“There are no teams, no winners, no losers.” And with that statement, co-head of the Young Democrats Club, Kian Ahmadi ’24, opened the floor to this spring’s Middle Ground Conversation. Co-hosted by the Young Democrats and Young Republicans clubs, the Middle Ground conversations offer a space for Hopkins students to have safe, productive dialogue over various political issues.
With the clubs having hosted a discussion on freedom of speech earlier this year, April’s roundtable on capital punishment marks the second session of the Middle Ground Discussion Series in the 2022-2023 school year. In previous years, the two clubs often ran heated political debates, so the moderated format of Middle Ground gatherings indicates an intentional shift on the part of the clubs toward “peaceful and productive dialogue among students across the political aisle,” as Ahmadi says.
When asked about the political climate on campus, students highlighted the typically progressive views of the Hopkins population. Grey Fisher ’24 summarizes his take on Hopkins politics: “I feel like there’s definitely more of a siding towards ‘liberal’ on the political spectrum at Hopkins. There are conservatives, but they aren’t as loud, I guess.” Connor Tomosulo ’24 adds, “It’s more progressive than the average school, but there’s still discussion. Young Republicans and Young Democrats both have a decent membership.” Tomosulo notes that, “Outside [of the clubs], most of the stuff we do is bipartisan and not really affiliated with either party… Outside of 21st Century [history elective], I think we have less civics exposure than some other schools, but I know there’s a lot of participation in political extracurriculars.” Participants highlighted Gen Z’s role in the increasingly polarized political scene.
Andrew Zheng ’24 says, “Our generation has gotten more involved with politics lately, and while that’s good, part of it is bad in the sense that there’s a lot of hate between people in different political parties.” Ingrid Slattery ’23, co-head of the Young Democrats Club, describes the issue between the partisan divide: “If that’s always on the front of our minds, it can be hard to have a conversation that’s not competitive or hostile.” Zheng described the Middle Ground as “a place where people can go in with an open mind and try to talk with people that disagree with them instead of saying ‘I hate those kinds of people.’”
The shift to “Middle Ground” represents an intentional, even optimistic step away from the acrimony that characterized past political debates on the Hill, organizers said. Co-head of Young Republicans Sean Kelly ’25 says that while “in general, most people are respectful of each others’ beliefs … in the context of debates in the past … sometimes the floodgates have been opened, and there are bouts of shouting and yelling which are never productive.” Ahmadi shared this sentiment, saying, “The issue with [fiery arguments] is we don’t find a middle ground, we only recognize our disagreements.” Slattery says, “In past debates, I’ve seen it turn performative. There are people who are just trying to get the best of [one another] and just be right. [They’re] not really thinking about the issue or listening to the other person.” Tomosulo adds that previous debates felt more “exclusive” and admires the new accessibility of the conversation: “Opening up the discourse to the entire Hopkins community was a really smart decision and it leads to a lot less yelling.” The new format has paid off according to Kelly, who says, “Conversations seem far less heated and aggressive than in the past and it has been a concrete improvement.”
This new type of conversation generates genuine conversation and encourages collaboration and listening. Ahmadi says, “Regardless of whether or not you think you’re right or wrong, you listen to each other so that you can learn about yourself and the community you’re in. Because that is the best way to inform your own opinions, I think. Without that, we will always turn to the people who think just like us, and we will not expand our own belief systems.” The moderating experience also fostered greater camaraderie between the clubs themselves, with Kelly praising Ahmadi’s support for the jointly-run events: “Kian is responsible in large part for creating and fostering the idea of the Middle Ground conversations, and it’s been a joy to collaborate with him and the Young Democrats to further political discussion on campus for those interested.”
Of the most recent conversation, Ahmadi concludes, “If you leave here and you think that this has complicated how you think about capital punishment, that’s a good thing.” In the wake of the conversations, Tomosulo finds his perspective more nuanced, as do many of the participants. He says, “I still kind of have the same opinions that I did, but I’d consider them more nuanced because I now understand where the other sides are coming from.” Co-head of the Young Republicans Club Mikey Lau ’23 shares a similar stance, stressing the importance of various viewpoints in enriching campus culture: “Hopkins prides itself on its diversity, yet it does not adequately promote intellectual diversity. Whether it is intentional or not, friends and teachers oftentimes pressure students to adopt their own, generally liberal, political perspectives. My hope is that Middle Ground has helped ameliorate this pressure to conform by encouraging students both to think independently and to consider alternative, uncomfortable points of view.”