Standing in front of the class, two best friends on different sides of the political spectrum are schooling their Chanhassen High School peers on how to discuss election issues — and stay friends.
“You see so much polarization, where two friends disagree, and they get into a heated battle about politics, then they are no longer friends,” said Elijah Rockhold, 17.
Rockhold and Sam Buisman, 18, formed their school’s first nonpartisan political activism club in September. Since then they have spent their after-school hours prepping their peers for Election Day and whatever comes next.
Chanhassen High lacked a forum for political discourse, Rockhold said, and teachers were hesitant to talk about politics at all.
“Some teachers hear the word politics and they shrivel up,” he said. “In my experience there has been no constructive political class besides U.S. government.”
More than 30 students typically attend the club’s Thursday meetings, where Rockhold and Buisman lead a 20-minute presentation on current events followed by 30 minutes of question time. They’ve kept the discussion about the presidential candidates nonpartisan by offering up equal points about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and sticking to the facts.
“It is really refreshing to see people come together in this club,” said Rockhold.
The two students have a natural rapport that makes their discussions flow with ease whether they are shooting off facts on the candidates’ policies or joking about Ken Bone, the red-sweatered celebrity from the second presidential debate. The two never appear to be stumped by questions from their peers.
“They really do their research,” said Carrie Lyman, Chanhassen High’s U.S. government teacher and club supervisor.
Students feel comfortable speaking up and asking questions about anything tied to the election. On Thursday, students in the club posed questions on the candidates’ plans for the space program, their stances on LGBTQ issues and tax policies. When Rockhold and Buisman brought up Clinton’s e-mails, the group groaned in unison.
“Eli and Sam create a welcoming environment,” said Mikayla Talley, an 18-year-old senior. Students even jump in to add their own knowledge of the election into the conversation.
In the Republican stronghold of Carver County, when the conversation begins to appear one-sided, Buisman and Rockhold are quick to clear the air. They did not offer their opinions when one student asked which candidate they should vote for based on national security policies. Instead, they offered the facts on each candidate’s positions and moved on.
Like a classroom, the club offers a chance for conversation as opposed to a lunchroom debate, said senior John Mahr, 18.
Rockhold and Buisman practice extemporaneous speaking on the debate team, which allows them to stand in front of their peers with little to no preparation and rattle off facts about the election.
Sophomore Shelby Jacobson, 16, said she has learned more from Rockhold and Buisman about the candidate’s policies than from watching the debates.
Buisman and Rockhold have spent their four years at the high school in classes together. The two equate their friendship to that of Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia. In the interests of nonpartisanship, they won’t divulge who is who.
“We are on essentially opposite sides of the political spectrum, and as a result we have seen how great of a friendship you can have, despite disagreeing with the person on virtually everything when it comes to politics,” Buisman said.
The two ended their last pre-election meeting by encouraging students to get out and vote. While Rockhold is too young, Buisman said he is heading out on Election Day to cast his ballot.
Once the election is over, they hope to keep up the club’s momentum, and cover polarizing topics with a nonpartisan lens.
“In a democracy it is every citizen’s responsibility to make sure that every citizen is politically active ... because a democracy only works if the citizens of the democracy participate,” Buisman said.