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Rethinking Nonpartisanship in an Increasingly Divisive Era

LEAD Initiative
October 15, 2018 Jane Johnston Associate Director of Student Life, Grand Valley State University

Throughout my childhood and most of my teenage years, I never considered myself to be very political. Politics were never brought up in my home. Instead, my parents taught us mantras like, “Treat people the way you want to be treated,” and “kill them with kindness.”

My senior year of high school, however, I started to pay attention more. I think everyone did.

The 2016 general election caused people on both sides of the aisle to become politically engaged. This caused a lot of tension, to say the least. Households were divided; old friends stopped talking to each other; people shut others out of their lives simply because of differing political beliefs.

The increasingly divisive nature of politics in our country has resulted in many claiming “nonpartisanship”as a way to justify not participating in the democratic process.

I’ve had many people tell me that politics is too complicated, or too divisive, and they don’t want anything to do with it. They have opinions, but they don’t want to share them because they either don’t want to offend anyone, or they feel they don’t know enough about a certain topic to properly contribute to a larger conversation.

This silence frightens me for two reasons. First of all, I worry that if our nation continues to head down this path, nothing will ever get solved-- at least not in a way that is representative of all Americans. Let me be clear; when I say that, I don’t mean Congress will cease to produce legislation, or that government officials will stop doing their jobs. But ordinary citizens, folks like you and me, are equally responsible for instilling a sense of civic agency in ourselves and those we surround ourselves with.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, what does silence say about us as a nation? What happens to the civic fabric of our communities, our country, our democracy if we can just choose to “opt out” when things get tough? No, silence cannot be the answer. Right?

Traditionally, nonpartisanship has meant that any political issue was off limits. No opinion prevailed in a nonpartisan setting.

In 2018, that’s just not cutting it. In the modern era, everything is politicized. This has been happening, slowly but surely, for decades. It was happening when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was happening when Hillary Clinton first claimed that “women’s rights were humans rights” in 1994.

All around us, for years, people have been pushing social issues into the political sphere. In 2018, everything has a political meaning, and for this reason we must start rethinking nonpartisanship.

Modern nonpartisanship means not shying away from tough issues, but building the skills to work through and start solving them. Luckily, I go to a university that understands this as well. Grand Valley has never shied away from tough topics. Instead, faculty, staff and student leaders jump in with both feet, eager to talk to students about their beliefs and opinions and help them develop informed positions and to understand how to engage with others in a respectful and effective manner.

As a member of GVSU’s Campus Democratic Engagement Coalition, I can attest to the amount of hard work that our team has put in to create a civic ethos around campus. We have worked tirelessly to provide inclusive and inviting spaces for students to share their views. I have realized that when people feel welcome to speak up about their opinions and are willing to listen to the perspectives of others, this is when the magic happens - when we can begin to better understand one another and to seek solutions to our common problems.

This has been especially evident during our weekly Democracy 101 panels. Our Campus Democratic Engagement Coalition, along with the GVSU Community Service Learning Center and Student Senate, together, have been holding weekly conversations to talk about issues surrounding the upcoming election.

We understand, however, that a formal panel isn’t the only way to get students talking. That is why we will be also be holding a weekly event called “Coffee and Conversations,” where we will  talk one-on-one with students to unpack the question “What is your American Dream?” while seeking to create a space to build community amongst students.

While some topics are more divisive than others, students have proven to be be consistently eager to ask questions; to learn; to engage in politics.

Traditional nonpartisanship is not applicable to the increasingly politicized world we live in. If we want to solve public issues, we can’t shy away from them. Instead, we must run at them with everything we’ve got, ready to engage with and listen to those who we don’t agree with.

When our peers make a statement, we need to seek to understand their perspective and to ask them how they know that their statement is true. This is a question I’ve struggled with my whole life. How do I know the things I know? How do I know if I know the right things? I think these are questions we should all be asking ourselves, but more importantly we should be asking them of one another.

We need to have tough conversations with our friends, our coworkers, and our classmates. In the end, change starts in our living rooms, in the office, and in the classroom. It starts by treating people the way you want to be treated. By killing them with kindness.


  • Jane Johnston, Campus Election Engagement Project Democracy Fellow, Grand Valley State University
  • Melissa Baker-Boosamra, Associate Director of Student Life, Civic Engagement and Assessment, Grand Valley State University