It is no secret that our nation is deeply, corrosively divided. Many of us, including recent writers in this publication, have longed and called for unity, to bridge our divides and put aside partisanship. While the basic premises of such articles may be correct, I believe the conclusions they reach are not. To unite as a country and as a Duke community, we must probe deeper and understand that disagreeing about politics is not what divides us, nor will putting aside political differences be the solution.
As these articles point out, Duke’s undergraduate population is skewed majorly to the left politically—this is also no secret (it is of course worth noting, however, that Duke programs like American Grand Strategy and the Alexander Hamilton Society frequently host conservative speakers and provide space for conservative discourse). What does this mean, according to the author? Conservatives are apparently afraid to speak out, and discourse and debate are hard to find. Ignoring the fact that Duke students do have an incredibly diverse spectrum of political views that are not limited to a clean-cut dichotomy of liberalism and conservatism, this apparently means that “as a member of the winning team [as a liberal], [the author’s] political existence here has been anything but fulfilling. After all, what’s the point of playing a fixed game?” Perhaps the answer to that question is that politics are not a game at all, but for many people—particularly those of us who are not cis white men—a matter of life or death.
This mischaracterization of our political division is made clearer in an attempt to contrast today’s division with that of the past. The author points out that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was confirmed unanimously which seems impossible in today’s politically polarized environment. What he fails to mention, though, is that during Scalia’s 1987 confirmation, the United States Senate was made up of two women and two Japanese-Amercian men with the remaining 96 members being cis, publicly-straight, white men. We often long for what appears to be “unity” in our history, when that history is of oppression and homogeneity in our politics, in which those with power were the ones who have always yielded it, and seldom been on the receiving end of its harm. Is it really considered unity when the people uniting do not represent America, and the system was explicitly built by and for them and their communities? This is not the path to unity we should pursue.
We also should not seek “unity” with people who publicly support white supremacist murderers like Kyle Rittenhouse or the people who committed insurrection against the US Capitol and planned to murder the Speaker of the House and Vice President. You may make friends who are “nothing like the cruel zealots [you] had pictured all Republicans to be...but rather kindhearted,” but what does it mean if someone is not this or that, but regularly supports and votes for elected officials and policies who are? Actions matter more than words, and someone can be both kindhearted and racist.
In truth, no matter how badly we wish everyone’s political views were fundamentally about improving the world, such is not reality. We’ve seen prominent elected officials lie about COVID-19, allowing it to spread undeterred and kill over 500,000 Americans to date. We’ve seen them lie about the election, saying it was stolen without any evidence and inciting the insurrection. We’ve seen them elevate hatred over policy, lies over truth. We can’t separate these actions and words from their policies—if you vote for one, you also vote for the other. At Duke we should indeed strive to foster an environment of communal growth and learning, but that does not mean excusing or accepting lethal propaganda and bigotry from our classmates—and if they vote for those values, then they are upholding them, no matter how decently they may treat us.
One may point to the conservative members of Congress who acknowledged that the election was not stolen, for example, to illustrate space for policy debate. Yet, the recently passed American Rescue Plan—which will cut child poverty in half, bolster unemployment insurance, support small businesses, and much more—garners sweeping bipartisan approval in poll after poll, despite the fact that zero Republicans in Congress voted for the bill. Partisanship is not what divides us, but instead archaic notions of “political” views and a public that fundamentally misconstrues the relationship between us and the government. The unity we should seek is not one that accepts zero Republicans supporting this bill even after concessions and compromises were made, but rather that which unites nearly three-quarters of the country behind policies that will address the pandemic and lift millions out of financial hardship. Politics are not a game; people’s livelihoods depend on them.
Of course, though, not everyone’s lives depend on politics to the same degree. Politics affect everyone, no doubt, but for cis, financially stable white men in particular (such as myself), it is easier to forget that politics are not a game and that our purpose should not be to just to debate people. For those of us with such privilege, I do agree that we should not excommunicate or hate those whose political views differ from ours, but at the same time, we should spend less time urging people to forget that their classmate votes against their skin color, religion, sexual orientation, or the food stamps their family relies on, and more time trying to convey to that classmate the harm their political actions may inflict on others. It is nobody’s responsibility to “stand up for Duke’s conservative voices.” It is our responsibility as Duke students, especially those with privilege, to stand up for our Asian-American classmates after a year in which conservative politicians and public figures have blamed the coronavirus pandemic on Chinese people. It is our responsibility to stand up for our trans classmates as conservative politicians introduce anti-trans legislation in state legislatures across the country. It is our responsibility to stand up for our Black friends and neighbors when conservative politicians restrict their voting access “with almost surgical precision.” These issues, and so many others, are not ones that I can comfortably agree to disagree on, nor should any of us.
It is true that “we [Duke students] must understand that our future corresponds with the future of America and the world.” As members of this institution, we have a tremendous responsibility. Exactly for this reason must we not seek to endlessly debate the woes of the world for the fun of it, but instead embody our convictions, develop real solutions to the issues facing our communities and so many others, and fight for them. If our classmates are the ones who will influence and lead the world, we must hold them (and ourselves) to account. Again, this does not mean shutting down discussion or ideas, but thinking critically enough to separate solutions from lies, bigotry (no matter how veiled or implicit), and pseudoscience.
As sweeping support for the American Rescue Plan demonstrates, we are not nearly divided as we are told to believe—at least, not on policy. We need a new kind of unity, not a unity of conservative and liberals going out for a beer. Instead, let’s unite against racism, homophobia, climate change, transphobia, and poverty; let’s unite against corporate influence on our politics and politicians who spread lies and propaganda to mislead and divide us; let’s unite to create a better world for all of us.
Robby Phillips is a Trinity sophomore.
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