When my siblings and I were growing up, my mother – being the socially prudent and impeccably mannered woman that she is – instructed us to never, under any circumstances, engage new acquaintances on the topic of politics. She knew that likelihood of your ideologies conflicting and directing your relationship into cold and isolated waters far outweighed the chances that you could harmoniously discuss the most important matters of the day. And outside of her semi-frequent urges to blow off ten dollars-worth of steam at the penny slots, my mother is simply not a chance-taking woman, particularly when the chip on the table is a relationship.
Like most college students, I only sparingly heeded my mother’s advice. I am a politics junkie and rather anti-authoritarian by nature, so hot-button issues became a part of my daily discourse (sorry Mom). In undergrad, I often felt hard-pressed to find students who actually cared about current events or felt inclined to exercise their civic responsibilities. Those young people who shared my viewpoints became my closest friends, while those who disagreed with me were kept a safe distance away (always plotting the demise of our great nation, I unfairly presumed). Between the large size of most undergraduate institutions and the availability of niche blogs and ultra-partisan news sources, it is easy to entrench yourself with only those perspectives that concur with your own.
But law school presented a new challenge. To be sure, law school draws students of all backgrounds and ideologies and value systems, and KU is no different. Moreover, given KU Law’s small class size, it is rather difficult to avoid someone with a different perspective for any extended amount of time. Whether it is in the stacks, a classroom, or in the commons, there aren’t many places to hide.
Armed with this knowledge going in, I referred back to my mother’s advice. The prospect of going to bat against another student who planned on making a career out of argumentation seemed like a bad move. And given that I knew nobody when I started the program, I wanted to remain on positive grounds with my classmates. Ironically, so did everyone else. Their mothers must have given them the same lectures that mine did.
However, Election 2012 quickly proved to be too tempting for any of us, and student groups began holding debate watch-parties on weeknights and having presentations about voter-ID laws and free-speech rights. And while respect should be the expectation for all people at all times, KU Law students intentionally stepped even further into the foray of progress and understanding: following the watch-parties and presentations, there was always genuine inquiry into other perspectives, followed by honest, fruitful debate. My mother, although probably apprehensive at first, would have been impressed.
When election night finally came around, there was buzz in Green Hall. Anxiety levels (from fear of future and fear of finals) were high, and people were itching to leave the building to go watch the coverage. The election watch-parties were tense, too, with students frantically Facebooking and Tweeting the release of precinct results from races and initiatives across the country. When our non-Kansan classmates received news from back home that their favorite candidate had found victory or faced defeat, we rallied around them in excitement or disappointment.
When marriage initiatives passed for the first time ever in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington, and when Tammy Baldwin became the United States’ first openly gay senator, there was celebration for the LGBT students and allies for whom this moment meant so much. And when it was announced that Barack Obama had been reelected to a second term, regardless of students’ political affiliation or voting record or opinion of the result, there was a common sense of solidarity that we had ultimately achieved the audacious dream that our Founders had envisioned. Most importantly, we did it together.
Experiencing the 2012 election season as a KU Law student reminded me of how political discourse and the democratic process are supposed to function. It isn’t about being “right” or winning the debate or even having your candidate or issue prevail at the end of the day. It’s about understanding and working with the diverse perspectives that exist in all corners of the nation. It’s about celebrating historic civil rights victories that ultimately may have no effect on you. It’s about remembering that we are a nation founded on the principle, “Out of many, one.”
So, too, is the University of Kansas School of Law. Election Day made me proud to be an American and a Jayhawk.
— Jake McMillian, a first-year law student, is a KU Law Student Ambassador. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org