The first election with which I actively engaged was the 2016 presidential election. I was 17 years old and I remember sobbing in my bed at 6 a.m. as I read through missed text messages and news alerts from the previous night (I made the naïve decision to go to bed early). I distinctly recall reading a text from one of my older sisters, who was 24 at the time, that just said “I’m so sorry kiddo. I’m so sorry you’ll have to grow up during this mess.” It was at this moment I realized not only that our political era would be tumultuous, but that she was an entirely new beast altogether.
I am the first to admit I have a complicated relationship with politics. Some days I feel it is the only source of light at the end of a long and increasingly dim tunnel, while others I simply think, “Who cares about what’s at the end of the tunnel? We’re all going to die anyway!” I know this back-and-forth between practical hope and utter nihilism does not make me special, but I think it touches on an important point. American politics increasingly deal exclusively with binaries: good/bad, noble/evil, reasonable/outlandish, and the list goes on. Admittedly, I am a terrible culprit of this. I see an opinion piece written by someone I don’t like or tend not to agree with and I make snap judgments. My brain fills in the blanks to say I haven’t read what they said, but I bet it’s ill-informed and I bet I’ll disagree. And so I disagree on principle.
Last year I wrote my undergraduate thesis about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first term in Congress. Not only has AOC gained popularity throughout her time in Congress thus far, but she also struck a chord with a lot of younger voters, like myself. The goal of my project was to look at the ways she dealt with issues like sexism, classism, and racism, and time and time again I was surprised by the attacks she would suffer at the hands of detractors.
Not only were many of the unsavory remarks AOC weathered during her first term grounded in her political decisions, but a lot of them were rooted in bigotry and hatred. Disagreeing with her stances on issues like climate change or minimum wages were not enough — many individuals on the other side of the aisle felt the need to target her personally by calling her a “fucking bitch” or implying she did not belong in the U.S. because she is of Puerto Rican descent. Now, not all of this can be chalked up to political partisanship. In fact, most of it is good old fashioned racism, sexism, and classism, and that disgusts me to my core. However, the fact that political divides have become so stark and bigotry so mainstream that elected officials feel comfortable using this type of language with a colleague is abhorrent.
I don’t know what the answer to this polarization and intolerance is. I don’t know if we will ever fully recover from the past few years of domestic terrorism and revitalized hatred. But I do know that a good first step is dedicating time and resources to creating free and accessible issue-based education tools and advocating for electoral reform and more inclusive voting laws. I believe in the importance of giving people the tools in their tool belts to be able to make informed decisions. I chose to be part of PEP because, although American political systems were built upon these value systems, I don’t want them to stand for racism, sexism, homophobia, or classism any longer. I chose to be part of the PEP team because I believe in civic engagement and the power of the people. And I hope you will, too.
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