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Civility, Politics, and the Next Generation

Posted 8 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022

UW-La Crosse Professor Tim Dale speaks during a 2017 Center for Teaching and Learning conference on campus.

Why there is reason to be hopeful for democracy

By Tim Dale, Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, UW-La Crosse

It is easy for us to become cynical about politics, especially as an election approaches. Today we are bombarded with an endless stream of negative advertisements and hostile arguments, and it is a common reaction to “just want this election to be over.” Politics in today’s world is polarizing and divisive even when there is not a looming election. As we look around us, civil debate appears impossible when so many issues generate controversies that do not seem to have a middle ground. In a world full of battle lines being drawn in our communities, schools, and workplaces (as well as in our government), is there any hope for democracy?

As someone with the benefit of entering a college classroom every day, I am happy to report that college students give me reason to be hopeful for the future of democracy. In my experience, college students are just as eager to learn from each other as they are to share their opinions about things that matter to them. I am constantly impressed by the ability of my students to have civil debates about controversial issues. They appreciate the way these discussions give them a better understanding of the complexity of the world, and they often walk away with a promise to do more research about it. My classroom is filled with partisan buttons and stickers on backpacks and laptops, but this does not prevent students from sitting next to others with opposite ideas and engaging in productive conversations.

This is not to say that every conversation on a college campus is an easy one. What often gets lost in discussions about free speech, however, is the importance of listening while other people are talking. I am inspired by students who realize that politics is less about shouting matches between two sides, and more about meaningful discussions aimed at developing policies that can make society better. There will always be controversy about things that matter to us, but college students can help us remember that controversy is also an opportunity for listening and learning.

In addition to their capacity to learn while disagreeing, there is also a common optimism and confidence among college students in their ability to solve problems. There are rarely easy answers to the problems we face as a society, and college students offer great examples of people who work to understand the problems they face with awareness that solutions often require difficult discussions. Most students I meet believe that our society can work through complex problems and find compromises, and that this can occur through the use of knowledge, skills, and tools brought by a wide range of people with different backgrounds and voices.

At times like this it may seem like politics is just noisy arguments that have no purpose. When we get discouraged about this, I think it is good to remind ourselves what James Madison believed: that debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and that democracy succeeds because we can engage in these debates with each other. The key is to do this with respect, and acknowledgement that we share a common purpose. In this way I think we can learn a lot from college students, who model this every day on campuses all around our community.

See Professor Tim Dale’s advice on How to Talk Politics and Keep Friends.


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