After The Polls Close: The Psychological Effects Of Election Rhetoric

Today  the complete nightmare that is this election season will be over, and a sequence of exasperated sighs will surely be heard in chorus throughout the world. The haranguing debates and sensationalist campaigning will soon culminate in one of the most important elections of recent American history—an election that the entire world has been watching for equal parts entertainment and survival. While the formalities of election discourse and extreme partisan debating will begin to quell, however, the largely negative effects of election rhetoric will continue to manifest among the groups that have been most vilified over the course of this tumultuous campaign.

The highlight reel is painful to rehash. Latinos have been demonized as lazy criminals who paradoxically also manage to steal American jobs at a frequency of national significance. Refugees fleeing certain death have been recast as The Thing That Goes Bump In The Night, thereby causing them to arrive at borders that are largely shut to them. Muslims have been painted as anti-American monsters with innate jihadist agendas, only relevant through the lens of the national security paradigm. Between the debates, the headlines, and the everyday discourse surrounding these developments, the political climate has become a stifling one for many Americans who have endured the exclusionary and isolative ethos that have taken up much of the national media coverage over the course of this campaign.

The repugnance of this election is a hard truth that most of the voting populace has come to acknowledge. The lack of civility and decorum is now understood as the natural state of political deliberations. However, the time is nigh to similarly acknowledge and understand that the psychological turmoil that has burgeoned within the country’s most vulnerable populations as a result of this lack of civility during this campaign will not simply disappear at the close of Election Day. It will remain with these populations, becoming just as much a part of them as their fingerprints, as they struggle to work through the damage that this election season has wrought upon their self-esteem, their confidence, and their sense of safety among their own countrymen.

Back in April, the American Psychological Association found that more than half of U.S. adults are stressed about the 2016 election. Far more than stress, however, depression is also evident among the country’s most marginalized groups. Clinically, depression is a mental state that is often incited by abuse or other manifestations of steep conflict. The noxious anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been on national display over the last year is, surely, a form of violence; it is an abuse that cannot be cured by the counting of ballots and the closing of polls. It simply does not end along with the news cycle. The effects of this rhetoric are not so easily remedied.

Instead, many Americans will continue to fear for their physical safety, for their families’ safety, and for the stability of their futures in a country with such a tumultuous partisan terrain. Deportation, detention, and police violence are just some of the drivers of fear born out of this election that contribute to the decline in mental health among vulnerable American communities.  The extensive effects of this kind of election depression, and its byproducts of low self-esteem and anxiety, will thus pose as enduring battles for Americans who have been the most disparaged on campaign platforms. The Americans who will sustain the most psychological damage? The children.

According to a recent study by Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center), teachers across the country—from elementary school through high school—have, over the course of this election cycle, observed a disturbing trend of diminished mental health and perceptions of self-worth among their Latino students, Muslim students, and students of color overall. In fact, many teachers revealed that racial tensions among students have risen, and that fear and anxiety levels are very high among students of color.

They also reported an influx in uncivil political discourse in the classroom, as well as a marked increase in the expression of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. About 67 percent of teachers who participated in the study reported that Muslim and immigrant students have repeatedly expressed fear for the safety of their families. Despite the requirement that our educators be non-partisan in their classrooms, many teachers confessed that they simply could not hold true to that requirement while facing all of the unrest and mental turmoil that election rhetoric has wrought upon their students. In fact, some put their jobs on the line as they made very deliberate statements about tolerance and inclusivity with respect to certain political platforms in order to make their most vulnerable students feel safe, in some way.

At its core, the report illustrates the ramifications of demeaning language on young, impressionable minds that may or may not be able to process just how this rhetoric will translate into real life consequences for themselves and for their families. The report explains that:

“Students are stressed and anxious in a way that is threatening their health, emotional well-being and their schoolwork. We heard from dozens of educators about young students who expressed daily worries about “being sent back” or having their parents sent back. In many cases, the students are American citizens or come from families that are here legally. It doesn’t matter: Regardless of immigration status, they feel under attack. We heard about students from second grade to high school crying in class.”

In addition to the diminished mental health of students from marginalized communities, the teachers of this study also observed that many students have become quite emboldened by election rhetoric to use slurs and other inflammatory language toward others. In fact, many teachers recalled that Muslim and Sikh students were regularly called names like ISIS, terrorist, or bomber, and that openly racist comments and remarks have been consistently made against Latino students. This kind of hostility fuels the anxiety and fears that many of these children experience each day, thereby impeding with their classroom comfort and, thus, their ability to focus on the curricula they are tasked with learning.

Outside of the scope of the student body, harmful rhetoric is sometimes even espoused from teachers themselves, though not a topic covered by the Teaching Tolerance report. Most recently, a student in Phoenix, Arizona was told by his teacher that he was a terrorist and that he would be deported once Trump was elected—a prospect that the teacher said she was excited about. Outside of the scope of school altogether, children remain exposed to these hostile interactions in many other pockets of their lives. Their anxiety and fear rear when they see Trump-Pence bumper stickers on the highway, or when they hear someone agree with Clinton’s contention that the “cure” for Islamophobia is Muslim subservience to the police power. These are pains that children are engulfed in at school, and then revisit, repeatedly, once class is dismissed.

The sad phenomenon of election depression among children closely resembles the effects of election rhetoric on adults described earlier: fears for individual safety, fears for family safety, and anxiety about overall stability in volatile times. The election has normalized inflammatory rhetoric, and the effect of this is that both adults and children have begun to employ that same language against their marginalized counterparts—on the playground and in the workplace. Thus, depression of all degrees and severities is spreading in America’s margins. This depression will prove to be especially damaging for children currently suffocating in confusion and fears surrounding election rhetoric, as the most formative years of their lives will be deeply colored by experiences of intolerance, hatred, and exclusion, in addition to witnessing their own parents struggle with perceptions of self-worth in a time when there is scarce national discourse to affirm that self-worth.

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Expunging the dismal sadness that now hovers above America’s margins will take so much more than closing the book on this election. Dispelling this collective emotional decline will require reversing the irreversible: taking back the rhetoric that has ripened, quite menacingly, into an America that is encouraged and emboldened in its bigotry and racial self-entitlement through language that declares that America cannot be great, or safe, while certain Americans remain within its borders. While none of this can ever be taken back, and this will forever go down as a nefarious stain on our history, there are three very basic and effective ways to cope with the psychological impacts of harmful election rhetoric.  

1. Check out of the 24-hour news cycle. When it becomes all too much to witness, and you feel the fleshy knots begin to form in the pit of your stomach, feel free to just turn the television off, power the radio down, and close the newspaper. Your well-being is far more important than remaining up-to-date and informed regarding the bigotry that questions your humanity and challenges your survival. You do not owe anyone your attention.

2. Stay connected with the people who mean the most to you. And be each other’s support. Now, more than ever, maintaining strong ties with our communities, as well as with firm allies, is especially essential for emotional wellness. It could mean the difference between devastating loneliness while apart, and rising in strength while together.

3. Express yourself. Whatever your medium is—the written word or visual arts—exorcise your feelings from that place where you normally keep them hidden. Your expression may help others find their own avenue of expression or, more importantly, allow someone else to understand that they are not alone in their struggles.

Though the election season may be over, on Nov. 9, many Americans will still be just as depressed, fearful, and anxious as they were during the days prior. The pursuit of psychological wellness in the aftermath of some of the ugliest election rhetoric of recent history will be an arduous one. Immigrants who have forged new lives in the United States must cope with the fact that there is a sizable national opinion that rejects their presence.  Muslims will continue internalizing the demagogic ideals that are proffered against them. Both groups will fear deportation and being separated from their families. Children will continue to struggle as they navigate schools that are contaminated by all of these inimical ideals. While steps can be taken to navigate and manage the effects of these negative psychological impacts, it is ostensibly clear that the American political ethos has succeeded in eroding the wellness of its most vulnerable peoples in a way that is both unforgivable and incurable.

Elizabeth Jaikaran
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