“I’m going to stop you right there. I’ll be voting for Trump.”
My jaw instantly tightened. I pressed the “Strong Trump” button on my computer screen and waited for the auto-generated script on my computer to tell me what to say:“Thank you for your time and have a nice day.” But before I could respond, he mentioned, “You should’ve called my wife. She’s so anti-Trump that we never talk about politics at home.”
Three months ago, I joined the Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) Call Crew as a way to use my voice—especially because I am not old enough to vote—in what could be the most important election in my lifetime. This particular Saturday, I was calling voters in Pennsylvania, one of the most influential states in this election. As a major swing state, winning Pennsylvania’s electoral college would be enough to provide victory to either presidential candidate. With only days until the election, time to sway the opinions of voters is scant.
The expected mix of disappointment, anger, and fear flashed through me that morning as I listened to the man’s voice. Quite frankly, I felt like hanging up the phone right then and there. What kept me lingering, however, was his remark about his wife. Have politics in the U.S. become so polarized and divisive that even married couples can’t talk about it together?
Swallowing my defensive mechanism to shut him down and pushing myself to listen, I asked him, “May I ask you why you will be voting for Trump?”
What followed was one of the most important political conversations I have experienced, which demonstrated just how destructive the polarization of politics has gotten. As we talked through a range of issues—healthcare, Covid-19, taxes, immigration, President Trump himself, and most importantly, racism—I began to understand how and why this man, an individual unaware of his privilege in society as a white male, could say, “Yeah, I don’t like him as a person, but I like his Republican policies. I will never support the Radical Left.”
The political polarization of our current society had stopped this man from evaluating his experiences and beliefs with a collective understanding of how differently identifying people experienced his same world. It blinded him from understanding that his choosing of a candidate based on partisanship ideology was rooted in privilege––a stark comparison to the many Americans who are voting out of necessity and the protection of their rights. During our conversation, I opened the doors into my world: what living in Trump’s white-America is like as a girl of color and how this seemingly alternate universe coexisted with his. I explained that people of color and minorities can not afford to think about partisanship when our healthcare is being taken away or hatred against us is being normalized and amplified by the Head of State. Although this was difficult for me to express to a stranger, I could tell he was listening thoughtfully. More importantly, I could tell this was something he had not heard before. This was breaking news to him. And that was breaking news to me.
Against all odds, I, a high school student in Massachusetts and daughter of two Indian immigrant parents, was having a respectful and engaging political conversation with a white, male physician living in Pennsylvania, supporting someone who stands for everything I oppose.
At the end of our discussion, he said, “Okay, you make some good points. Thank you for not getting mad at me. I have never had a conversation like this.”
There is no question that the U.S. is currently operating in one of the most politically polarized times in history. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of “other”-ing: where we demonize and alienate the other side of the political spectrum. This allows us to be complacent with our solidifying opinions and further hate the opposing side. Nothing changes, and division grows. With the election just a handful of days away, our country lacks the empathy and respect we need for people on either side of the political spectrum.
On a smaller scale, this national crisis prevails at Andover. Just like the nation as a whole, there is such little political discourse between opposing sides on campus. However, what makes our situation unique is that we actually have the resources and ability to engage in these thoughtful discussions. The man I spoke to did not have the same clash of backgrounds, diversity of thought, or different experiences to challenge his established reality and political ideologies. We, on the other hand, are a community of students from around the globe, with so many diverse and intelligent experiences to share. Whether it’s through EBI, clubs such as PA Democrats and PA Republican Society, the Presidential Election Speaker Series, All-School Meeting speakers, or your dinner table at Commons, surrounding us are so many opportunities to learn more about the “other side” and to challenge not only others’ ideas, but also our own viewpoints as well. Instead, we build more and more echo chambers, where our voices are only heard and amplified by those who share these same ideas. Or, even worse, we decide to ignore politics altogether, using the classic line, “I don’t want to get political.” The silence that remains is devastating as we turn away the resources given away to us and instead actively contribute to the further polarization of the United States.
The lifeblood to our democracy resides in political discourse; the contact hypothesis states that connection between people of different backgrounds, under certain conditions, can melt away conflict. What better certain conditions are there than at Andover? It is our responsibility as students at such an influential and privileged institution to utilize the opportunities here and push ourselves to connect with those we never thought to before. Instead of letting our biases alienate those of the other side of the political spectrum, we must learn to question and listen. There is no “winning” or “losing” an argument, and whatever the topic, we must give each other and ourselves space to learn. We must separate person from ideology when having these conversations as productive discussions stray towards unhealthy emotional labor as personal experiences are questioned and invalidated. Yes, maintaining basic human decency and respect seem like such trite and obvious aspects of healthy discussion but so often we lose sight of why we begin such conversations. In this messy entanglement of politics and rights, we have these discussions to tell stories of our humanities, not to try to dehumanize the other “side.”
As the founder of the nonprofit “StoryCorps” described, we must “try to convince the country that it’s our patriotic duty to see the humanity in people that we disagree with.” Engaging in respectful political discourse is about disagreeing with opinions, not the person, thinking beyond partisanship, questioning your own beliefs and values, and most importantly, acting with intention and showing empathy.
In the end, I do not know if I convinced the Pennsylvanian man to support Joe Biden. However, by choosing to continue the conversation rather than simply hanging up, I helped him question the ideas and values his homogeneous media sources and community never does. I helped him break out of his echo chamber. And so, it lies on us—we who have the privilege to hold empathy, to learn—must shatter society’s echo chambers. As this stressful presidential election creeps closer and closer, I urge you to connect with and listen to those you never have before. Otherwise, you would never know how far empathy and patience can take a discussion. You would never know how the world you envisioned as totally alien and foreign can coexist with the reality you claim to be yours. Do not hang up the phone.