Yesterday, our country had a midterm election. If you’re like me, you’d become annoyed by the incessant reminders to vote on news and social media, from your friends and colleagues and from the politicians who want your support.
Voting is important, yes, and our future depends on it. But I’d like to call attention to the fact that political participation contains much more than just voting. Political participation is achieved by observing the world and learning about your own values, then considering the policies that candidates want to enact. More than any individual vote, participation is attained by talking about politics with someone else. Consider this: if you convince two friends to vote who otherwise wouldn’t have, you’ve done more for democracy than your vote would. Also, there can be no productive conversation where the participants fully agree.
The degree of difference, be it two Democrats debating the finer points of DACA administration or a Bernie and a Trump supporter yelling at each other, tends to decide the productivity of a conversation. This is a flaw, and the cliche of reaching out to those you disagree with is actually essential.
Americans all have the same priorities: how can we feel safe at night? How do we keep the economy strong so I can support my family? Our answers differ, as do our social values and religious practices, but there is always common ground.
When debating politics, start from a common goal. If you disagree with someone about immigration, talk about your mutual desire to be safe. Discuss what makes you feel unsafe and how your confirmation bias might stop you from considering the opposition. Look at things from an immigrant’s point of view, or if you are one, from the view of someone born here.
College students have a unique opportunity to do this. Likely, at no other time in life are we intellectually-stimulated full-time students, nor are we ever in such diverse and unfamiliar territory as when we go off to college. Challenge your own beliefs and disagree with your peers. Often, so-called “real” adults in the workforce become consumed with everyday pressures and challenges, and can’t observe as closely. Use this time to be as engaged as possible.
It’s crucial to be tolerant of diversity in political opinions, especially on a college campus. The Knight Foundation had some pretty disturbing findings about political intolerance among college students. Among them, that 37% of college students believe shouting down speakers can be acceptable, with 10% saying violence may be warranted. A startling 61% admitted that the political environment on campus stops certain students from expressing their views. Finally, a recent poll found that one in three students think violence is justified in stopping what they consider “hate speech.”
With the exception of speech meant to incite violence, a peer should never be silenced because of their views. We need to encourage respectful discussion in classrooms. This falls partially on professors, but mostly on students. As a political science major, I’ve been in classes where conservative students are pressured and bullied because of their opinions.
Democracy is slow and it’s difficult to pass legislation. This can be frustrating as a citizen, but recognize the advantages it brings. The Framers wanted a slow process—bicameral Congress that must pass the same bill, approval by the President or a super-majority of the Legislature—to prevent an authoritarian government. The tradeoff we fought for allows us to hold our government accountable and vote people out as we please.
If you’re optimistic, you expect that public opinion is highly reflected in government. The values and policies we want are held by our representatives. If you’re pessimistic, like me, you expect that representatives will vote along with public opinion for the sake of keeping their jobs. Either way, government represents us when we study the issues and truly voice our opinions. Democracy isn’t the problem—apathetic citizens are.
If you don’t believe me, look at President Trump’s executive order separating parents and children of undocumented immigrants for detention. A majority of the country revolted, including members of both major parties. President Trump doesn’t perfectly represent the majority of America on immigration, but he does wish to stay in office. The majority stopped these policies in their tracks, reversing the separation policy. While there are still children in detention, our actions as citizens mitigated the impact.
The point is that you can have an effect, and not just as one of 323 million potential votes. Whether you voted yesterday or not, have correspondence with your representatives, with your friends, and with your opposition. We’re diverse not just in where we come from, but in our political values. Fight for yours. Recognize the good in our system of checks and balances and honor the opportunity for democracy; most of the world does not have it.
Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer Kevin Reyes.