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Smart, Curious, and Civil – Let’s Give It A Try

Posted on February 3, 2020

The political season has gone from warm to red hot as we move into the presidential primaries and then the general election. As always, New Hampshire is ground zero for much of the nation’s political drama, at least in the first act, though we share that space with the Iowa caucuses and the impeachment trial at the moment. We all know that the country is deeply divided right now, that political discourse is fraught and more often a screaming match than a conversation, and that enormous challenges face the country and the world. None more urgent than climate change, but that is one among many wicked problems we face, including election security, the threat of a global pandemic, the impending impact of AI and automation on workforce, deep wealth and social inequity…should I stop now?

A presidential election invites us to think about what kind of country we want to be, what we stand for. The important word there is “we.” The far left and the far right have hijacked so much of the political debate that it’s easy to forget that we – the majority of the country – agree on a whole lot. We know the majority of Americans believe in global warming and worry about its devastating effects, support sensible gun laws, believe that people should have access to affordable health care and education, support euthanasia, and want Dreamers to have ongoing legal status in the US.

While the devil is in the details, real political leaders understand that politics is the art of compromise. I happened to endorse Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (this is a personal endorsement and does not reflect any endorsement by SNHU or its Trustees), in part because he won a state-wide election in a purple state. He has learned to bridge the political divide between his left-leaning and right-leaning constituencies and find those places of overlap or general agreement. Amy Klobucher has done the same. While it has eroded a little, part of what I have long loved about New Hampshire politics is that Democrats and Republicans mostly know how to talk to each other, how to disagree without being disrespectful, and how to live and work together despite political differences.

A wonderful example of that last point: one of the great trustees in SNHU history was Kimon Zachos, a leader in the state Republican Party, who was married to Anne, a staunch Democrat. I remember going to their house once and seeing a sign for his favorite candidate on the right side of their walkway and a sign for her favorite candidate on the left side. There are other examples of the New Hampshire way. While I am a Democrat, Governor Walt Peterson, a Republican, was one of my heroes and I have warm memories of him at our kitchen table, and my interviewing him once for an event on campus. Ovid Lamontagne is a local lawyer and Republican who came within a hair’s breadth of becoming a U.S. Senator. Our political views are very different, but I like Ovid very much and respect him as a person and someone who loves this city and state.

This is not nostalgia for some squishy “Why can’t we all get along?” sentiment. Politics is hard – a kind of blood sport in some ways – and it should be so, because the stakes are high and the consequences matter. That said, I wish we could all agree to three basic principles:

  • That we will work hard to base our debates on facts and evidence. Aristotle argued that we can only debate “What should be” when we start with “What is,” the forensic stage of debate. As members of an academic community, we have a bedrock commitment to using evidence and facts whenever they are available to us. Expert knowledge is valuable and anti-intellectualism is anti-smart. We should be smart and well informed.
  • We should enter our political debates with humility and with questions. In the end, no one can force us to vote for their candidate or adopt their position. So why not listen for a while? At least understand the other side and ask lots of questions.
  • Engage with respect and civility. The evidence suggests that most Americans are actually somewhere closer to the middle and not at the screaming ends of the political spectrum. There is enough outrage out there. I want to be in conversation with people who want a conversation.

As I said in a recent Inside Higher Ed interview, I want to engage because I want our students and community members to know this is important; everyone needs to have a voice. We often get asked why SNHU hosts certain candidates over other candidates, but the fact is, as a nonprofit university, SNHU does not lend support to any party or political candidate and all political candidates and policymakers are welcome to rent space on campus for their events. Numerous democratic candidates have visited the SNHU campus this year and President Trump has visited the SNHU Arena and will host another event there soon.

My hope is that more Americans want to build things, starting with bridges of understanding and respect. As we head into the primary season, I want to challenge everyone in the SNHU community to be smart, be curious, and be civil. How much of that are we seeing in Washington these days? I hope we continue to see it in New Hampshire. We should be first in the nation not only for the primaries, but first in political ethos.

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