Columns, Opinions

Vilsan ’19: Stop toeing the line

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The words “echo chamber” have been thrown around more times than can be tracked during this past presidential election and in ensuing months. Especially on college campuses, where many Americans first become politically conscious, the echo chambers dominating our discourse shouldn’t be dismissed as a fleeting phase — they are a serious threat to the future of our politics. After all, if we teach young minds to mindlessly toe the party line in hopes that any inconsistencies between party platform and personal perspective will just disappear, we’ll create a generation of mindless and inconsistent leaders.

We, as university students, stand to lose the most if we continue to ignore the echo chambers that we ourselves engage in. Even at universities like Brown that pride themselves on diverse student bodies, diversity of thought isn’t always encouraged. I’ve witnessed it myself: As politics becomes increasingly personal, voicing a doubt or concern regarding the dominant political party on campus is a risk that not everyone is willing to take. In an “all-or-nothing” game, few admit to being undecided or, dare I say it, non-aligned.

Yet, for all the inter-party hostility, intra-party dissent has never been more taboo.

Voters on both sides of the aisle would agree that politics has increasingly become consumed by an “us” versus “them” mentality. But while we spend most of our time separating ourselves from “them,” we choose not to examine the “us.” I really do wonder if we’re as united as party slogans claim we are.

In today’s political climate, you pick a party loyalty and stick with it blindly, even when you can’t fully defend your party’s choices on some policy matters. Showing doubt or opposition toward your party’s platform is essentially considered a sign of weakness. None of us seem willing to admit that politics isn’t about absolute truth, and that few of us fit perfectly within a pure political camp. It doesn’t take much digging below the surface of party politics, though, to hit intra-party disagreement and confusion. So why can’t we be upfront about the fact that our parties aren’t perfect embodiments of our beliefs, and that we don’t always know exactly which mold we fit in?

According to the American Psychological Association, voters don’t think in exclusively ideological terms, no matter what the rhetoric of political elites might suggest. We may brand ourselves according to specific party ideologies, but the truth is we tackle political problems issue by issue, struggling to map our instincts on a spectrum.

This year, the Democratic National Committee’s chairmanship election captures the internal struggle happening within the party. The frontrunners — Rep. Keith Ellison, D-MN, and Thomas Perez ’83, who backed Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, respectively — represent significantly different visions for the future of Democratic politics. The race has all the drama and disagreement over political agendas of the presidential election, though it doesn’t make as many headlines or Facebook feeds. In the meantime, some Republicans have grown increasingly critical of President Trump. “(The administration) is dysfunctional as far as national security is concerned,” Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, said after the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, who lied about a telephone conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

It’s clear to anyone watching what’s happening in Washington that the dominant political parties are anything but unified and that supporters on both sides of the aisle are more than a little conflicted. But, despite the importance of scrutinizing figures of authority regardless of political party, we’ve all picked up a dangerous habit: picking the party we consider the lesser evil and committing to its defense even when we disagree with it ourselves. 

The path to admitting the non-absolute nature of politics must start on college campuses, where young adults from different backgrounds are forming their political opinions and, by extension, the future of politics. Universities are not the empowering institutions they claim to be if they don’t actively foster productive conversation among diverse young adults. College students are more politically active than they’ve ever been, participating in elections and protests across the country. A 2016 poll from the Higher Education Research Institute found that college freshman were more likely to participate in campus activism, believe in the importance of community leadership and foster multicultural understanding.

Indeed, if we get into the habit of suppressing or policing intra-party dissent out of fear of seeming weak to the other side, we’re sending a dangerous message: It’s better to block out the realities you don’t agree with than to speak up. If we let this habit become an entrenched part of our political lives, we run the risk of producing young minds who are resentful of politics, distrustful of politicians and unlikely to contribute to national conversations. Self-analysis isn’t a sign of party weakness but rather the budding start of party progress.

College students are the future of the political process, and that process begins at universities all over the country. In college and beyond, it’s the responsibility of young people to step up and say, “I don’t agree with certain political moves, even if it’s my team moving the pieces.” When was the last time any one of us made that admission or spoke to someone who challenged us to?

Fabiana Vilsan ‘19 can be reached at fabiana_vilsan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.