On Nov. 9, 2016, there was a palpable feeling of agitation that weighed down on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. The iconic rock on Hill Street brazenly displayed hate speech; the smell of fresh paint hovered like smog. Conservative supporters of President Donald Trump reported feeling the need for “safe spaces” while progressive activists were quick to express their discontent with Trump’s regressive rhetoric when discussing gender and race. Our Diag, typically traversed by tired students trekking to their classes, was overcome with vigils, protesters and counter-protesters and visibly presented the overall unrest and division that underpinned the 2016 presidential election. In a town perceived to be almost entirely liberal, the tension was still irrepressible. 

While I was not yet on campus during the campaign and election of Trump, my community felt the tension as well. From a majorly conservative suburb of Grand Rapids, our political voice was expected to align with right-wing policies. Our vote went to whichever Republican made it past the primaries. Regardless of where I was — in church, at school or at work — there was a feeling of unspoken consensus from March until November. While professed beliefs ranged from supporting Trump as the lesser of two evils, the tough candidate or the candidate who cares about the people, one could typically assume their neighbors supported him.

A handful of outspoken and passionate community members would voice their concerns about Trump’s alarming rhetoric regarding women and minorities. In class, after a discussion of populism and fear-mongering, I raised my hand and made the bold assertion Trump had utilized those strategies, citing multiple incidents of racialized fear tactics. Unease settled in the room, but no one challenged the idea. After class, I could hear “build that wall Liz, make America great again!” echoing down the hallways. While there was an opportunity for discourse, it was swiftly dismissed as divisive and the chance for active listening, questioning or understanding went cold. 

Throughout Trump and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, the most frequently debated policy topics were the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care and guns. With increasing economic inequality in a vulnerable working and middle class, growing unease over nuclear warfare and global conflict, the stability of access to healthcare and the frequent news stories of gun violence, the uniting factor between policies becomes increasingly clear: fear. Deliberate tactics to garner support are woven throughout the rhetoric of both Trump’s campaign and tenure as president, which Clinton had to face and counter until she failed to secure enough electoral votes. At a time of economic uncertainty and frustration, fear of danger (both abroad and domestic) and political mudslinging, biases and identity-based insults stoked the flame of anger and fear. 

Independently, as people living in this country, we cannot control or change how politicians utilize tactics of fear and division. But there is a radically simple solution of how to reconnect with our communities and face potentially toxic positions of policy: discourse. In my hometown, the unspoken homogeneity of political opinion created an atmosphere where I felt misunderstood, unheard and unvalued. Peers in school espoused extreme right-wing positions their parents supported, yet when we took a political aptitude test in AP U.S. Government and Politics class, the majority of the class fell beneath the category “new generation liberal.” The inability to truly listen to someone’s opinion you disagree with and the fear of asking genuine questions in an empathetic way creates an atmosphere of disillusion, isolation and contention. The toxicity of the current political sphere makes any conversation feel like it could be on the precipice of condescension and conflict.

Historically, it has been deemed impolite to discuss your political opinions — I believe in the opposite. Actively educate yourself on current events, political candidates and propositioned policies. Engage with people who don’t see things your way, despite the comparative comforts of placing yourself within a like-minded community. Ask questions, aim to understand values rather than positions and empathize with people from different backgrounds. Political passion and investment are crucial to the commonwealth and learning how to listen, empathize and acknowledge mutual values should make 2020 transformative, not regressive. Believe in our common humanity this upcoming election season — if we don’t, the results could tear us apart.

Elizabeth Cook can be reached at elizcook@umich.edu.

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