Education in an Echo chamber
On Saturday, November 7th, a party erupted on the corner of West Main and Corcoran in Durham, North Carolina. A tuba, a trumpet and a joyous crowd burst into the song “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In.” People ran through the streets with American flags on their backs, fluttering like superhero capes. An old lady drove by in a beat-up white Suburban, circling the block five times while crying tears of joy. A dance line broke out the cupid shuffle. A black truck stopped at the light and it’s radio thumped out “Another One Bites the Dust.” I lost count of the number of times I heard the lyrics “Fuck Donald Trump.” It was a display of pure jubilation. One could barely remember the anxiety of Tuesday, November 3rd.
That Tuesday night, my roommates and I stared at CNN and watched as John King reassured viewers that states were “Too close to call.” He manically zoomed in on his magic wall as votes for Donald Trump continued to stream in. We were dumbfounded and confused. Everything was awfully similar to the Tuesday four years earlier when I sat crunched over my laptop in disbelief as Trump was called to be the next president of the United States.
The scene that played out in my living room is an encapsulation of the political echo chamber that exists at Duke, and at private universities across the country. Students may enter universities to broaden their perspectives, but tend to find liberal majorities and widespread agreement. A study conducted by professors at Hamilton College and Xavier University found that private institutions have predominantly liberal faculty, but their presence does not indoctrinate students into their belief system. Private institutions attract liberal leaning students, they don’t create them. Elite institutions like this one misconstrue the reality of the political nature of the United States, and therefore are ill equipped to create leaders that can effectively reach those of a differing political opinion. At Duke, it is easy to forget that over 71 million Americans voted for Donald Trump.
Ryan Champaigne is the Co-President of Swing NC at Duke University, a group that works to elect progressive candidates in North Carolina. He grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, a town he describes as being in the “middle of nowhere.” Champaigne once witnessed a teacher’s son run through his school ripping a new-founded LGBTQ+ group’s signs off the walls.
When Champaigne arrived at Duke, he says “I thought it was great. Especially in the beginning. I was like, ‘These people. They really get it.’” He was soon disillusioned. “I heard somebody the other day that said ‘Imagine talking to a Trump supporter.’ Imagine it? It's 50% of our voting electorate. It's not that rare to find a Trump supporter, but I feel like people here just haven’t interacted with them.”
On an elite campus, it becomes difficult for people to even consider another person’s point of view. It’s not as though conservative students at Duke don’t exist, it's that they aren’t included in the majority of political conversations on campus. A student from Texas was hesitant to speak to me on the issue. Their initial response to my inquiry for an interview was “It’s honestly not worth it to express differing opinions around Duke.”
When I finally got the student on the phone, they told me, “One of the things that I find really shocking is that diversity is preached so highly around Duke, but not diversity of thought.” Without diversity of thought, we lack the ability to create political change beyond our campus.
They say, “Almost everyone who talks has the same opinion. If that's all anyone ever hears, no one's going to feel comfortable expressing their own opinion, especially when the university as an institution also kind of helps create this echo chamber by employing faculty who share the same opinions and having student organizations that share the same opinions.”
In 2019, Stefanie Pousoulides, a student at Duke, surveyed 1500 faculty members in Trinity and Pratt. She found that for each registered Republican professor, there were “nearly 13 Democrats.” The Duke College Republicans are no longer active on campus, while Duke is flooded with Democratic groups, from Champaigne's own organization, to Duke for Biden and Duke Democrats. Duke University does not poll which party students are registered with, but in the 2016 election, Durham County Board of Elections reported that for Precincts 2 and 5, the precincts that contain East and West Campus, 82% and 73%, respectively, voted for Hillary Clinton.
Just last week, Tucker Carlson stated that “You would have to be a desperately unhappy gender studies major with a degree from Duke to think defunding the police was a wise idea.” Duke’s liberalism was brought to the national stage by highlighting a department that graduates less than 10 students a year.
Tucker’s comment does not accurately represent Duke’s political history. Richard Nixon attended Law School at Duke, while Stephen Miller, a once infamous columnist at The Chronicle, is now a senior advisor to President Trump. Conservative masterminds have graduated from Duke, but now we protest when Republicans like John Bolton, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the UN, come to campus.
After election day, I assumed everyone on campus was as exhausted as I was. People exchanged knowing nods across the Bryan Center Plaza as if in mourning. I alternated between my zoom class and refreshing The New York Times home page. I anticipated a general consensus that people were ready to hear the news of Trump’s defeat, and that feeling was solidified on mid-Saturday when I felt like the entire world was celebrating. It was almost as if the state of North Carolina hadn’t gone red. It was as if 71 million people hadn’t cast a vote for Donald Trump.
That week, social media was flooded with posts about how one should be unfriended if they continue to support Trump in 2020. Champaigne detests this kind of attitude. It restricts the healthy conversations each political side needs to have to better understand one another. He says that “It's such a pessimistic view to have of America to think that there's just half of the population that's irredeemable. I just refuse to believe that.” The difficulty then comes to how one can facilitate conversations with those we do not agree with when students and faculty are overwhelmingly liberal.
In the week I spent obsessing over election results, it became clear that the limited interaction between ideological views on campus is representative of the greater United States. This isn’t a Duke University issue, but an issue in the lack of genuine interactions between conservative and liberal areas. Duke is situated in Durham County, where 80.6% of residents voted for Joe Biden. Duke also resides in the Research Triangle, a blue spot surrounded by red in a state that gained electoral votes for Trump. Cities in the United States are populated with blue voters, while rural areas are red.
People who fail to interact with areas outside of their own fail to arm themselves with the tools to have successful political discourse. No political science or public policy class can teach you negotiation skills if you shy away from conversations with your conversative uncle at Thanksgiving dinner.
Dr. Nicolas Carnes, a public policy professor at Duke, states that “No one's persuaded by a stranger telling them what to do. People are persuaded when they feel like you understand what they need and what they're trying to do, and you're trying to help them accomplish that.”
Daryl Davis is a Black blues musician. Over the past 30 years, Davis has been able to convince more than 200 members of the Klu Klux Klan to give up their robes by befriending them. This is an extreme example, but the sentiment still stands: significant change occurs at an individual level.
In an interview with NPR, Davis said, “I went in armed, not with a weapon, but with knowledge. I knew as much about the Klan, if not more than many of the Klan people that I interviewed. When they see that you know about their organization, their belief system, they respect you. Whether they like you or not, they respect the fact that you've done your homework.”
We need to foster mutual respect instead of demonizing others based on their political views. A canvassing field experiment found that people were more successful in their political persuasion when they exchanged conversations without judgement. Both ideological parties need to break from their prejudices against one another. We can’t label our conservative family members as crazy or lost causes. We can’t throw our hands up when politics is brought up over Thanksgiving dinner. These family members aren’t outliers in political discourse, but representations of a larger demographic of the United States.
Students at universities have the privilege of being a bridge across generations in the United States. We connect to those around us on campus, to the younger generation who look to us for guidance, and with the older generation of our parents and grandparents. We are positioned to be the leaders of difficult conversations. Dr. Carnes explains that “Political persuasion tends to happen really slowly. And it tends to happen in the context of deep meaningful relationships.” Instead of closing ourselves in, students at universities like Duke need to reach beyond their insular circles and engage in disagreements.
As someone who has spent hours on phone calls with potential voters, Champaigne expresses, “I think that first, you have to recognize that you're not always right. And you don't know everything...But it can feel like you know everything when everybody around you also believes the exact same thing.”
Although Saturday felt like a victory, North Carolina Democrats lost almost every race. Every candidate Champaigne had campaigned for failed. He says, “It's just so hard to think that we did a ton of work and then the candidates lost. It's almost like we did nothing.”
Champaigne compares political work to the greek mythological figure Sisyphus, who was given the eternal punishment of pushing a rock up a hill. “And yet,” He says, “nothing is gonna change if we don't talk to voters. Nothing is gonna change if we don't get out there.”