We are weary.
In some ways, we are accustomed to this weariness. Elections have long been an extended period of enthusiastic debate and predictable divides in our culture. But was the last cycle this raucous? Have we always harbored such contempt for the candidate who is not ours? Did we long for the election to be over this hard last time?
“It’s kind of scary,” said the Rev. Paul Rock, of the Second Presbyterian Church. “When did we become so divided, and when did we forget to compromise and be moderate in things? The concern (in my church) has been, ‘What the heck is going on in our country?’ ”
Regardless of political affiliation, 52 percent of American adults report that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, according to a survey sponsored by the American Psychological Association. The association suggests the anxiety has been heightened by everything from “arguments, stories, images and video on social media” to “thousands of comments that can range from factual to hostile or even inflammatory.”
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There’s a certain trauma in the feeling that you can’t look away, said Stella Fernandez, a clinical psychologist based in the Kansas City area.
“I think people have been much more involved,” Fernandez said about an election that has been described as both entertaining and traumatic. “It’s hilarious. It’s funny. It’s dramatic. It’s intense.”
But increased participation in the political process, several Kansas Citians say, has created anxiety and election fatigue they hope will be relieved after Tuesday.
‘The least issues-based campaign I can think of’
The political science professor usually loves an election year.
University of Missouri professor Bill Horner teaches American government in the fall, usually to a class of 500 mostly first-time voters. He walks students through voter registration in class and spends part of the semester talking about campaigns.
“For me, it’s a real personal point of pride that they don’t know who my political views are at the end of the semester,” Horner said. “I talk about how their vote matters, if they care to vote.”
But this semester, Horner said, he and his colleagues found themselves wrestling with an important question: Was it their obligation to point out when they thought something outrageous had taken place? Or was it their role to remain as neutral as possible while an election that seemed to abandon many of the traditions and processes the country was built on continued?
It wasn’t just about the extremeness of the candidates and the divisiveness they seemed to foster, Horner pointed out. He has always taught his students three criteria for a good election: Candidates must talk about issues, the media must cover that discussion and citizens must pay attention.
“To me, this has been one of the least issues-based campaigns that I can think of,” Horner said.
He has taught politics and government for 16 years — he can’t recall ever seeing students ever being so turned off by the process. His larger government class expressed little support for either candidate in class discussions. A smaller presidency class seemed more firmly in support of one particular candidate, but Horner wondered if the contentiousness of the campaign made expressing support for the other candidate more intimidating than usual.
He hopes suggestions that the drama of this election might drag on past Tuesday is all bluster.
“I’m not going to lie, I can’t wait for this election to be over,” Horner said. “And that’s not typical. I love this stuff. I want people to be excited about the political process.”
Addressing issues that divide us
The religious leadership at Second Presbyterian Church planned a series of sermons to run up to the election. They had listened to the presidential primary debates in the spring and sensed that the divisiveness that emerges each election cycle might be more deeply felt this year.
“We were watching the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and these passionate voices that seemed to epitomize and almost became a caricature of different political views, what’s wrong with the world and how you fix it,” Rock said.
So they created “Issues that Divide Families” sermons, and each weekend this fall they took turns speaking about the importance of listening to one another and moving past the divides of the Democratic and Republican parties. They touched on the Black Lives Matter movement, gay marriage, abortion.
“When we demonize our opponents, we actually become the demons.”
“Geez, Louise, I’m hitting some hot-button issues,” Rock remembered thinking after he found himself telling a pastor about the somewhat controversial topics at a religious event. But he felt adamant it was important to talk about how “staying with, sticking with and interacting with” someone who is different from us creates God’s image in the world.
Rock believes the rhetoric used by both sides in the election has frightened people who sense that society has turned away from a certain kind of respect, a semblance of political civility that has existed in other election cycles. The church ended its sermons with two days of coming together, in which the congregation met for breakfast, sang and prayed and spent the rest of the day in community service.
“This is kind of what we do as a nation every four years — some years are more heightened than others,” Rock said. “People tell one side and demonize the other. We try to model the other way and listen to everyone.”
A boost in bumper stickers
Even years are good for the political bumper sticker business.
Just ask Kevin Burden, director of business development for Gill-line, a printing, decal and signage company based in Lenexa.
To analyze the success of political decals, the business looks at sales from a two-year perspective, Burden says. Political bumper sticker sales are up 30 percent from last year and up 22 percent from two years ago.
And yes, this election has been a little ... well, different. The language at times reflects the absurdity of this election. And the orders haven’t slowed; perhaps sales are fueled by the fears from voters that the direction of the country is at stake.
“With this election, there are probably more people willing to voice who they are voting for,” Burden said. “I think some are a little nervous. They are really pushing for who they believe should lead to the country.”
To little surprise, decals and signs for fringe candidate Sanders were big this year, but Trump and Hillary Clinton sales are coming down to the wire. Just this week, the company filled an order for 70,000 Hillary stickers, Burden said. Even Gill-line staff have been surprised “it’s gone as deep as it has.”
“We had certainly a lot of the lines in this campaign that would also end up on a bumper sticker,” Burden said. “Like ‘deplorables’ and ‘I’m with her.’ ”
In the gray
We don’t like the unknown, even when pundits debating the future of America aren’t plastered all over Facebook, social media, the television and others places that bombard us with negativity and drama that draw us in, said Fernandez, the Kansas City-based psychologist.
Fernandez points out that anyone with a predisposition to anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder or depression may be more affected by stressors in the election cycle.
“We’ve got people who are in a sense already having trouble wondering what’s going to happen next, what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Fernandez said. “They are, of course, going to be stressed by what’s unknown.”
Fernandez said the related anxiety can materialize in a multitude of ways.
Sometimes people become obsessed with politics to avoid addressing larger problems in their own lives, she said. Sometimes kids, developing and impressionable, can be traumatized watching the adults in their life get worked up about political issues. Discussions in the election — sexual assault, transparency, infidelity — triggers something people are already dealing with.
“It opens up a wound that was already scabbed up and covered a little bit,” Fernandez said. “But it can be a good exercise in handling some of those issues that have not been brought up to the forefront before.”
But sometimes, she said, anxiety doesn’t come from supporting or opposing one candidate over the other. Particularly in this cycle, it could come from neither candidate sitting well with a person.
“Many people have a hard time with the fact that they don’t like one candidate over the other,” Fernandez said. “That makes them in complete gray. People don’t like being in the gray. They don’t like being in the unknown — that causes stress.”
Waiting for election to be over
Does the cycle ever really end? Will a respite from election fatigue begin?
Burden knows the “big stuff” will end soon, but there is always another state and local election around the corner to produce signage for.
Fernandez says she thinks people’s abilities to detach themselves from the election might depend on someone’s political beliefs, and who wins the election.
Rock wonders if this particularly bizarre election means a gradual ending of the “two fairly contrived political parties in our nation that become storehouses for a wide swath of perspectives.”
Recently, Horner wondered how long it took after the 2012 election for speculation to begin about the 2016 race. He ran a search through a newspaper database, and found his answer ... in a Denver Post article posted one week after the 2012 election.
Stella Fernandez, who practices clinical psychology in both Kansas City and Blue Springs, has some tips for handling election anxiety.
Vote: “Getting out there to vote makes people feel better because then they feel more in control,” Fernandez said.
Talk: Fernandez suggests opening lines of communications with family and friends. Have conversations with kids in an age-appropriate way. Create opportunities to specifically address certain topics in a safe way.
Disconnect: “That means disconnect from the social media,” Fernandez said. “And getting back to the things that are most important.” What makes most people happy, she said, is the connection they have with the positive people in their life.
Educate yourself on the issues. Then let go: Be aware of what the candidates represent and then take a break. “It’s knowing what the issues are and then making a choice,” Fernandez said. “Once you vote, there is a sense of community in voting and the idea that you have regained some control.”
Think globally: Stressed about the election? Try to find a bigger picture and try to change the world outside your normal bubble. Volunteer through church. Spend time at a soup kitchen. Help your neighbor down the street. “Something like that is going to take someone away from the negative and drama happening with the election and move them toward something more positive.”