A recent survey of Dartmouth’s undergraduates found that Democrat students are more likely not to befriend another student because of their political views: “55 percent of Democratic respondents said opposite political views would make them less likely to befriend another student, compared to 21 percent of Independents and 12 percent of Republicans,” the survey found.
I would say this news is shocking, but as a Jewish conservative who spent six years as a Harvard student, I am not at all surprised. Why? Because when I was there, I experienced ideological discrimination, over and over again. It was undoubtedly worse when I attended the Kennedy School at the close of the Bush era, but being a known campus conservative during the Clinton years was no walk through Cambridge Common either.
That said, my six years were valuable for several reasons: First, I learned to argue on my feet and better defend my beliefs. Second, the experience built character. And lastly, I gained immense practice in personal diplomacy. I learned how to befriend people with whom I agreed on little or nothing, politically speaking. It’s that last part that I’d like to think holds lessons for all of us today.
Sure, there are always those who are stubborn and can’t be won over, but in my experience, that’s always been a small minority. Given how polarized our nation has become, it’s important that we relearn to see each other as people, rather than mortal enemies in perpetual political combat. So, as someone with a great deal of experience being the odd duck out, here are some thoughts about ways to bridge divides between political tribes on the Dartmouth campus and beyond.
1. There’s more to life than politics.
When everything is politicized it can be hard to remember this, but there really is more to life. Don’t just read the news. Live your life. Spend time with friends and family offline. Volunteer in your community. Feel free to implement your own version of my Saturday Night Rule, where you don’t talk politics on weekends or at social gatherings. It’s important to take breaks from the non-stop news cycle.
2. Find common ground.
You don’t have to talk about politics or anything else that might antagonize a conversational partner (especially if it’s the first time you’re meeting). And when I’m with liberal leaning relatives or friends, I don’t! I like to steer the conversation toward more neutral subjects. See what you might share in common with that other person, whether it’s an interest in Indian food, old music, or shoes. In college, I bonded with my roommate’s boyfriend over our shared love of Maureen Dowd’s column (back during her Clinton heyday). These days, I spend plenty of time talking to other parents about the joys and quirks of parenting — nice and human, all about our own personal experiences, not at all Trump-centric.
3. Wait to talk politics.
Don’t discuss contentious issues with your new friend until you have a solid foundation as friends first. It’s much easier to have a respectful discussion about thorny issues like abortion or gun control when you already like and respect each other.
4. Assume good faith.
If you’re wading into politics, ask the other person why they believe what they do and then listen. You may still think that other person is misguided where politics is concerned. But — start from the assumption that they have thought about the issues and earnestly believe as strongly as you do, and the conversation will go much more smoothly.
5. Know your audience and speak their language.
In my 20s, I spent a lot of time at summer BBQs. Some were hosted by secular liberal college friends. Others were hosted by Christian conservatives I knew from my post-college political work. I learned to tell my college friends that I’d need “the vegetarian option” and my political friends that I’d need “the kosher option.” Everyone was more than happy to oblige, and I never went without a veggie burger.
6. Be wary of social media.
It’s easy to get carried away on social media and post things that take a swipe at large groups of people. For example, during the 2016 election, things grew ugly in my Facebook feed. Some Hillary supporters made hateful comments about *all* Republican voters — as if we were a united front that year (ha!) — and high-fived over supposedly sick burns in the comments. If you’re going to criticize, embrace nuance. Be specific about the people or policies that irk you. And for goodness sake, imagine how your ideological “other” friend(s) might feel when reading your latest comment before you post.
7. Celebrate shared humanity.
While I generally consider fighting about politics on Facebook a bad idea, I’d say you only really “earn the right” to do it if you have an ongoing relationship in real life, or also engage on apolitical topics online. So, don’t be the person who surfaces once every ten years to pick a political fight with an old acquaintance on Facebook. Reach out to friends and acquaintances, regardless of their politics, whenever good things happen to them, whether it’s an engagement, the birth of a child, the publication of a book, or anything else that brings them personal joy. The same principle also goes for sad news.
Remember, Dartmouth undergrads (and everybody else), where friendship is concerned, always be willing to look outside your political tribe. Your life will be richer for it.