UT professor who wrote pro-Trump op-ed says campus political discourse improving

Daniel Bonevac, a philosophy professor at UT Austin, sat down with KXAN for an interview on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, a year after publishing a pro-Trump op-ed. (KXAN/Juan Salinas)
Daniel Bonevac, a philosophy professor at UT Austin, sat down with KXAN for an interview on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, a year after publishing a pro-Trump op-ed. (KXAN/Juan Salinas)

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  About a year after a professor in Austin wrote that supporting then-candidate Donald Trump wasn’t winning him many friends on campus, Texas lawmakers will study whether free speech is being stifled on college campuses. KXAN’s media partners at the Texas Tribune reported this week it will happen before the next legislative session.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked legislators to look into the issue after protesters disrupted a conservative state representative’s speech at Texas Southern University earlier this month.

The professor, Daniel Bonevac, teaches philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post about a month before the 2016 election when the paper was looking for pro-Trump voices, Bonevac told KXAN in an interview a year after the op-ed’s publication.

“The response on campus was actually mostly positive,” he said. “A number of students actually came up to me and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were a Trump supporter.'”

It wasn’t the response Bonevac was expecting. “There was no hostility, no name-calling,” he said. The editorial, titled “What it’s like to be a college professor who supports Donald Trump,” took aim at what he saw as a homogenization of political thought on campus.

“There were not many academics who were pro-Trump at the time,” he told KXAN, “and certainly not many who had gone public.”

“The left has come to dominate college campuses over the past 20 years,” he wrote in the Oct. 2016 op-ed, “and I can’t blame anyone whose views are not already well-known for declining to become a target.”

Colleagues feared for their careers if they publicly supported the Republican candidate, he wrote; he faced criticism from friends, and “people who definitely oppose Trump don’t even want to debate the issues with me anymore.”

“There was such overheated rhetoric in the public at large,” Bonevac said in the interview with KXAN. People weren’t listening to each other, he said, even at UT, which he wrote was committed “to diversity in all its forms, including diversity of thought.”

“But I see that settling down now into more honest discussions and debates about various issues,” he said.

Political discourse is a long way from perfect, but Bonevac feels the tide turning. “People are recognizing, look, we really do have serious issues to deal with, and we need people to seriously confront those and discuss policy, not just call each other names.”

There’s still a big gap to bridge in the political landscape. A new study from the Pew Research Center finds Democrats and Republicans have grown significantly further apart, even in just the last few years. The research shows from 1994-2004 most Americans — whether they identified with the political left or right — shared views in the middle of the political spectrum.

The gap started to widen between 2004 and 2011, with voters becoming increasingly polarized; from 2011 to this year, the divide increased sharply, showing a greater discrepancy between average conservative and liberal voters than what existed 20 years ago.

The truth, Bonevac said, is often somewhere in that widening gap.

“There’s a kind of overconfidence, you might say, in our discourse. Everybody thinks they have the answer,” he said. “Often, people really don’t want to hear the other view. Occasionally, in fact, a student says, ‘You know, you don’t know how it made me feel to hear arguments on that side presented,’ as if somehow it’s a personal affront to hear arguments from the other side.”

His prescription to help heal the divide is simple: Be less certain. Seek out news or opinion sources that you don’t automatically agree with, engage with local news and perhaps most importantly, get to know your neighbors and what’s happening in your own community.

“I think the most important thing is to listen,” Bonevac said, “to start realizing people have reasons to hold the views that they do.”

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