My name is Julie Johnson, I use she/her pronouns, and I am a junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in Riverdale, New York. Anyone who knows me well can speak to how passionate I am about civic engagement and political reform. Because of this, it is ironic to say that politics used to be my least favorite topic. Yet this is not without good reason. Growing up, I saw firsthand what politics could do to divide people, and I wanted no part in it. 

Coming from a more conservative family– in which my parents identify as republican and libertarian–and attending Fieldston–a notoriously liberal school– hasn’t always been easy. Over the years I have been reminded by my family that I’m at Fieldston for “the education, not the politics.” What they mean by that is an education based in ethics, not the pushing of a political agenda. However, I realized early that at Fieldston, education and politics come hand in hand, whether I liked it or not. I found myself being pulled in two directions by my educators and my parents, each wanting my political beliefs to line up with theirs. I found myself not knowing what to believe or who to trust. I didn’t want to choose between my family and my school. 

It took years of me continually defending my home at Fieldston and Fieldston at my home to make me realize I didn’t have to choose. I didn’t have to choose between democrat and republican, left and right, red and blue, my family and Fieldston, because there are more than two options. 

Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Julie Johnson, I am a junior in high school, and politically I am an independent. I remember one of the first times I announced this in a classroom setting and a classmate of mine responded with, “Being an independent just means you are indecisive and don’t want to choose. You stand for nothing.” This couldn’t be more false in my mind. As an independent, I am someone who knows very confidently what I believe and I recognize that those beliefs might not fall clearly within either party. 

Moreso, I am someone who refuses to conform to the ideals of a party because I know politics is more than that, and party politics is a game I have no interest in playing. The second you slap a one-word label on the entirety of your political perspective, anyone you meet is likely to make a number of assumptions about your beliefs and opinions, perhaps without even talking to you. Instead, these labels–one’s party affiliations–only serve to simplify and belittle the complexity of their viewpoint. They don’t account for nuance or diversity of thought within generalized, stereotyped “party” ideologies. They feed into hyperpolarization. This categorization in my mind is both counterproductive and destructive. Civic engagement is supposed to bring people together yet instead, more often than not, it divides us significantly. 

I have lived this division for the past 12 years of my life, the duration of my time at Fieldston. However, this is no fault of schools like Fieldston or families like my own. Instead, the problem arises from the structure of our political system and the toxic culture it creates. 

The two-party system was never in the plans for American government. Instead it was an afterthought, a mutation, born out of polarization from the start. Throughout the course of American history it has only grown larger and more powerful, creating a duopoly of our political system. Unfortunately, the two parties are only interested in advancing their own party’s cause at the expense of the individual voter – that is, at what will be your expense. We all suffer when our country faces deep-rooted hyperpolarization that makes Americans unable to engage in civic discourse and thus unable to make real progress, to create any change. The two-party system is the driving force behind today’s unbearable political climate because the survival of these parties is grounded in and dependent on political polarization and isolating any other political thoughts that would threaten their success. And thus, it forces us to choose. From a rather young age, we are forced to support one party or the other. We grow to defend the party of our choice at every chance – wanting our beliefs to be those that stand at the end of the day. In doing so we become ensnared in a toxic competitive nature, caring more about winning the argument, emerging victorious from the debate, and changing the minds of others than addressing the problems at hand through meaningful discourse, collaboration, and innovation. Everyday we experience this infectious mentality in class discussions, view it on social media, and find it in the news. 

So now my question to you is, what are you going to do to challenge toxic partisanship? Sitting back in your seat is no longer an option, because you can’t count on the politicians in Washington to advocate on your behalf.  The future of this country’s political climate is in your hands as part of the largest, most diverse demographic of the rising electorate. Instead of having the same old conversations about how hyperpolarized our country is, I challenge you to do your part to effect change and bridge the gap our political system creates. I ask you, the next time politics comes up in your classroom discussion, will you simply take what’s being said and repeated at face value or will you ask questions, investigate the information presented, and think critically about your own perspective? The next time you encounter someone with beliefs different than your own, instead of immediately focusing on shutting them down, changing their mind, and winning the argument, will you listen to what it is they have to say, consider them on their merit, and learn all you can from that experience – even if it’s just learning how to better articulate your own opinion? When you go out and vote, will you vote for a candidate just because they share your party affiliation and you are concerned with turning that seat from red to blue or will you thoughtfully examine a candidate’s personhood and policies, and cast your vote because you wholeheartedly believe in their positions? 

Ultimately, I can’t be the one to tell you what to think, the choice is yours. The choice is yours to realize that politics does not exist in a binary. That the world is not painted solely in shades of red and blue. That you need to take your mind back, because independence in your ideas is your greatest freedom. Only then can we put aside our petty political feuds and begin writing the next chapter of American history, together.