At Harvard, opposing political groups—like the Harvard College Democrats and the Harvard Republican Club—engage in frequent civil political discourse, from organized debates to joint statements to communal participation in the many programs at the non-partisan Institute of Politics. Further, for all students, lives are not defined by partisan affiliations. We can and do maintain friendships with those who disagree with us, and we see value in relationships with people even if we disagree, often sharpening our own beliefs or finding common ground in conversation with them.
That spirit of mutual respect and shared commitment to dialogue is not, unfortunately, so common outside of Harvard and other colleges. Certainly, on the national political scene, it has almost disappeared. Congress and the nation are stuck in a path of continuously worsening polarization. There have been two government shutdowns in the last month alone even though there has been only one other in the last 20 years. And though some, like prominent blogger Matthew Yglesias, claim that polarization just represents an increasing understanding of how ideology translates into policy, and therefore might not necessarily be indicative of a problem, the correlation between this polarization and the public’s abysmal perceptions of Congress’ efficacy does not support this more charitable view. Polarization has bred paralysis.
If we are to un-paralyze our system and restore a sense of openness and trust to our society as a whole, we must take the traditions of dialogue learned at Harvard and bring them into the world with us. But others have gone before us, both from Harvard and other colleges, and failed to bring to Washington and the nation the commitment to dialogue that they too learned at school. For all of them, somewhere along the way, the tradition of bipartisan engagement got lost. Years of education, inquiry, and shared exploration have given way to rancor, bickering, and mutual mistrust.
What happened? How can a country where more than 95 percent of the members of Congress have a college degree lack the fundamental characteristics of the academic experience in their leadership? Are our leaders individually culpable for their failure to maintain traditions of dialogue? Have they simply forgotten their educational background? None of this seems possible.
Instead, there must be something structural about the difference between life on a college campus and life in the halls of Washington that makes norms of trust and dialogue difficult to maintain. The zero-sum game of electoral politics means that each side has every incentive to be in the majority, and moderates, often the key to common ground, fear being targeted at every election. Legislators beholden to special interests or a few wealthy donors must take hard lines on some issues, lest compromise cost them in fundraising or organizational support. Gerrymandering means that fewer and fewer districts are genuinely moderate or competitive, making moderates even more vulnerable to primary challenges from the flanks.
It is our responsibility, both as Harvard students and citizens more generally, to try to overcome these structural tendencies towards non-dialogue because we know from our Harvard lives that meaningful exchanges between even diametrically opposed groups bears fruit. We live the benefits of that dialogue every day: Our lives are enriched by the diverse company we keep.
There are two ways to do this. Firstly, we must address the structural problems in politics. Campaign finance reform and nonpartisan redistricting are both important steps in that direction. Media has a role too: If mainstream media organizations were less polarized, viewers would be brought out of information bubbles and politicians who compromised and appealed to moderates would be rewarded.
These are enormously difficult political victories to achieve, as the people who benefit from the current system are the ones who have been elected by it and are the ones with the power to change it. However, victories made in addressing these structural challenges would be self-reinforcing. The passage of comprehensive campaign finance reform, once achieved, would be very difficult to reverse without bearing the political risk of appearing to sell out democracy to the rich and powerful. Likewise, nonpartisan redistricting will increase the number of seats in the House, with moderate electorates more likely to send compromise-oriented representatives to Washington.
There is also a second, more personal way in which we can try to defeat the structural odds against reasoned exchange and compromise. While acknowledging the obstacles, we can make our own individual commitments to seek dialogue with those we oppose at whatever level we one day find ourselves in society. This requires personal commitment to dialogue on both sides, not in an abstract sense, but rather in concrete determination to preserve the open exchange of ideas. This will be no easy feat, but if we are to restore in our government and society a culture of trust, dialogue, and cooperation, we must start with ourselves.
Ari E. Benkler ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Matthews Hall.
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