Political engagement requires a greater emphasis on facts for current national dialogue

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COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. They place their hands on the animal to figure out what it looks like.

Later, the men have a heated debate, each one defending their woefully incomplete view of the animal. One man felt the trunk; he argues it’s a serpentine beast. Another felt the tusk and insists it’s covered in a shell, and so on. When I was in college, public policy debates were a lot like this parable. I hate to admit it, but my fellow students and I could be a lot like the blind men: arguing without a complete picture of the issues at hand.

Every generation probably looks back at its college years and feels that way. What makes the situation unique for you and me is that we’re grappling with a lack of information in a time of great polarization and hyperpartisanship. That’s a dangerous mix that has serious consequences for our democracy.

According to a study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, between 2000 and 2016, the number of college freshmen who described their political leanings as “middle of the road” dropped by nearly 10 percent. In my experience, this hardening of political views makes people more likely to simply adopt the position endorsed by their political party — and less inspired to seek out new information that might challenge their assumptions.

That approach has done little to advance our national debate about important issues, and it’s left young Americans feeling pessimistic about our future. According to the MTV/AP-NORC Youth Political Pulse Survey, nearly 7 in 10 young Americans think our country’s politics are “dysfunctional,” in part because people can’t come together and work out their differences. There is one bright spot in the survey: 79 percent believe our generation would do a better job of running the country. I agree, but we will have to lead differently. Fortunately, Free the Facts wants to give us that opportunity.

The summer before my senior year, I attended an event that Free the Facts held for interns in Washington, DC. Truth be told, I showed up for the free food, but I got involved and brought the organization to my campus twice because of what I learned.

Many organizations want to get students civically engaged, but most of them serve a partisan aim. Free the Facts is different. Its goal is to get America’s brightest minds working on our toughest policy challenges — and through its college tour and leadership programs, the organization supports students who want to get involved, regardless of what party they vote for or which policy solution they want to pursue.

Free the Facts can come to William and Mary, where our Founding Fathers learned and debated, to help you learn everything you need to know about America’s entitlement programs. Without the facts, we’re all just blind people arguing over an elephant … That’s why you should email contact@freefacts.org to see how you can get involved!

Email Venkatram Gopal at contact@freefacts.org.