When did politics become a dirty word? At a young age, I remember learning that politics and religion are two topics that must be avoided at all cost in order to preserve “polite conversation,” especially among strangers. These issues are reserved for discussion on primetime news and during church sermons, not at the dinner table. Yet personally, I can’t help but think how these two topics, above all others, profoundly shape us as human beings. Why is it so uncomfortable to be open about something that so deeply defines us? And, why wouldn’t we want to gain insight from others on matters so relevant to our lives?
Now, more than ever, it’s vital that the American public have the skills necessary to be critical, active thinkers. This is not possible without asking hard questions. I’ve been fortunate enough to be granted a summer internship at Mitchell County Press News in Osage, a town I am proud to call home. In the next few weeks, I want to take time to delve into questions that have challenged and, certainly, frustrated me as a student of political science and economics at the University of Northern Iowa. Most of the problems raised from these questions do not have cookie-cutter solutions, but I have reached one conclusion: Americans are afraid to disagree.
Research indicates that, right now, the United States public is the most divided it’s been since the American Civil War. Politics has become increasingly polarized under the prevalence of the two-party system, to the point where party loyalty matters more than ideology. People judge each other not by their values but instead by their self-described political affiliation, typically under the label of Republican or Democrat. Today, words like “conservative” and “liberal” are either used as an insult or a badge of honor, depending on your perspective. Political hostility has reached such levels that parents are reluctant to accept their child’s spouse if he/she identifies with an opposing political party.
Recently, student protesters at UC Berkeley in California have prevented multiple right-wing speakers from speaking on campus, amid concerns for potential violent outbreaks. This behavior is not only restricted to liberal college students but is conducted by all sides of the political spectrum. Are we so afraid of disagreement that we are willing to censor ourselves and compromise our constitutional right to free speech? Some might say yes. After all, it’s easy to confine ourselves to the opinions of like-minded individuals. It’s easy to forget that people are more than the political party they ascribe to. It’s not easy to challenge ourselves.
As I write about my personal perspectives on life and our political system, I challenge all of you to get out of your comfort zones. Work to become informed. Avoid relying on Facebook and Twitter to get news and information. Check your sources. Most of all, start a conversation, and don’t be afraid to disagree. By engaging in dialogue, we expose ourselves to new ideas and opinions. Ideas lead to solutions, and our communities need all the solutions they can get.