You’ve heard it all before: America is divided. Our politics are more adversarial than they’ve ever been. We’re on the verge of civil war. While we often hear these things on T.V., in academic studies or from political leaders, it all seems a little bit abstract when spoken about in those terms.
But if you drive to Cornell like I do — getting off of Interstate 81, traveling north from Binghamton, and starting to head west toward Ithaca, it all becomes a little more real. This is because when you travel along State Route 79, which takes you from Lisle and continues beyond Ithaca, you will truly see everything. Biden flags next to Trump flags. Pride flags next to yard signs decrying zoning laws. American flags next to flags from across the world. If you’ve ever watched CNN or Fox News, you’d be under the impression that there is no way this could happen, and there’s no way people holding such different ideologies could possibly coexist.
But it does, and they do. Furthermore, this is far from the only road in America where you’d be able to see this dramatic coexistence of political views. This is far from the only instance where neighbors can know and respect each other while lying on complete opposites of the political spectrum.
So why do I bother bringing this up? What could possibly be learned from a few flags along a winding road? I’d argue that this question provides the key to a necessary change in the way we talk about politics.
When we talk about politics, we’re so desperate to put people into boxes. Conservative versus Liberal. Democrat versus Republican. Urban versus suburban versus rural. The list could go on and on. Furthermore, we’re determined to quiz candidates and politicians on their beliefs, but not to determine whether they are the best person to formulate policy. Instead, we do this to determine how neatly they fit into our stereotype of what a “real” conservative or liberal should look like.
This needs to change. If there is anything I’ve learned from driving down State Route 79, it’s that what makes America great isn’t ideology. What makes America great is the people that can coexist and thrive together, regardless of ideology. And that we can agree on a lot more things than we might think.
So when we talk about politics, we need to stop making assumptions about what people think. We need to stop trying to fit people neatly into certain boxes. Every time someone dismisses another person because of a misguided assumption, they miss an opportunity to find common ground. We need to start embracing others based on what we agree on, rather than dismissing them because of what we may disagree on. Instead of fretting about the 10 percent of issues we may vehemently disagree on, let’s celebrate the 90 percent of issues we agree on, and harness that into progress. It may not always feel great, but it’s how we change things and get meaningful policy done.
Furthermore, this is not exclusively a political lesson. It’s a life lesson that applies to our friends, our coworkers, our professors here at Cornell and our families back home. Don’t dismiss others because their background may be different from yours. Every person you turn away from because you think you won’t get along with them is potentially a lost friend, roommate, mentor or partner.
Now I’m not suggesting that we all be naïve. Inevitably, some people will go beyond the pale and demean your background. Don’t accept when someone doesn’t respect you and those you love, or challenges your humanity. Expect those close to you to stand by you in those difficult moments. Most importantly, have boundaries and don’t tolerate it when others violate them.
But next time you drive up to Ithaca and travel west from Interstate 81, take note of the vast array of people and beliefs you’ll see over the course of your trip. Appreciate the window into America that you’ll get in such a short stretch of road. Remember that there are so many roads like this one, all across the country.
We’re often told that we’re so divided as a country, and that there’s no way to find common ground when our politics is so divisive. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from driving to and from Cornell over the past three years, it’s that we owe it to ourselves, as Cornellians, New Yorkers and Americans, to at least try.
Isaac Chasen is a senior in the Dyson School. He can be reached at [email protected]. Cut to the Chase runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.