Lead-up to presidential elections bizarre and polarizing

Last October, I turned 18. But I can’t vote. As a non-citizen, I’ve been observing this election cycle from the outside with great interest, and sometimes with amusement or outright horror.

In an incredibly polarized political landscape, Americans agree on one thing: this is not a normal election year. According to a March 2016 Huffington Post poll, 76 percent of U.S. adults felt this election was stranger than past elections.

NBC News set up a website for people to share their anonymous election confessions. “We’re all screwed. I am not sure the system can be fixed regardless of who gets elected,” wrote one particularly hopeless 44-year-old from New York.

Personal insults hurled at debates and speeches are a hallmark of this election’s bizarre nature.

Just recently, Republican front-runner Donald Trump accused Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman card”—the perceived advantage she holds as a female candidate.

However, gender remarks, spouse-shaming, and email servers cannot overshadow more important issues. Such theatrics make the election interesting to follow, but the focal point of any campaign should be its policies.

The same Huffington Post poll found that only 19 percent of Americans felt that this election was more focused on issues than past contests.

The media is partly responsible. Media-tracking firm mediaQuant calculated each candidate’s earned media—unsolicited news coverage about the candidate, both in print and online—based on number of mentions and the reach of each surveyed media source. According to mediaQuant, Trump has earned over $2 billion worth of so-called “free press” throughout his campaign, twice as much as Clinton, the second-highest earner.

President Barack Obama critiqued the disproportionate coverage at a journalism award dinner in March. “A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone,” he said. “It is to probe and to question and to dig deeper and to demand more.”

He appeared to be referring to the focus of news outlets on the candidates’ attention-grabbing antics, rather than on their actual policy outlines.

That isn’t to say that individual voters are off the hook. A small but vocal faction is culpable for generating toxicity, and many of them are active online. Facebook comments on posts by news organizations easily turn sarcastic and venomous.

“Hillary stinks because she’s a lackey of the most powerful corporations and (relatedly) because she’s a ruthless warmongering imperialist,” wrote a commenter on an article shared by The New York Times.

I gave an extreme example, but I’ve observed similar rhetoric of a lesser degree in our own school and surrounding towns. There’s value in taking steps to fix that, if we truly hope to achieve the diversity and open-mindedness that Amherst is associated with.

Sean Blanda, director of consulting firm 99U, articulated the point of caricaturizing candidates to promote personal ideologies on the publishing platform Medium in January.

“Sharing links that mock a caricature of the Other Side isn’t signaling that we’re somehow more informed,” wrote Blanda. Whether that means criticizing Clinton as the face of corporate greed, or Sanders as an idealistic socialist, no single political candidate can be painted in such broad strokes.

And no single candidate is going to solve all of America’s interconnected problems, either. Quite too often, eliminating one problem unwittingly creates or exacerbates another. That’s a hard truth to acknowledge, when one feels an intense passion for a particular candidate and is devoted to their ideas.

I’m not denying that attitude at all—in fact it’s very poetic. But the next time someone explains a position you vehemently oppose, stop yourself from making a mental list of reasons why they’re utterly wrong. Let them try to persuade you. It can only add depth and insight to your own perspective.

The blame cannot be placed on a single player in the political process. Part of it is on the candidates, part of it is on the media, and part of it is on us.