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What is life like after midterms? What do we do in the time leading up to the next election season? The rhetoric around the significance of voting can feel both overwhelming and inadequate. It’s one of the few tools we have at our disposal as we work towards, in the words of scholar Aziz Rana, “a future we demand but cannot guarantee.” But is voting really the only obligation we have to one another and to our democracy? Once we’ve casted our vote… what comes next? 

Here at the University of Michigan, I am a student at the Ford School of Public Policy. In my studies, I am continually struck by how long it takes for systemic change to happen. Whether we are talking about local, state or federal government, once a person has been elected or appointed and starts to enact legislation, the headlines may stop rolling out — but that’s where the grueling work of what we’ve resigned ourselves to call “democracy” begins. Often, things like administrative bloat, implementation and bureaucracy mean that legislative wins, such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, can take years to yield fruits for everyday Americans.

Democracy can’t take years, and neither can the pressing needs of so many Americans. You might have seen the wins you wanted this election cycle, but despair, polarization and divisiveness still threaten the very fabric of our country. If we want a more just society that lasts longer than our lifetimes, beyond the pendulum swing of an election — we need to do more than a bi-annual vote. 

In fact, voting is wholly inadequate for the problems we face, especially when thinking about divisiveness and conflict. We’ve lost the ability to talk about sensitive issues such as race, gender or sexuality and we can’t seem to have political discourse in a civil manner. This is highlighted in the backlash that the University received for hosting Ben Shapiro. And by the way, some of our biggest public servants don’t succeed in civil discourse either, in cases such as Kari Lake and Paul Gosar. On his campaign trail, President Joe Biden often talked about his hopes for healing the soul of our nation. A good first step could be learning how to have conversations with people we disagree with.  

In a study room at the Public Policy School, I sat down with Olivia Vaden, a proud Michigander and Michigan State University alum who is currently a second-year Master of Public Policy student concentrating on workforce development. “I’ve definitely had a chip on my shoulder since (the 2016 presidential election) about civic engagement and what that looks like,” she said. 

She worked hard to get out of her comfort zone and participate as much as she could. Canvassing, joining groups to help organize and get out the vote. But after the results, she was left stunned, especially after seeing all of the polling and punditry that predicted Hillary Clinton would win and history would be made. 

“I was like, this doesn’t make sense. This was not what you told me would happen if I did all this civic engagement,” Vaden said.

For her, being real with ourselves and others through open dialogue is a necessary way to engage. “I think processing and getting real about your feelings, or why something angers you, why the other side feels a certain way, that’s the next step. Some things we will never find a middle ground on, but we can have difficult conversations about policy and politics and values with people outside of our echo chambers,” Vaden said. The idea of stepping out of your echo chamber can feel uncomfortable. If you don’t agree with Republican ideologies or policies, why go out of your way to engage? If you dislike Democrats, why put yourself through a difficult conversation? 

Given that there are powerful forces, namely the media, seeking to divide us, it might seem that we’re already too polarized for conversation to do much good. Conversation is trivial to some for this reason. But others stand by its significance, like Young-Chan Lim. Lim is a second-year Master of Public Policy student and works at the Ginsberg Center, where he advises student organizations at the University on community engagement direct impact grants. He is queer, a first-gen college student and an immigrant; his lived experience with those identities has sometimes posed a barrier between him and others, making him well aware of how deep conversation can bridge gaps in experience. “Engaging in deep and powerful conversations with one another is (a) hard but necessary day-to-day activity,” he said. “Every discipline, every expert has their own thesis on what that looks like, but I think it starts with compassion, especially for people I disagree with.” 

We had a discussion over cocktails about how disagreeing with others can act as a justification to isolate others and turn them into a spectacle. It is too common for us to write someone off because we don’t understand who they are or where they are coming from. Rather than taking the time to unpack our preconceived notions, argue our points respectfully or put in the effort to have compassion, we resort to passing judgment and otherizing those with different perspectives than us. But Lim finds this approach harmful. “Some people will say you are allowed to not engage in conversation with people who have opposing views than you. It’s alright to dismiss them. But I struggle with that framework because that essentially is saying, ‘If I disagree with you enough, I can discount you. You are no longer a member of my community.’ That’s not how dialogue works. The harder it is to engage, the more important it is to engage.” 

Does this mean that if you are a person of Color, you should have a dialogue with a racist? Should women engage in conversation with misogynists? With recent and ongoing legislative attacks on the transgender community, are they obligated to converse with those who have opposing views on their livelihood and safety? Not exactly. Healthy dialogue is a community effort, and the need to have robust conversations on all types of issues takes the work of all of us. The act of having healthier conversations is just one of many tools of community organizing, and community efforts should work like a choir carrying a long note. When needed, different singers can stop and take a breath because they are assured in knowing that those around them are still carrying the tune. When necessary, some of us may not always have the capacity nor the obligation to have a difficult conversation with someone who fundamentally disrespects our identities. But we should be assured in knowing that there are others who are stepping up to the task. 

It’s easier said than done. There are entire courses and workshops dedicated to conflict resolution and the art of conversation. But it’s difficult to master. Once we find a reason to isolate ourselves and sit comfortably in echo chambers, we risk falling prey to misinformation, otherizing and conspiracy theories. We stop doing the necessary cognitive hygiene that allows us to stretch and strengthen our muscles of inquiry. But when we can come together and expose our desires, our values, our fears and our hopes for the future, we might realize that it’s worth working together and lifting each other up. The poet Ocean Vuong talks about this when he’s teaching students at Columbia University. “We often tell our youth that the future is in their hands. But I think the future is in your mouth. You have to articulate it first.”

Why is this so transformative? And how do we know that engaging in difficult conversations can actually lead to anything meaningful? Vaden spoke to this when grappling with how she uses these activities on a day-to-day level. “The amount that federal politics has traveled down into our state and local politics is really concerning, and it can be difficult to parse that out. We have different issues within our communities and we can lose track of them. So I really try to look to the local first. It’s difficult to try and change things from the top, but if we can organize across differences — that’s the real power.” Conversation and critical inquiry with compassion can act as a foundation for all the necessary work that comes next. Of course, no tool for social change works in a silo. 

I hope the energy and excitement people had for this election is sustained. That people wake up day after day and ask themselves, “Okay, what’s going on in my community and what’s one issue that I can help with?” Because that’s what’s ultimately important, right? Feeling like you are connected to the space you’re in and feeling empowered to tap in.

Elina Morrison is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at