Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

2 a.m. Snapshot of a Diverse Democracy in Action

Sean Decatur
November 9, 2016

Very early Wednesday morning, the long and at times painful 2016 election came to an end, with the Electoral College count determining that Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States. For me, the night ended at about 1:45 a.m., exchanging texts with my daughter as we both tried to process the moment. I was reminded of the words of Eboo Patel, one of our Convocation speakers from earlier this year, who reminded us that living in a diverse democracy requires confronting viewpoints with which you disagree. As citizens of a system of elected governance, we accept the outcome of elections and carry out a smooth transition of power. That has been our tradition since the election of 1796 (the first contested presidential election), and it is the bedrock of our democracy.

The tenor, tone and content of the discourse surrounding this election has been distressing to many of us, not only here on campus, but throughout the nation. Not only is the nation polarized on issues of policy, but the nature of this contest has felt personal to some, including myself. Racist and sexist rhetoric have become parts of our daily, public political dialogue. Offensive political statements devaluing Americans based on their race, religion, heritage or gender have caused many to feel deep anxiety and fear for the future. We have heard statements that devalue and objectify women; degrading descriptions of Mexican-Americans; stereotypic descriptions of African-American neighborhoods; promises to keep out immigrants and ban Muslims; calls to build walls and isolate America from the global community; and anti-Semitic references to an ominous network of bankers who control the world.

We must keep in mind that much of this is campaign rhetoric, and that we have a robust system of laws and government that makes it difficult for any one person (including the president) to trample constitutional freedoms. Beneath the many layers of offensive rhetoric, there are some substantial issues at stake, including civil rights, the environment, our economy and our foreign affairs. There will be an opportunity to discuss the policy implications of the 2016 election with faculty from the Political Science Department at Common Hour (11:10 a.m.) on Thursday, Nov. 10, in the Alumni Dining Room.

As Americans, we must accept the outcomes of fair elections. And, as citizens of a diverse democracy, we must not hide from views and ideas with which we may disagree, or even ideas that we may find offensive. But, we are under no obligation to accept opposing or offensive ideas themselves. Indeed, we are obligated as citizens of a diverse democracy to confront those ideas with our own, to challenge disagreeable, prevailing discourse with well-reasoned, well-argued and well-supported opposing arguments.

This responsibility is particularly important to us as members of the Kenyon community. This is a place where ideas are meant to be challenged and contested. Where baseless and ignorant claims are countered and confronted with powerful facts. Where we listen respectfully and challenge forcefully. This is the spirit of a liberal arts institution, and we must work to practice these actions each day.

We also have the responsibility to go beyond discourse to deed. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but it does not do so on its own. Some of you volunteered many hours in this election, for many different candidates across the political spectrum. But voting is only one mechanism for civic engagement. If you want change, work for it: Take up organizing efforts around a policy issue. Make change locally (including here on campus). Where you see opportunities to make the world better, get involved in the local community here or in your hometown.

Perhaps most importantly, extend the effort to listen respectfully and challenge forcefully beyond your own group of friends, or even with the community here on campus, to those outside of your normal sphere. What the past election season has revealed is not only that Americans are polarized on policy, but also that there is a deep gulf of understanding that separates many of us. 

As you reflect on the election season, reach out and talk to others; be sensitive to the fact that there is a range of feelings released by the results as well as a range of feelings and thoughts about the outcome; and try to find some common ground of understanding and support. True empathy is the only thing that can heal these divides, and this requires contact and exchange between individuals, making ourselves vulnerable by connecting with those with whom we may disagree, and opening ourselves (and others) to change. This is not easy; in fact, social media makes it easier than ever for us to retreat into a self-serving echo chamber of homogenous thinking. We should not (and, if we want to make a difference, cannot) take that easy path.