Civic Engagement.

Last week, I got an email from Senator Ben Sasse (R) inviting me to a town hall at a local library. If this election has done nothing else for my political ideology, it’s shown me that listening, truly listening, to the other side is vital is we are to survive. So I decided I would go.

It was quite the experience.

First of all, I was the youngest person in the room, save for interns. Everyone else had at least 20-30 years on me. Second, the room was packed. I counted over 50 people in the main room, and they set up a satellite room with extra chairs as well. That was somewhat encouraging, except for the fact that young constituents weren’t there. That bothered me, as far as a harbinger of November is concerned. Young voters must learn how to show up.

Second, the man next to me and I had a lovely conversation, just about life experiences, nothing political. I was glad for this kind interaction with another human being, because it tempered my opinion of him later: as the senator was speaking, my neighbor said loudly, “This is bullshit. This isn’t what we came for.”If I hadn’t had a humanizing conversation with him earlier, my brain would’ve jumped into all kinds of assumptions.

(Props to the senator for not losing it. I walked away incredibly impressed with Sasse’s composure in front of a hostile audience–because it was quite hostile.)

Third, the perceived “bullshit” was basically a failure of most in attendance to read. In the email I received, it clearly stated it was a constituent services event. Sasse and his staff wanted the people in attendance to know what they could do, what kinds of direct change and actions they are capable of. The email also explicitly stated he would not use the event to discuss the election. Unfortunately, most of the people did not read that part, because when they started grumbling about why he wouldn’t endorse Trump, another man said loudly, “This is a waste of my time. I don’t even know why I came.” But then he proceeded to sit through the rest of the meeting. People, man.

Fourth, the senator wanted to know who in the room had accessed his office to “get things done.” A man spoke about a convoluted law regarding veterans’ spouses that the Senator and Congressman Brad Ashford were able to fix and arrange the needed care. No one else offered any stories about services they’ve used from the senator–I didn’t even know myself about what a senator’s staff is capable of doing until today. For that, I am glad I went.

I am also glad I went so I could hear the following, because if I hadn’t been there myself I wouldn’t believe it. A woman who appeared to be in her 70s raised her hand: “I have a women’s health care question. Why aren’t we hearing the truth about what is happening in Germany right now, with terrorists taking women and cutting off the clitoris? When will we hear about that, and if we let those people in, how are the women in the room safe?”

I’ll just let you sit with that one for a moment. (Yeah, not a health care question, m’dear.)

Senator Sasse ended the Q&A after addressing her concerns (in which he made a great point about our national security policy not really addressing non-state actors), and then excused himself to go outside and meet with the protesters–a small group of people advocating for stricter gun control laws stayed outside during his presentation. I stayed behind to talk with a staffer about education policy for a quick minute, and then left. As I left, Sasse wasn’t talking with protesters, because he was surrounded by the angry people from inside who wanted him to endorse Trump. I don’t know if he did.

I was silent during the meeting, and I only  bristled at one comment: Senator Sasse said that we aren’t teaching children the First Amendment. I spend an entire day explicitly teaching it, and an entire year reinforcing it. It’s what I do as a journalism teacher. So he challenged the audience to name the five freedoms in the First Amendment, and he seemed pleased (it not a bit surprised) when from the back I said, “Speech, press, religion, assembly and petition the government.” That was a nice moment for me.

I do not agree with Ben Sasse on probably 95% of his politics. But let me tell you how I got an email from his office about the event today: during the senate filibuster a month or so ago, I saw that he asked a question. Senators asking questions during filibusters prolongs the filibuster. He took it on the chin from his Twitter followers (he is a great follow, by the way), because they saw it as him supporting the filibuster. He said he supports debate on tough issues. On hearing other sides. I sent his office a thank you email for asking the question, and expressed my own feelings on gun control. Now I get emails from his office about events.

One of the best ways to figure out how you feel on any topic is to look at another person’s perspective of the same topic, trying so hard to reserve judgment until the end. Here’s what I learned about Ben Sasse from today’s meeting:

I don’t agree with him on everything.

I do believe that he and his staffers want to serve the people of Nebraska.

I also believe that if we continue to sit in our own echo chambers, surrounded by people who agree with us, and we remain recalcitrant to any kind of compromise, that will be our downfall. I think that was part of what the senator was trying to do today in front of a crowd that was upset at his refusal to endorse Donald Trump for president, was to find some common middle ground and remind them of the role of the legislative branch. Unfortunately, the more vocal people in attendance did not appear interested in that.

We have to start showing up. We have to start bringing our young adults. But above all else, we have to start listening with open minds and hearts if we have any hope of healing the damage this presidential campaign has done to our psyche.

Leave a Reply