by Brendan Kennedy and Emmet Hollingshead
There is little disagreement that this past year has been the most divisive and personal campaign season in recent memory. Accusations of fascism, criminality, and even pedophilia were thrown at each side. After the election, divides will persist. We know that this political divide is detrimental to the continuing productive functioning of our American democracy. That’s why we, Brendan and Emmet, both wrote articles addressing this divide shortly before the election. Without common public spaces and discourse, without shared and legitimized institutions and systems of governance, our society cannot function. It is fundamentally important to our way of life that we as Americans purposefully and deliberately go about closing this divide. Here, we have compiled a few ideas, ranging from national policy to institutional practices to personal choices, which we believe would benefit our democracy.
In his final State of the Union, President Barack Obama identified gerrymandering as a source of political division in the country. Since state legislatures are often in charge of drawing congressional lines during redistricting, one party is often heavily favored over the other. The effects can be massive: in North Carolina, for example, meandering districts like the absurd 12th District helped Republicans pick up 10 of 13 seats in what has been a modestly Republican-leaning battleground in Presidential years and statewide ballots. Similar effects have been seen in states like Pennsylvania and many others. All in all, gerrymandering has served to strongly bolster Republican power in the House of Representatives. The effort was brazen and open, and involved national Republican donors spending heavily in specific local races to take control of state chambers.
The effects of gerrymandering on partisanship have been interesting to watch. Republicans have become increasingly confident in their majority. This has allowed them to become bolder in their tactics, essentially refusing to play ball with the President or Democrats with relative political impunity. This attitude is what bred the Freedom Caucus, one of the most notable examples of partisanship in Congress today. And since gerrymandering sometimes requires drawing a handful of overwhelmingly blue districts, there is little incentive for Democrats to entertain the hardline politics of the Freedom Caucus. As it stands, the gap seems impossible to bridge. And, with protections like the Voting Rights Act recently undone, it may very well get worse before it gets better.
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There are no simple fixes to the issue of gerrymandering. Many states have created independent commissions of non-politicians to conduct redistricting. Some people want to allow algorithms to determine even and fair district boundaries. Or, more simply, Democrats can fight to take back seats in state legislatures to restore balance to the redistricting process and possibly work for a different process. But, each of these solutions have flaws, and each would require politicians to voluntarily give up power to serve the greater good. That makes a solution seem a long way off.
Shared political spaces on social media
On Wednesday, CNN contributor Doug Criss published a short article on the two Facebook feeds of America. One feed was jubilant, celebrating the election of Donald Trump as the end of an era of globalization and elite rule. The other was despondent and hopeless, mourning Hillary Clinton’s loss and terrified of what could happen in the next four years. The tendency for people to use social media to create echo chambers is well documented and damaging to sociopolitical conversation. Creating dialogue means welcoming people you disagree with into the conversation, not kicking them out. From Facebook to Twitter to Reddit, almost every social media platform out there severely lacks productive dialogue.
There have been many Facebook posts recently about cleaning out the friends list or comments about unfriending people who didn’t vote for your preferred candidate. Some will even go as far as to delete any disagreeable comments from their own posts. This is problematic. Not only are the people who disagree with you the very people who you should want to hear your thoughts and opinions, but by unfriending people who disagree with us we cut off a source of input which helps us grow. Don’t unfriend people who disagree with you; add them and have conversations with them. They aren’t all evil.
The other side to productive political conversation in the age of social media is that most people set out not to have a productive discussion, but to ‘win’ arguments. Colby College professor Daniel Cohn gave an excellent TED talk about how this ‘Argument-Is-War metaphor’ is detrimental to all of us. Instead, we should take pride in changing our minds because it shows maturity, we end up with a stronger argument, and it helps build consensus. Though it is poorly titled, this Washington Post article is helpful to navigating the complex landscape of online arguments. Ultimately, closing the divide on social media comes down to individual decisions to listen to others and to broaden the circle of conversation rather than shrink it. It is up to each of us to take this challenge head on.
Diversifying your news sources
Just as social media options have expanded our capacity to absorb information, news media has expanded its breadth and scope. Our news diet has shifted from the morning paper and dispassionate evening reports to blogs and 24/7 analysis from a slew of cable news channels. We have a newfound ability to cater the information we receive and, as with social media, this often creates an echo chamber. For the public, the options are Breitbart and FOX News or Slate and MSNBC, and never the twain shall meet.
But simply saying that the public ought to diversify their news sources ignores an important wrinkle. Partisanship has meant that both sides have headed in opposite directions. When news sources aren’t committed to honest and unbiased reporting, simply drawing from both sides in an effort to appear bipartisan makes no difference. While we all need to make an effort to consider more opinions when consuming the news, that has to be done with a more discerning eye and a willingness to read between the lines. Readers need to be able to be more self-reliant when finding the truth, and need to be willing to reward honest journalism over clickbait. In a country where 20% of the public still doesn’t believe the President is an American, that prognosis for the future seems bleak.
Conservative voices in academia
If we want voters to respect and value the work that academics do, we must find ways to bring academia back into the fold of mainstream political discourse. This will necessarily require a reevaluation of conservative political thought which has been startlingly absent from most academic political discourse. Involving conservatives in political discourse not only lends credibility to the assumptions which the discourse produces, but adds a valuable set of ideas to the conversation.
First, colleges and universities must begin hiring a more intellectually diverse faculty. In academia, it is easier to find a Marxist than a Republican. While we can argue that mainstream American political thought leans to the right, it is not possible for academia to fill its institutional role of providing expertise on complex policy matters when it is so far to the left of the rest of the country. Academia needs to engage with mainstream political discourse and ask what is the appeal of right-wing populism that we on the academic left so jarringly missed? What are the conservative ideals which can strengthen communities in America, and what is missing in all of our leftist insights? Hiring conservatively inclined professors and researchers will begin this process of dialogue to explore new frontiers of thought and policy.
Second, students must engage with conservative voices. A repeated story in the past year or two has been student protests which bar conservatives, or anyone who might be construed as conservative, from speaking on campus. Whether it was Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, Milo Yiannopoulos at Depaul, or Bill Maher at Berkeley, students have repeatedly moved to deem conservatism unworthy of a place on campus. This does not only stunt growth of ideas, it alienates a large portion of our country from one of our most spectacular institutions. Our generation of students leans decidedly liberal, and we are incredibly thankful for that bright future in this trying time. However, that does not give us the right to silence a significant portion of our country. To do so is neither respectable nor productive.
‘Overdosed’ is a good metaphor. Where we are right now is like waking up after a night of heavy drinking. We feel drained and groggy, and a large part of us are extremely unhappy with the guy we ended up with. Most likely, we will mess up and do it again some time in the future, but right now we should really try to realize that it isn’t good for us.
Brendan Kennedy is a senior Political Science major at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas. His research focuses on police-community relations in San Antonio, Texas and around the U.S.
Emmet Hollingshead is a International Studies and Political Science major from Macalester College. He is on the soccer team, a founding member of Macalester Quakers, and will be studying abroad in Buenos Aires in Spring 2017.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writers. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.