The Washington Post famously advertises the phrase, “democracy dies in darkness.” Undoubtedly this is a commentary on our unique ability in America to say what we wish, and believe it has meaning. And so today, in the face of a changing federal landscape, I see an opportunity for all of us on this campus to come together to say what we wish, and say it civilly.
Since the election of Donald Trump, the state of American political dialogue has gone from slightly polarized, to opposite hemispheres. Even when amongst my best friends across the aisle, I feel a pressure to conform, to hide my views, to say things I don’t mean to avoid conflict. In a sense, that freedom of speech that Americans should take pride in, has been lost by our own doing. No, it’s not a legal matter or one party’s platform that is inhibiting our free speech. It is our social climate, one dominated by the inability to make concessions to alternative reasoning.
There is an expectation that political discussion these days cannot, and should not be casual, let alone civil. Whatever happened to debate, and middle road? What ever happened to kitchen table discussions? Whatever happened to being undecided? I am sure that many students come from families like mine where parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all have a distinct distaste for a certain donkey or elephant. But why should we as a new generation of intellectuals at a leading University, fall for such shallow party propaganda as they have done in the past? Why should we allow party politics to define our free thought, and our relationships? I truly believe that every time we get angry with our peers across the aisle, we are doing a disservice to our country, to our democratic process. Frustration is a strong emotion, but the pride of cooperation is stronger.
It is therefore wrong of us, and dare I say shameful, that we have let the inflammatory tweets and speeches of 80-year-olds dictate how we treat our fellow voters. It is a further disappointment that we as a generation of mass media have not found a way to discuss things more civilly than aging boomers and millennials. Very soon, this country will be run by our age group and our values. We cannot afford to fall into the same trap as our predecessors and further spiral into a state of disunion. In an ideal America, there are no political parties dividing us, nor cult of personalities defining us: just policies, values and a large heap of community and conversation.
There are many on this campus who will most likely feel sad today. Maybe their congressional district, senate seat or governorship went across the aisle. It is fine to be upset. Emotion should be a springboard into conversation with the winning party about why you care so much. What policies should we know about? How can we work together? How can we all find hope? This is how we make progress: through discussion, and through listening. It is OK to disagree. In fact, I encourage you to disagree with people. We’re not robots after all. Yet it is a matter of how we disagree that I bring to your attention today. We must learn to disagree, better.
Whether Republican or Democrat, we have a duty to participate in the political process no matter how strongly we feel about our current government. So I urge each and everyone one of you to take a deep breath, and embrace the concept that our political process is free and just. Democracy did not die overnight, nor would it die should the entire chamber become blue or red next cycle. It dies when we stop talking to each other about the things that matter most. Remember: we live in a republic, which means representation. Believe in that representation, vote, and above all discuss your ideas with respect. Our country was founded on the lofty aspirations that a government should be of the people, by the people and for the people; but until we hold ourselves to a higher standard of discourse, we will remain divided. We fail to fulfill the founder’s great vision when we cannot disagree with dignity.
We have it in us to be the change in this toxic world. I truly believe in that. Our generation will shape the future of the United States, good or bad. It can start here at Notre Dame, and it can start today. So whether you’re on social media, or South Quad, in the DH or in the bleachers, take a stand for civility. Take a stand for our political future. Take a stand for unity in this country so that we can mold America into a safe place for all ideas. Open your mind and your heart to your fellow man, and with some luck, maybe we can make our republic work for all the people moving forward.