The Forums on Race in America series hosted an event called Bridging Political Divides through Civil Discourse on Tuesday in Mason Hall. The event featured Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), and Vilma Martinez, civil rights activist and former ambassador to Argentina, in a talk about the current political landscape in the United States.
David Yaffe, former president of the Hopkins Alumni Association, moderated the discussion.
Steele opened by discussing the role of fear in racial politics, which he argued must be overcome in order to heal political divisions.
“Trump’s wall and the border is the least of our problems. [The problem is] the wall and the border that we’re building around our communities,” Steele said.
Martinez stressed that polarizing issues, such as climate change and the opioid crisis, create discussions on the distribution of political power and economic resources throughout the country.
Despite this, Martinez claimed that the political divide boils down to a failure in human nature.
“Political differences are ruining our country. Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than at any time since the Civil War,” Martinez said. “One in six Americans have stopped talking to a family member. We will organize our social lives around the ideological. The problem is not instability, it’s intolerance and contempt — that you ascribe hatred to the other side and love to yours. There isn’t one answer for connecting our journeys. All of us have a role.”
Martinez suggested that reforming the public education system was one way to create a society that is more informed and less reactionary.
“Go back to civics education,” Martinez said. “It was in civics where I learned what it means to be American. What does a democracy mean? What are the three branches? Unfortunately, we’ve stopped teaching civics to the detriment of our nation’s political discourse.”
The discussion then moved to the role of social media in politics. Both Martinez and Steele criticized the influence of Twitter. He criticized what he perceived as U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter as his personal megaphone.
“The media has got to stop focusing on presidential tweets,” Martinez said. “It has to focus on facts and policy.”
Steele argued that Twitter fuels emotion over logic in some political discourse.
“It’s hard to have a conversation when it starts as, ‘I hate you because you disagree with me,’” Steele said. “Try getting on your Twitter feed and say something that’s outside what they think you should be saying. These anonymous individuals will start unloading on you. It’s more emotional than rational. It’s more personal than political.”
Steele asked the audience to return to more traditional methods of connection and communication, rather than holding political discussions on social media.
“A lot of folks like the idea of outreach. Putting in the work to do that is, however, more difficult,” Steele said. “Over time they fall back into their comfortable space, and we see that in this period where it’s much easier to sit back and demonize and vilify and scream at that which you do not like or want or know than it is to get into your uncomfortable space and listen and learn and understand what their narrative is.”