A call for civility during midterm elections

A senior Washington and Lee student reflects on the 2016 election

Skyler Zunk

One thing is certain about the upcoming election: it matters. Pundits and professors call it the most important election of our lifetime, eclipsing the importance of elections of yesteryear in precluding Republican governance. Democrats are widely predicted to ride a wave of support into Washington, sweeping the House and, if they are lucky, the Senate, too. Members of university faculty and, by extension, their students on campuses across the country refuse to entertain a situation in which those darned Republicans maintain majorities. The election is all but officiated – it is only a waiting game until the polls close. Sound familiar? It should.

As a senior looking back to the 2016 election and the response on Washington and Lee’s campus, the parallels between the years are striking. The 2016 election did not go the way many members of our community were certain it would. This resulted in a shock and a subsequent meltdown.

Several professors and members of the administration threw off their veils of non-partisanship after the election and shared with the student body just how offended they were. Events in “safe spaces” were advertised for students to come and vent their frustration about the perceived threats to their identities. One event poster distributed by university administration read, “In the wake of the election, we realize that there are people who are hurting,” and that students should come and “speak their truth.” Rather than thinking critically about our democratic process and empathizing with Trump-supporting citizens of different backgrounds and classes, members of our community fed the fire of outrage and self-pity.

Fact-based dialogue is good and our campus should encourage it more in 2018 than it did in 2016. Distributing safety pins and coddling students does little to prepare them for life after Lexington. Temper tantrums, by toddlers and by college students, should be ignored, not propagated. Expending university resources and funds to do these things is antithetical to the institution’s mission. Washington and Lee should not follow the nationwide trend of liberal, hyper-sensitive, monolithic college campuses. Frankly, we are better than that – our students deserve more. It was apparent that, in 2016, these community members had not entertained the idea that they could, in fact, be wrong. In short, the post-election crisis reaction was a shortcoming of what it means to be a student at Washington and Lee.

If the 2018 midterms result in the “blue wave” that has been promised for the past 18 months, I guarantee that College Republicans and conservatives on campus will not ask for, nor attend, a pity party to whine and complain about the democratic results of elections. Republicans will not make use of extra “support sessions” should they be offered by the university. Conservatives, ever so rooted in reality, will not invite school administrators to intellectually coddle us. There will be no cries of “NOT MY CONGRESS,” and no one will impugn the character of fellow students who may have supported a candidate on the left.

However, if the Democrats fail to take control of one or both houses of Congress, nothing suggests to me anything other than a repeat of the 2016 debacle. In advance of this potential result, I ask the university to think before it acts in response, and to consider whether feeble support sessions are the proper means toward the university’s ends. Washington and Lee prides itself as a diamond in the rough, an exception to the rule when it comes to critical thinking and open-mindedness. Our students are supposed to be exemplars of civility, capable of looking past politics to character. Election season is the perfect time to remind ourselves – on the left and on the right – that civility in a polarized climate does not come effortlessly; it comes with empathy, thoughtfulness and deep breaths.