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This November, a call for humility

| Tuesday, October 27, 2020

It’s a tale as old as time — or, at least, as old as cable news. Americans are more politically divided than ever, and traditionally unifying places, such as the Thanksgiving table, have become battlefields filled with impeachment-shaped land mines. The conversation about American political polarization is more salient than ever as the country approaches the most divisive election in modern history: Earlier this year, Gallup recorded the largest ever party gap in the presidential approval rating.

The poll showed 91% of Republicans said they approved of President Trump’s job performance, while only 2% of Democrats said the same, revealing a whopping 89-point gap based on party affiliation. The problem extends beyond electoral politics, too: Democrats and Republicans show stark disagreement on issues of identity, education and even the COVID-19 pandemic.

As party polarization has reached new heights, the issue has become almost as pervasive in political discourse. Why are we so divided? Who’s to blame? Is it even a problem? If it is, how do we fix it? These questions dominate our Twitter feed, the New York Times Opinion Section and, if you run in circles like mine, the lawn outside North Dining Hall.

Even those who consider themselves relatively apolitical have a stake in this debate. For many, polarization has spilled outside the voting booth into our personal relationships — in fact, recent polling from the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Democrats wouldn’t consider dating someone who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and 47% of Republicans say the same about those who voted for Hillary Clinton. Regardless of your opinion on the relevance of polarization in bringing us to our current political moment, most people don’t want to harbor a burning hatred for their neighbors.

While this campus certainly has its problems, I’ve always found the political climate at Notre Dame to be uniquely tolerant of a diversity of political opinions. In my experience, Notre Dame students place a rare premium on tolerant political conversations. Still, we’re not immune from the effects of political polarization — it’s not uncommon for participants engaging in supposedly tolerant dialogues to retreat back behind party lines once the conversation ends. With a week to go before Election Day, I want to challenge everyone in this community to think about reaching across the aisle in a new way: with humility.

To be honest, I’ve always been kind of skeptical of pleas to cross the political divide. It seemed like it could only go one of two ways: Either you honestly go in looking for common ground and end up compromising some of your core values and beliefs, or you approach the conversation in a condescending way, assuming the other person is wrong but trying to understand why they think that way. Recently, though, I realized there was another way — one that might actually make a difference.

The funny thing about political beliefs is that, by definition, everybody thinks theirs are correct. For the most part, not only does everyone think that they’re correct, but they also find it impossible to understand how someone else, with all the same facts and assumptions, can come to a different conclusion. That might seem like an obvious statement, but think about how often you’ve approached political discourse assuming that the person you’re talking to is wrong, they just don’t know it yet. Most people believe that there is some capital-T Truth about politics and that they’re tuned into it, while those across the aisle are somehow delusional.

The big revelation for me was that, no matter how much I think I’m correct in my political opinions, people who think exactly the opposite are just as confident in the Truth of their beliefs as I am. Beyond that, unfortunately, there is no omniscient being to tell us who is right and who is wrong. To a large extent, there is no Truth — we are all just looking for the best solutions to the problems we face, and because of our various political socializations, we all think differently about what those are.

Now, none of this is to wax poetic about the value of unity and your obligation to have discussions with those who refuse to converse in good faith. Everyone is absolutely entitled to set their own limits for their political engagement, and you are not obligated to enter into conversation with anyone, especially if they offend you personally. Instead, it’s simply an appeal for everyone, when thinking about their political beliefs, to recognize that they might be wrong.

If you do choose to enter into the dreaded discourse, do so without hubris, and instead with a legitimate recognition that someone else might actually have a good point. Humility is a necessary prerequisite to productive political discourse — without it, you might as well be screaming into the void.

A lot of this might sound like wishful thinking, having grown up in the most divisive political environment of the modern era. And maybe it is, maybe we as a society are beyond saving and are doomed to let hate push us further and further from each other until our divisions become insurmountable. I don’t think that’s true though, and I don’t think it’s particularly productive to think that way. I don’t think we’re past the point of no return — I think we find ourselves at an inflection point.

With one of the most consequential elections of our lives fast approaching, all of us will have ample opportunity to engage with those with whom we disagree, and we all have a choice in how we do so. I challenge everyone, in these next few weeks and beyond, to approach political discourse with all humility — our future (and yours, if you’re dead set on dating that Republican from Dunne) may depend on it.


Ellie Konfrst is a junior majoring in political science, with minors in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service and civil & human rights. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited that people will finally be forced to listen to all of her extremely good takes. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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