In the Wake of the Presidential Election, We Have Much to Learn from Each Other

We should not be so quick to disregard Joe Biden’s call for unity.

This election cycle has been defined by intense polarization and combative politics. It is time for a change. Unsplash

What is it we are supposed to see in people who disagree with us politically?  Are they potential allies, to be won to our cause with persuasive rhetoric? Are they friendly critics, whose views help fill in our own blind spots? Or do we perhaps engage with our adversaries because they challenge us to sharpen our own arguments? Whatever the rationale, we are told from a young age that democracy works best when all perspectives are at the table – that we become, somehow, better when we engage with our political enemies. Why?

In 2020, espousing this view is often seen as out-of-touch or quaint. Politics may never have been very collaborative, but today we are told the things at stake are matters of life and death, of human rights and moral wrongs and therefore they cannot even be up for debate. Such high stakes are often used as a tool to shut down discussion.  

Leading up to the election, I noticed several social media accounts – including some run by Furman students – posting messages to the effect that if you did not agree with some absolute moral standard, or if you planned to vote for a particular candidate, you should unfollow the account. Prevalent as this sentiment is, it is hardly a surprise that an informal poll of conservative students at Furman revealed that two in three would be unwilling to publicly declare who they voted for.

After the election, many seem to retain their hostile stance towards their political enemies. President-elect Joe Biden’s calls for unity and claims that he plans to be a “President for all Americans” (even those who did not vote for him), tend to fall on deaf ears. Most people I have talked to tend to assume that Biden’s rhetoric is just that – rhetoric – and that it will not amount to much. That may be true, but for me, the rhetoric itself is enough. America has spent too long and suffered too deeply in the grip of tribalism and hyper-partisanship to be angry at the president-elect, the first politician in years to try setting a new tone for the country.

This brings us back to the question: why spend time listening to your opponents? There is no doubt that Biden’s bipartisan rhetoric feels good, but is he right? Or is it rather a betrayal when we entertain the notion that our core moral convictions could be wrong?

I have spent a long time over the past few weeks wrestling with this question. It is a puzzle with many pieces to it, but for me, the most compelling reason is simply that at the end of the day we are stuck with each other. Staying in your echo chamber is possible – increasingly so, with social media – but it is not enriching. I have heard many Furman students and faculty say that talking to someone living five minutes from campus (who may very well have voted differently than you) may be a more enlightening experience than a study away in Europe. If we want to live fulfilling lives, we must learn to live with each other, not just next to each other. That starts with understanding each other’s point of view.

Understanding is a matter of listening. You do not have to like what you hear; you do not even have to be open to persuasion. But we stand to learn much by considering the values, rationales and priorities of those who do not think like us on political issues. Even if you find your opponents’ views completely reprehensible, you still cannot attempt to convince someone of another persuasion to consider your viewpoint without first understanding their position. With the removal of a polarizing president (say what you will about him) and the election of a “President for all Americans,” we have a unique opportunity to learn this lesson: to start over with, at the very least, a willingness to listen and understand. It is frustrating to see so many passing it up.

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