Regardless, “campus has not been too great lately,” said McMahon, who was wearing a shirt with the phrase “A Woman’s Place Is in the House and the Senate” emblazoned across it. “I’ve felt uncomfortable.” So have other people on campus, on both sides of the political spectrum, and sometimes it’s been easier to just keep quiet.
But not on Tuesday evenings. On Tuesdays, the group arranges a few desks in an unlocked classroom in a circle, sits down, and talks. It can get tense, but no one yells, no one storms out, and everyone has a chance to explain why they feel the way they do. Afterward, they sometimes go for drinks and late-night snacks at the Applebee’s nearby. The society is one example of how, at a time when Washington and much of the rest of the country is gripped by political polarization that can make substantive conversations about policy differences difficult, college students on politically divided campuses, who are part of a generation many older Americans expect to be apathetic, have found a way to have those conversations in a productive way.
During a recent meeting, conversation turned to the president’s comments about groping women. Most of the female students in the room, conservative and liberal alike, said they were disgusted. Bennett James, a 21-year-old junior, wasn’t too bothered and argued that just because someone says something terrible doesn’t mean he should be judged on it. “You can choose to be offended,” he said.
That didn’t sit right with Smith, who said she thought his view came from a position of white male privilege. “Men and women are always going to be at odds over this,” he replied. Besides, he argued, politics and emotion should be separate things.
Back and forth the conversation went for more than an hour. For me, as an observer (a good portion of the conversation that night revolved around questions I posed to the students about reaction to the election on campus), it was exhausting, refreshing, and, frankly, not something I see all that often.
Joseph Krinke, a 20-year-old sophomore, thinks social media has a lot to do with what seems like a rise in hostility. People can hide behind a “cloak of anonymity,” he said. And in the wake of the election, instead of talking to each other, people are finding their own echo chambers.
The Central Michigan University political-science professors Jayne Cherie Strachan and Ted Clayton see that in class, too. In some ways, things have been shifting for years. Interest among young people in running for office and participating in the political process has atrophied. People are turned off, Strachan said; they want to go be entrepreneurs instead. And with the internet and social media, everyone can find news that fits their beliefs, however inaccurate. “This is the problem,” Clayton, said. “We’re not arguing about interpretation of fact [anymore], we’re arguing over what is a fact.”