Barack Obama addressed thousands of supporters during a 2012 campaign event at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

When I worked on the Obama campaign, I was told that technology had rendered argument obsolete. I expected the usual campaign business, hordes of idealistic volunteers knocking on doors to advocate for the president, but I found reality less romantic: at headquarters, the number-crunchers discharged lists of likely supporters with pinpoint accuracy, which we followed with stringent orthodoxy. We were shepherds, not salesmen: we existed to get our people to the polls, not to waste energy on non-supporters. Indeed, this logic permeates campaigns, newsrooms and magazines on the left and the right—argument is not worth the exertion. And at the time, I agreed with it, but now my mind drifts back to Wisconsin, two days before the election.

I had come to Wisconsin to escape the spreadsheets and phone banks that had until then defined my work with the campaign. My new job was to guide Chicago’s surplus of volunteers to Wisconsin’s surplus of swing voters, thereby increasing turnout among “our people.” “The voters on your lists like us,” I explained to the bus with a confidence I didn’t quite feel. “Your job is not to argue. Your job is to get them to the polls.”

“But what if we meet a person who’s undecided?” asks a female voice.

“That probably won’t happen,” I say, “but if it does, tell them your story. We’re all on this bus for a reason, and that’s the most compelling case you can make.”

Six hours later, I shiver my way back to the bus. It had been a productive day. I had helped one woman set up a ride to the polls. Another had offered me coffee. Only two had slammed doors. Victory. But then, I see a middle-aged man approaching, trailed by two young girls. He pauses, his eyes moving to my clipboard. “Quick,” he grins. “Three reasons I should vote for the president.”

The question catches me off-guard. Ironically, I had never been asked to offer reasons, at least not so directly. Improvising, I rattle off something about Obamacare. He nods and I mention the wars. He nods again and I freeze. The seconds grow agonizing as I scramble to fill the silence. I hear my own voice: Tell them your story, it urges. That’s the most compelling case you can make. “—And,” I blurt, “I might like to get married someday.”

More silence. I feel very small. “So you’re a homosexual,” he whispers as if my sexuality were an unspeakable secret.

“Yes,” I say with a confidence I don’t quite feel, “and—”

“Have you ever read The Theology of the Body?” he interrupts.

I stare. Having spent a decade in Catholic schools, I hadn’t merely read the book: I had lived it.

“Yes, I have,” I sneer. “And frankly, I’m unconvinced.” We argue and argue and with each minute I grow angrier. “I’m sorry but I have a bus to catch.”

“I’ll pray for you,” he offers.

“Do me a favor,” I say, trembling. “Try to imagine how this feels—to have your life questioned by a stranger on the street.” I glance upward, probing for some sign of change, some twitch of empathy in his face.

“I’ll pray for you,” he offers again, and I storm off. A few steps in, I look back, surprised to see the two girls rejoin him as they make their way home. In all my indignation, I had forgotten the girls playing in the yard.

* * *

Later that night, as the bus hurtles towards Chicago, my mind pulls in two directions. Part of me wants to write off the conversation as a speed bump on the road to universal acceptance. History will judge this bigot, I think. But the other part lingers on the image of the two daughters—out for a walk with Daddy. And as the lights of Chicago grow closer, I do something I haven’t done for years: I pray for the man.

The campaign reasoned that talking to the other side wasted time. Maybe they were right. Maybe polarization is unshakable as the pundits decree. Maybe the man will never change.

But I also wonder about the costs of introversion. A recent study found that personally knowing a gay person practically doubles support for marriage equality. And now I worry, because maybe the problem isn’t schisms but our refusal to talk across them. And maybe if we deem divides uncrossable, we make divisions inevitable.

So it goes. And ratings rule, and campaigns rally, and the echo chamber echoes, and we gate our minds as we gate our communities.

For now, I’ll keep knocking on doors, regardless of who waits behind them. Maybe we would all benefit if my fellow campaigners, as well as broadcasters and journalists, did the same.