I grew up hearing my father repeat the phrase, “negativity begets negativity.” It’s a sentiment I still strongly believe, and the idea that our attitudes have a way of shaping the world around us is in vogue. From articles touting our ability to “think our way” to professional success to social psychology studies that deal with positive thinking and its effect on decision making, the conviction that our optimism or pessimism has a direct impact on our lives is something that has become increasingly popular. So why does our generation nevertheless insist on propagating an aura of unceasing negativity when it comes to politics? Positivity — even in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds against the millennial left and minority Americans — is vital to creating change.
This collective tone is one of “political negativity,” the general feeling that those of us who find ourselves in ideological disagreement with our government, especially our president, are fated for an inevitable future of political disenchantment and social division. Undoubtedly, the United States has taken steps backward as a nation since the 2016 election cycle in regard to political discourse, social unity and legislation. But while I’m a fervent critic of President Donald J. Trump and his policies, I’ve grown exhausted of the seemingly inescapable political negativity exemplified by left-leaning peers, social activists and representatives on both sides of the aisle. Those three types of political actors often use rhetoric that is noticeably cynical and sensationalist in tone in order to inspire outrage and dissent. The popular turn of phrase “not my president” stands out as an example. While vocal anger is often understandable, this rhetoric ultimately perpetuates the notion that the left can only put into words what to vote against and never what to vote for.
My claim of rampant political negativity among our generation is both anecdotal and data-driven. As a student at a relatively liberal university, I’ve seen political negativity illustrated in conversation, in the classroom and through student activism, including students’ unwillingness to engage in civil conversation with speakers such as former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who spoke on campus April 2016. To the dismay of many students who felt he should not be given a platform at Emory, Yiannopoulos delivered his address to a packed student audience in White Hall, while others protested outside, carrying signs that accused Yiannopoulos of disseminating hate speech. Further, political negativity on social media is pervasive. It’s so evident on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that it has become the subject of extensive social media sentiment analysis, a practical attempt at quantifying the general temperament surrounding a topic, person, product or event, often for marketing purposes. Many such analyses show that discourse online concerning American politics has largely become inane, malicious and pessimistic. This remains true throughout cable news as well, where shouting matches doused with ego have become more common than productive dialogue rooted in facts. In a country born out of a desire to listen and legislate via the will of the people, we can’t continue to allow our voices to descend into political negativity that cheapens that will. This must change if we’re to improve the health of our society and democracy as an electorate.
December 2010 marked the beginning of one of the largest revolutionary waves in modern history throughout North Africa and the Middle East. It’s an example of how young people’s dissatisfaction with their government can positively transform a nation. The Arab Spring, admittedly, is an extreme example of activism affecting change via widespread political dissent and was largely unsuccessful due to social, cultural and economic realities unique to the region. It is, however, an apt example of how not giving into political negativity can launch a grassroots movement toward political change. Citizens in Arab Spring countries were able to mobilize because they shared a common belief that their dissent could manifest as reform and transform their societies. It was a belief rooted in hope. After the Spring, Tunisia and Egypt witnessed record voter participation in both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012, as well as substantial social, regime and policy change. If despondency had taken hold of millennials in those countries, then their revolutions may well have never occurred. Effective activism requires activists who can differentiate between the negative state of their current reality and the bright possibilities for the future. Negative rhetoric and overly cynical beliefs are draining to a movement for reform.
Young people are often denigrated for their apparent political apathy. Low turnout among young voters has been a reality in American elections throughout history, and it was evident yet again in 2016 as a proportion of our population failed to cast votes, especially in key battleground states. Having the lowest turnout rate of any age group leading up to 2016 (routinely hovering around 20 percent lower than that of the general participation rate), it’s not surprising that even last November (in what may well have been the most polarizing presidential election in U.S. history) only about 50 percent of young voters turned out to the polls (roughly 24 million). But as indicated by the Arab Spring and other youth movements, such as the revolutions of 1989 that resulted in the fall of communism across Central and Eastern Europe, ideological discontent has the power to activate voter participation and make an impact.
Political dissent has the power to inspire change. But how we verbalize and discuss those feelings can define the outcome of our opposition and the degree to which we mobilize as informed citizens. In reference to his grueling fight for racial equality and government reform, Malcolm X said, “stumbling is not falling.” As a nation on the path toward progress, we have stumbled. We face immense challenges: the possibility of healthcare reform that principally harms minorities and the working poor; an assault on free and independent media; ubiquitous, divisive rhetoric from our leaders that leads to social rifts along cultural, racial and economic lines. But we have yet to fall. It should go without saying that frustration, anger and resentment are necessary and logical responses in these trying times.
Still, the tone of our grievances as young Americans must undergo a transformation. Gloom, hopelessness and dejection have no place in an effective movement for change. Instead, we ought to voice our dissent through a lens of hope, not simply through one of exasperation. We can do this. We will do this. But if we are to make progress, it will be because we found it within us not to give in and hang our heads. It will be because we found a way to remain positive.
A. Spencer Osborne is a College junior from Asheville, N.C.