated rather than demonized. Political positions that insist on driving a stake in the ground with no room for compromise compel candidates to make impossible promises. When these unrealistic promises are broken, the electorate blames the candidates, the parties, and the system. Although I choose to remain optimistic that a correction is possible, based on the promises being made during this political season, that correction seems largely improbable. If we want to reverse the downward spiral, we must reexamine our expectations and have honest discussions about what is possible.
If my hypothesis is true, then we educators are faced with the challenge of instilling in students a value for diverse thought and serious debate. Only then will we hopefully reverse the current polarization of ideas by teaching the next generation of leaders to value diverse opinions and understand that sincere and intelligent people can differ on a variety of political and religious positions. We must teach students to understand that even if their ideas are disproved, they have learned something and grown as a person. We must help them to recognize that they cannot possibly have all of the answers, and that differing viewpoints result in a more balanced conclusion. We must teach them that growth involves change and that there is no shame in changing one’s position after they gain a more complete understanding of the situation.
Losing an argument is a good thing, for when this occurs I have been introduced to a better understanding. With this better understanding I am wiser, thus an improved person. I welcome vigorous debate based on sound logic and good data, yet, I also welcome the untestable. For in my human state of imperfect knowledge, faith in the untestable is the glue that holds together meaning.
– Stephen Robinson