Over the course of the past half-century, the University of Michigan has seen students come and go, sports dynasties rise and fall and campus facilities built and torn down. Throughout this period of immense change, there has been one constant: liberal politics. Michigan’s liberal culture is palpable, with perpetual protests and outspoken progressive organizations across campus. As exciting as being at the forefront of change may be, however, it’s time we ask ourselves if, in our quest to move Michigan forward, our community has dealt a blow to the open expression that made change possible to begin with.
Last year, 75.7% of students at the University identified themselves as liberal. Staggering as that may seem, the converse of this figure shows that approximately a quarter of students on campus are moderate or conservative. Despite the high percentage of students who disagree with many liberal policies, however, articulating such beliefs has become taboo in classroom and social settings. The words “Republican” and even “Libertarian” now carry a powerful stigma, conjuring images of alt-right neo-Nazis working to advance a dangerous agenda. In reality, the vast majority of right-of-center students are no different from anyone else at the University, other than their perhaps slightly elevated concern for the economy and national security.
The dramatic rise in polarization at the University and elsewhere is not only detrimental, but unwarranted. In a country built on the foundations of dissent, it is paramount that we renormalize healthy disagreement. Instead of trying to “cancel” Republicans who stray from a set of progressive beliefs, Democrats should engage them in rational debate about why they differ in opinion. Ostracizing individuals reinforces the fallacy that people are incapable of changing their minds and contributes to a toxic environment of intolerance.
Much of our past progress towards inclusivity has come as a result of the healthy conversations we are currently suppressing. By engaging people on both sides of the aisle, the U.S. has moved from about 39% of people approving of same-sex marriage in 2001 to 70% in 2021. This important shift in opinion would not have been possible if we had restricted discourse on the matter. Instead, by including everyone in the conversation, we can prevent the alienation of those with dissenting beliefs and increase the likelihood that they change their minds. While many individuals understandably have strong opinions on certain issues, the most constructive approach is always to treat those who disagree with respect.
Ultimately, the value of a college education is rooted not only in the classroom, but also in the perspective-enhancing experiences that come from exposure to a wide variety of people and ideas. By restricting what students are introduced to during the formative years of their education, the U-M community risks creating a culture of intellectual conformity that fails to deliver the full potential of a diverse student body. A successful university experience is one that leaves students questioning their own beliefs and the world around them, not one that leaves them with a set of shallow and unchallenged opinions. Furthermore, by preserving a campus bubble of agreement, students are left unprepared for the less agreeable environment of the world outside Ann Arbor, where their views are unlikely to be reinforced. If graduates expect everyone’s perspectives to align with their own, they are less likely to be capable of handling workplace environments and other unpleasant circumstances in the future.
If we as a community want to foster a culture of intellectual curiosity and rational discourse, we must all work to become more open-minded. The ability to listen to both sides of an argument is the central tenet of American democracy and suppressing it promises dire ramifications. Even if few people ultimately change their opinions, hearing different perspectives is key to expanding tolerance and lowering the temperature of a tense political climate. It’s high time we stop classifying each other as Democrats or Republicans and see one another as fellow Americans.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.