Students: Let’s heal political discourse
Political divisions are higher than ever in our country. A recent Pew Research Survey found that 44 percent of each party’s membership almost never agrees with their opposition —that’s close to half of both parties. Twenty years ago, the number was less than 20 percent. Congressional gridlock is extremely high: both parties are obsessed with political survival. We’ve already seen the government shut down once this year. If we can’t work together, we'll all lose.
As students, we can and should work to heal these political divisions. The solution lies in our very values as students.
The first value that we students all share is evidence. We recognize that we are learners: that knowledge is built not by our own pre-existing beliefs, but by rigorously verified facts. Consider our solar system. It would be easy to believe the whole universe revolves around the Earth based on our own intuitions. It took us centuries of experiments to realize that the Earth orbits the Sun. Policies are just like scientific hypotheses — they can be assessed based on evidence. Where has a policy worked before? Where has it been tested? We shouldn’t just support it based on pre-existing notions.
So don’t simply retweet a topic without researching. Consider the call for college campuses to divest from fossil fuels. Intuitively, we may think this is a good way to dissociate ourselves from a harmful fuel source. However, is it the most effective way to get our society as a whole — not just the college — to transition off fossil fuels? A little research will find that the divested stock would simply be bought by another trader — it would not hurt the fossil fuel company as a whole. Some more research would show there are more effective actions that one could take — for example, by pushing for a price on carbon. This policy, supported by economists, environmentalists, and world leaders, would force the fossil fuel companies to pay the price of their pollution. I’m not saying that fossil fuel divestment is not an important action. I am only saying that there ARE other solutions, and that just five minutes of research can reveal which might be better. Considering the fact that we've all written 10-page papers as freshmen, five minutes of research is nothing.
We students are also experts at engaging opposing viewpoints. In an academic paper, simply claiming the opposing side is insane will not win the argument. Instead, we articulate their points and address them fully. Sometimes, we concede that the other side even has a valid point! I’ve experienced this firsthand in my climate change advocacy. Many groups have initially opposed carbon pricing policies, and it would be easy to simply label them as evil polluters. However, in some cases, the reasons are entirely understandable: for example, energy-intensive, trade-exposed (EITE) businesses would see their overall costs increase substantially and would be competitively disadvantaged. Rather than simply denounce those businesses, we’ve recognized the concerns and developed a more reasonable policy, giving EITEs transitional relief while still holding them to the best energy efficiency within their sector. That’s what civic engagement should be — everyone getting a say instead of being pushed out of the conversation. Even if you believe that the opposition is completely wrong, addressing their viewpoints can only build your credibility and strengthen your outlook.
Lastly, as students, our focus should be on implementing solutions, not imposing our ideology on those we disagree with. As the youth, we have our futures ahead of us, and it is in our interest to push toward a better future with reasonable policies rather than do nothing that is ideologically inconsistent. The worst we can do is to draw a line in the sand against someone who has different values. Consider carbon pricing again. I personally support a price on carbon because it can effectively combat climate change. But for those who don’t believe in climate change, it’s still a good policy because it cuts air pollution. For those who care more about businesses than public health, it’s a good policy because it sends a consistent price signal, allowing businesses everywhere to make informed long-term decisions. And for those who are more worried about our national security, it reduces our reliance on fossil fuels from unstable regimes. Ideologically, I disagree with the priorities of some of these groups. Nevertheless, we can all get behind a solution that can work for us all. As those most impacted by policy, we should care more about solving the problem than about disagreeing with people different from us.
In sum, we students can mend political divisions. Regardless of our political ideology, we all believe in evidence-based policymaking, engaging the opposing side, and focusing on solutions. If we take these to heart, we can heal our country’s political divide, and make politics work for everyone once again.
Jonathan Lu is a senior concentrator in computer science from Fremont, Calif. He is the research director of the Princeton Student Climate Initiative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.