Americans from all over the country are frustrated with their government, and rightfully so. The past seven years have been an exercise in gridlock, with Republicans in Congress determined to block any initiative on any issue made by the president. Our politics have become tribal — too many people reflexively support their “team” without really considering the tension that lies at the heart of any issue. We have lost our ability to compromise or empathize, to see the world, however briefly, from a point of view other than our own.
Many students are uninspired by our current political system and feel apathetic about voting. The phrase “the lesser of two evils” in regards to political candidates gets thrown around frequently. But soon our generation will inherit the responsibility of stewardship. We cannot be complacent anymore. We will have to decide what kind of world we want to make for ourselves, our families, our fellow citizens. And while we may have different visions for the kind of world we want to live in, we will all have to live in it together.
I believe one of our generation’s greatest challenges will be to stop talking past each other and to start listening. To stop seeking conflict and to find room to compromise. To take a moment to put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to understand struggles and perspectives that may not be part of our own backgrounds. We need to try our best to confront the challenges we face as a nation head on and with an open mind, instead of hiding behind ideological blinders. Because the challenges we face are plenty.
Regardless of what you believe about the cause of climate change, it is happening, and our generation will have to grapple with the consequences. Regardless of what you believe about income inequality, it is real, and the gap between the haves and have-nots will continue to grow and create tensions that could tear our society apart. Regardless of what you believe about immigration policy, immigrants have been and will continue to be central to our economic strength and a vital part of future economic growth.
Our world is changing rapidly, even if our government is not keeping pace. Our campus is becoming increasingly diverse. We are being joined by students with a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and world views. Can we create an environment on campus that allows for constructive dialogue that respects all points of view? Can we learn from each other?
It would be beneficial for us all to do so.
The year ahead will test the strength of the Elon community. As we enter the 2016 election cycle, there will be heated discussions about our competing visions for the United States and how best to address the many challenges we face. I hope that we can have these discussions while avoiding the reflexive polarization that permeates politics today.
We can and will disagree about many things. But we do not have to be disagreeable. We can rise above the attacks and half-truths so common in the public arena today. We can have a respectful, fact-based discussion of important issues. It is our choice. And given the seriousness of the challenges our generation faces, we’d be wise to work together.
Fifty years ago, in a similarly polarized country, torn by racial and class division, President Lyndon Johnson offered this warning: “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.”
It’s a warning worth heeding today.
Caroline James is president of Elon University's chapter of College Democrats.