THE BLOG
09/30/2016 04:56 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2017

Don't blame students. Blame the campaign rhetoric.

Remember Bernie Sanders?

With Hillary Clinton pivoting to the general election, it's easy to forget why the last few months have galvanized so many of my generation. The Sanders movement tapped into a growing frustration that has been brewing in college campuses across the country: young voters are unconvinced that the slow and deliberative democratic process will make an impact.

As the rift between the left and right increases, as both parties desperately try to appeal to their bases, the American electorate has become more polarized, more divided, more unwilling to find the middle ground.

So it's no surprise that much of the debate in higher education over the past year has been about "opening your mind" to diverse perspectives: from a blistering feature on the Atlantic Monthly lamenting the "coddling of the American mind", protests at Yale over Halloween costumes, to President Obama's commencement speech urging Howard University graduates to embrace the full meaning of free speech. And now, a letter from the University of Chicago telling new students they will not condone safe spaces.

College campuses are, after all, a microcosm of the society.

It's convenient to simply put the blame on college students. In fact, I've heard similar arguments when "millennials" are painted with broad and stereotypical adjectives. But the root of the problem lies in a culture perpetuated by identity politics, a strategy used by Democrats and Republicans. It sounds something like this: Republicans are homophobes and racists who believe in every single word of the bible. Democrats are poor avid environmentalists with no family values.

Political theatrics has taught us that it's alright to slam labels and play the blame game. If you need proof, look no further to how Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump a racist, and how Trump returned the favor by calling Clinton a bigot. While it's easy to quickly characterize Trump supporters as (insert adjective with negative connotation), it's much harder to step into their shoes and truly listen to the causes they are advocating for.

Call it a publicity stunt or a curiously well-timed letter, but it's clear that University of Chicago wanted to be the adult in the room, the voice of reason and moderation in an election cycle that has been engulfed by exactly the opposite. And yes, it's saddening to see that we students need to be lectured on the importance of an open and inclusive democracy.

But University of Chicago's crusade on moderation has illuminated a fatal error commonly practiced by moderates: to dismiss everyone else as extremists. Many initially saw Bernie Sanders's campaign as impractical and too far to the left, rejecting any policy proposal he brought to the table. It took some time for the Clinton campaign to realize that Bernie supporters were raising legitimate questions on the rising costs of health-care and college affordability.

The lesson? Even if you disagree with the approach, don't cover your ears and sing loudly.

Rejecting all safe spaces and trigger warnings as dangerous is, dare I say, cowardly as well. There is no denial that some have used the safe space culture to shield against opposing, usually conservative, voices, but should the same rebuke be extended to rape victims who fear a particular text might conjure horrific memories? By demanding inclusivity, we are denying to be inclusive ourselves.

University of Chicago has taught us that young pragmatic liberals can make a difference. The challenge is to convince others that slow and deliberative democracy works. Whether it's big money in politics or the prevalence of gerrymandering, young pragmatic liberals are in a unique position to address these issues with a message of openness and inclusivity.

How about we try making democracy great again?