By Simon Poser ’19
This article is part of a Clerk Special Edition on politics, free speech, and the election at Haverford. We will be posting a new article every day this week.
The time has come. After a long, bitter campaign that has been called everything from crazy to apocalyptic, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. We have seen many things that have astounded us over the course of this campaign. On the Democratic side, a self proclaimed democratic socialist was able to win twenty-two states and capture the imagination of the youth of America. On the Republican side, we saw seventeen candidates battle for the nomination, each with different reasons why they were the one destined to deliver the White House to the GOP. Now we are faced with a choice between two candidates whose weaknesses are so massive that they certainly would be fatal if they were not running against each other. The differences between these two candidates is as stark as it could be, and the hatred they exhibit toward each other is palpable. The question that must be asked of us as a country reach this important milestone, which is not asked often enough, is where do we go from here? What will happen once the 2016 election is over?
I have had the great honor of traveling to many parts of this country working on the behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and the one constant is that everyone fears the future. Sixty-six percent of Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction. Americans’ trust in political institutions and mainstream media is at record lows. Polarization is rippling throughout the country and people feel more divided than ever. This election has caused friends to turn against each other, husbands and wives to stop speaking, and has inflamed the racial divisions that plague this country. In this moment of great uncertainty and fear, I offer you, my fellow Haverfordians, a path forward.
First, we need to have a moment of reconciliation, regardless of the outcome, where we accept the result and abide by it. One feature of this election has been the distrust it has sown between voters and the validity of elections in this country. As someone who has worked on Democratic and Republican campaigns, I can tell you that the result can be hard to accept at the end of the road. My own mother ran for public office once and lost. I poured my heart and soul into advocating for the candidates I believed in, and when they come up short it was devastating. However, the integrity of the electoral process is paramount to a functioning democracy, and we must accept the outcome.
I also believe that as a community we need to look inwards and evaluate the political environment in which we live. The Haverford community can seem homogenous with respect to political affiliation, and often times it is devoid of the contest of ideas that pushes us forward as thinkers. It is against our values to be unwelcoming to diverse voices, and we face a lack of diversity when it comes to political opinion. Haverford students are fond of saying “lean into discomfort” and yet conservative voices are often silenced on campus. We need to send a clear message that people of all political stripes are welcome here. I am part of the Haverford chapter of No Labels, a group that works to end gridlock and restore civility to politics. We welcome anyone, no matter their political ideology. We are not defined as Democrats and Republicans; we are Americans first and our country succeeds when we talk to each other and work together.
I will quickly note that I am not arguing for people to embrace centrism. People should be able to advocate for their political opinions and causes, whatever they might be. However, if we want the political system to change for the better, we need to embody that change. Returning civility to politics is a lofty goal, but it starts by us displaying civility towards each other and then demanding it from our representatives.
Another aspect of this is the way people like to be in echo chambers where they are inundated with people and information that strengthens their pre-existing beliefs. The way in which media has become so specialized and targeted has absolutely contributed to political polarization. Social media has played a larger role than ever during this election, and in my opinion it has not changed politics for the better. When people engage with politics over the internet, they tend to be more intolerant and partisan because the experience is so impersonal. When people are not confronted by a person face to face, it emboldens them to be more disrespectful. Another problem is that social media is saturated with enormous amounts of inaccurate information that can polarize people further. People can be liberal or conservative, but truth should be not be. Therefore, we should all try to broaden our scope of media, and hear things we disagree with that make us uncomfortable.
After we have done these things, we need to reject the notion that we are powerless to shape our political system for the better. When I had the privilege of working on the campaign trail, I was astounded at the energy and passion I saw from activists who were pushing for change from the local level on upward. Many of them were the people that powered Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign, which propelled him from complete obscurity to being a major force in the Democratic party. The same was true for conservative activists who powered the Tea Party revolution in 2010. Not only does activism work, but it is so powerful that it can change the entire political landscape.
I want to stress this point that we have immense power as citizens of America. We must understand that our votes are powerful, our voices are powerful, our activism is powerful, and we can use our power to transform America from the ground up. Too often people on this campus feel that politics is so disconnected from their lives or that elections don’t matter. I have been to parts of this country that have been changed for the better and for the worse based solely on who ordinary citizens like Haverford students voted into office.
Perhaps the most important thing we as a community can do has to do with civic education. In 2012, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter was asked what he believed the greatest threat to democracy would be. Without missing a beat, he said that the greatest threat to democracy is civic ignorance. That is, the inability of people to understand how government works and discern why government is not functioning as it should. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said much the same this past week. It seems simple at first, until you realize the damage lack of civic knowledge has caused. When citizens are unable to understand why their institutions are failing them, radicals come forth to capitalize on the fear and anxiety that is present in society. Many countries have devolved into utter chaos because civic ignorance, and America is in danger. Our greatest defense is education.
We need to learn about our institutions, understand how they function, and what can be done to reform them. The salve that will heal our democracy ultimately will be when we each take responsibility for becoming knowledgeable and civically engaged. That means learning about the granularity of local government and paying attention to elections at all levels. That means understanding how public policy affects your lives. That means valuing your vote and not sitting out elections because you don’t like the choices in one race.
Now that we are finally nearing the end of this election, I ask you to think about what kind of country you want to live in. I am an independent voter; I am an American who believes that the potential of this nation is limitless. I believe that we, the people, will solve our problems together. In America we think about the possibility of our tomorrows, not the disappointments of our yesterdays. In a year of dark shadows and gleaming light, we as a country can shine like never before if we turn towards each other instead of against each other. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which comes from one William Jefferson Clinton: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”