A steady stream of voters turned in their ballots at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters. Photo by Chris Stone
A steady stream of voters turned in their ballots at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters. Photo by Chris Stone

Let’s face the facts — political polarization in the United States is constantly increasing, and the manifestations by Democrats and Republicans go beyond hostile. Both parties are more and more antagonistic toward one another.

For example, we all remember the 2016 presidential debate, when both candidates went far past political aspects, attacking personal agendas, which only escalated conflicts instead of searching for a unified solution.

Many people across the country are suffering both mental and physical consequences of political polarization. This exceptional division continuously affects citizens, exemplifying a new form of tribalism. According to a University of Nebraska analysis, politics is a usually inescapable source of chronic stress and depression among U.S. adults.

And what U.S. citizens want is unity. Society is exhausted by these deepening disparities caused by polarization and now is looking for a way out. A Public Agenda poll shows that 72% of Americans believe that a stronger emphasis on mutual understanding would be “better for the nation.”

As a healthcare worker, even though I sincerely believe politics should have nothing to do with the health industry, I realized that would never be the case. Political manifestations sneak into the hospitals and medical institutions, influencing aspects that shouldn’t carry the political burden. 

And there’s no need to look far — let’s take wearing a mask during the pandemic or denying the virus exists in the first place. We’ve all seen clips of critically ill patients arguing that they don’t have COVID-19 while gasping their last breaths. 

It’s heartbreaking, and in my humble opinion, not their fault.  We all unconsciously gravitate towards the narrative that we like best.

Like all healthcare workers, I’ve found it challenging to continue to work after some of the experiences I’ve had in hospitals. It’s been devastating, but the most detrimental thing I can think of is politicizing a virus. Politics and a virus should have absolutely nothing to do with each other, but somehow we went down that road in the most destructive of ways. 

In my work, I need a data-oriented approach — here, lives are on the line. My job is diagnostic; I create analytical data and measurements for cardiologists. So my brain just craves numbers and hard empirical data. 

I thought: No wonder there’s so little political interest in a society with such a chaotic information overload. Even with best of intentions and motivation, it’s hard to blaze the trail through all available content, not to mention finding reliable and unbiased information. 

Society needs analytical thinkers and people driven by facts, investing time in bias-free research, using multiple and trusted sources. And once minds are armed with valid information, and have disposed of biased political content, many may be surprised by liking statements of both seemingly polarized parties. 

But the key in setting off on your journey toward becoming a politically aware citizen is to start small. For example, get interested in your local community’s political actions — what bills and laws have passed recently and which ones have been rejected. You can easily check the ongoing legislative process in this San Diego overview

Evaluate your representatives’ decisions, and dare to readjust your opinion, even if it means flipping it upside down. Don’t be afraid to scratch your brain with questions like: “Why didn’t it pass? It actually made sense.” And then try to find out who stood “for” and “against” the bill. 

In my professional life, when I’m about to examine a person, occasionally, a patient will ask: “Do I have to wear a mask?” Sadly, this is an obviously politically influenced question. If politics and health had been kept separate, how different the pandemic could have been.

I absolutely support people’s rights and beliefs, but if those beliefs are based on misinformation and hysteria, how can anyone make a truly informed decision? 

It’s nearly unachievable. That’s why I believe that disinformation, lack of critical thinking, widespread ignorance, and fear are the plagues of our century. And the best cure for that is to build resilience towards external influences, such as fake news under the disguise of clickbait.

To do that, use backed up and supported sources. For example, after reading a provoking article, check who the author is and whether the list of citations is attached. 

Overcoming political polarization is not only about how to be a better voter, but also how to build politics into your daily routine and grow to like it. Don’t stay out of the process — instead, choose to actively participate in building a better government for us all.

Kelly Riordan is a cardiac sonographer and CEO and founder of the WeWillDecide, a website that helps voters make informed decisions.