Celebrating political diversity at CSU
By Peter Harris, political science professor
During his recent visit to the United Kingdom, President Obama gave an audience of young people some sage advice. “Seek out people who don’t agree with you — it’ll teach you to compromise,” he urged them. “It’ll also help you if you decide to get married.”
I can only imagine that, given the company that Obama is forced to keep in Washington, his marriage must be as solid as a rock. But as a professor of political science, it is the relevance of the president’s remarks for public affairs that interest me the most.
Implicit in Obama’s advice was a reminder that the habit of compromising with other people is just that — a habit. And, like any good habit, finding common ground rarely comes naturally. It takes work to sustain.
There can be few places better suited to the development of habits of tolerance and compromise than Colorado State University.
Larimer County is a purple county in a purple state, and CSU is blessed to reflect the diversity of its surroundings. On this campus, left- and right-wing students alike — and students of no particular political orientation — are able to organize, advocate and debate the issues that matter.
As a rough guess, my classes here at CSU contain liberals, conservatives and non-ideological students in about equal numbers. I can always count on a variety of opinions and vigorous discussion. People seem unafraid to challenge others’ views.
But I have confidence that my experience is not just anecdotal. The LSC Plaza hosts individuals and organizations offering a range of different perspectives on a daily basis. Bernie Sanders drew huge crowds in February, but our campus is also home to students who campaign on behalf of Republican candidates.
Or consider the recent elections for ASCSU president, which — I gather from my voracious consumption of the Collegian — was widely understood as a contest between conservative and liberal tickets. The more liberal candidates won, but the election was close: Just 22 votes separated the winners from the losers.
There is even a faction within the student government calling itself the Conservative Interest Group — something that would be unthinkable on many other college campuses, which often tend to be dominated by liberal-minded organizations and where conservatism is a dirty word.
No doubt there is room for expanding the circle of voices here at CSU, but the amount of pluralism that does exist should never be taken for granted. It is a precious thing indeed.
While political disagreements might be challenging to endure at times — CSU students were recently involved in a contentious debate over issues of diversity and representation, for example — they are, alas, an unavoidable cost of living in society with other people.
Learning how to accommodate different opinions is thus a critical life skill. Fortunately, Obama was right: Being around people with whom you disagree will teach you how to compromise — it will make you a more tolerant, civil and successful person.
Nobody should shirk from developing these qualities while at CSU. From classroom discussions to student government to internships with state and local parties, there is an abundance of opportunities for students to immerse themselves in political debate and disagreement.
Engaging with your fellow students can even be considered something of a public service. After all, there is a long tradition of CSU graduates taking up leadership roles in the local community, state and nation. It is not too much to hope that the habits of tolerance learned here will one day be put to good use solving some of the 21st century’s most pressing public issues.
Political difference is one of the least trumpeted facets of diversity on campuses, rarely celebrated. This is a mistake. For while polarization and political dysfunction are at historic levels in Washington, this sorry state of affairs is not (yet) mirrored across the entire country.
CSU Rams should be proud of their oasis of pluralism, and they should be jealous guardians of its future.
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