Right and left. Liberal and conservative. Pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Americans generally classify themselves into these political categories but tend to see things only from their side’s perspective.
As part of civility month, East Tennessee State University’s Student Government Association and Office of Leadership and Civic Engagement held a five-part series called “A Nation Divided: Will We Stand or Fall?” Over the course of three days, four student and one faculty/staff-centered workshops allowed discussion of political polarization in the country.
Student organizers Austin Ramsey, Adam Rosenbalm and Connor McClelland said they got the idea for the series after seeing a leadership and ethics conference at VMI.
“We came back together that the evening, and said, ‘That’s something we really need at ETSU’s campus,” Rosenbalm said.
They then contacted leaders from the conference to see if there was any interest in speaking to ETSU students. One speaker they contacted was David Blankenhorn, who led a one part of the series on March 22.
Blankenhorn spoke on “Why Polarization Matters.” The presentation was conversation-style with the attendees as he directed conversation about experiences with political and ideological division.
Blankenhorn is the President of Better Angels, a group that aims to unify political sides in America. He explained during his presentation how Better Angels began as a simple conversation between Democrats and Republicans of Lebanon, Ohio, but soon turned into a nation-wide conversation about how to reach common-ground on beliefs.
“Is this going to change the country?” Blankenhorn said to the attendees. “No, not just these workshops, but what I’m trying to say is something interesting, to me– something profound– was happening when we … said, ‘Let’s try to bring people to talk with rather than at or about each other.’ That’s the fundamental idea—to talk with rather than at or about each other— and see if we can’t find ourselves again as citizens.”
Blankenhorn asked those in attendance about how they feel about polarization, their experiences with it, how social media affects division, how division affects personal relationships and why polarization exists.
Other workshops during the series included conversations on gun control and ways the country can bridge the gap between political parties and beliefs.
When asked about the “A Nation Divided” series at ETSU, Blankenhorn said he believes it has been well-received and could potentially become a campus initiative for open debate and conversation that spreads to other schools.
“It just makes me think that there’s a possibility to draw upon the talents of college students maybe around the region or maybe around the country,” he said. “It makes me feel very optimistic about it.”