Stocker: How students can curtail political polarization


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

Few would argue with the notion that political polarization has grown over the past few decades in the United States. The Brookings Institution, one of America’s oldest and most reputable think tanks, labels political polarization “damaging to the political process,” and warns America’s growing ideological gulf is now embedded in our society. When discussing political polarization, most analysts and commentators use terms like “gridlock,” “filibusters” or the omnipresent fear of another “government shutdown.” Political polarization is not the product of Sen. Ted Cruz’s marathon filibuster against the Affordable Care Act — more commonly known as “Obamacare” — or the October 2013 battle over the debt ceiling that resulted in a 16-day government shutdown. Rather, political polarization comes from the American people. A study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans self-segregate politically, clustering geographically by ideology, and read, watch and listen to news with a bias toward their beliefs.

Political polarization can appear to be an unsolvable problem largely because of its sheer scale. The actions and motivations of politicians like Cruz, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders or Republican candidates Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump may appear outside our control. There is nothing we, as Northwestern students, can do to address political polarization to any effect leading into the 2016 elections.”It is easy to become cynical, disavowing politics and turning toward other pursuits, ignoring the 2016 primaries in favor of more satisfying, less distressing activities.

Despite the seemingly hopeless political landscape of the early 21st century, we cannot abandon our responsibility as young Americans — and future political leaders — to address our nation’s problems. Tackling political polarization can never be a top-down project. Ultimately, addressing political polarization is a bottom-up project, a task best approached by those of us in the best position to engage with individuals of differing views: college students.

Ending political polarization requires understanding and empathy. The first step in countering political polarization is understanding what people of differing ideologies actually believe. More often than not, I have found that liberals and conservatives fundamentally do not understand each other’s views and often make little effort to do so. Upon arrival at NU, I joined non-partisan political organizations, such as the NU Political Union and Politics & Policy, partially with the hope of engaging with students of differing political perspectives. The Political Union’s weekly debates definitely expanded my understanding of conservatives’ political perspectives. Over the past few years, Political Union members have discussed similar experiences with me, how listening to debates changed their understanding of others’ beliefs.

More importantly, the friendships I developed with Republican, libertarian, centrist and even more radically liberal students than myself through the Political Union and my freshman and sophomore residential hall, deepened my understanding of differing viewpoints on a personal level. The second step to ending political polarization is reaching a point of empathy, where students’ differing views are understandable on an emotional and experiential level. Developing strong friendships with people of differing ideologies gives a glimpse into how fellow students’ experiences have shaped their political beliefs. Empathy counteracts the most insidious element of political polarization, the notion that your opposition is inherently bad, or even evil. From my friendships with members of the College Republicans, conservatives within the Political Union and other conservatives on campus, I have found empathy for my political opposites.

Political polarization goes beyond the Democrat-Republican divide. It touches overarching campus debates, such as the struggle over political correctness, to issues deeply sensitive and personal to so many students on campus, such as Israel-Palestine. For many of those students most involved in discussions of these issues, politics are integral to identity. Discussing ongoing regional conflicts or what constitutes offensiveness is undoubtedly difficult for those most directly affected. It is, nonetheless, important. The first step is spending time with one’s ideological opposites; social psychological research shows that intergroup contact reduces animosity, even between groups on the opposite sides of enduring, deeply entrenched conflict.

College is the single best opportunity to bridge the ideological divide. Before social mores prohibit discussion of politics in work and various social settings, sit down with fellow NU students and talk politics. Establish boundaries — no personal attacks, a la Donald Trump, for example — pick a topic, and go. When politics are too sensitive to start with, build trust and establish a bond with fellow students before touching on the more difficult issues. It is time we, as future voters and political leaders, took steps to end political polarization and self-segregation on our own campus, reached out and built friendships with those who disagree with us. With each discussion, empathy builds, and political polarization, at least on a micro-scale, subsides.

This post was updated at 10:10 p.m. for clarity.

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.