How does polarization manifest itself on campus?
April 19, 2019
Bridging the Divide
Brett Zaslavsky and Kate Westa
Brett Zaslavsky and Kate Westa are the Co-Presidents of WeListen, a student-led organization facilitating bi-weekly discussions about contentious issues which seek to bridge the American political divide, both on-campus and beyond.
The state of politics on our campus, and on campuses around the nation, has been the topic of much contention. Narratives of college students embracing “safe spaces” and actively sheltering themselves from opposing political viewpoints seem to be a mainstream facet of our politics.
Separate from division, political apathy is a consistent (if less widely talked about) problem beleaguering our campus. Michigan is not alone in this phenomenon; millennials, as a generation, have among the lowest voter turnout rates in America. In addition to the statistics, though, are the ample anecdotes to back this up. Most students can attest to their friends and peers being turned off by the divisive nature of our politics, which often discourages them from voting. Any conversation about the state of campus politics must also
address the broad lack of engagement which serves as a systemic problem for our generation. Beyond the sensationalized bickering and protests, there is an enormous bloc of students entirely disinterested in the affairs of their communities or their nation. Re-engaging students to be active participants in the political process is a pressingly important, if overlooked, aspect. With projects like the Big Ten Voting Challenge and the 90% Pledge, our University can be proud of the active steps being taken to correct the phenomenon of low turnout.
It seems glaringly obvious that a sense of political division is pervasive on our campus, just as it is on campuses all across America. When polled, 71% of respondents think partisanship in American politics has reached a dangerous point. One in six people have stopped talking to a close friend or family member because of political differences. Study after study shows that we are rapidly coming apart, and college campuses are no exception.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Because of this unprecedented amount of division that has disseminated throughout our body politics, people are looking for opportunities to reunite. We’re proud that our organization, WeListen, is working to address the challenges to civic discourse on college campuses. What we’ve seen in our two-year history has been a meaningful willingness on the part of college students to engage in hard conversations, question their own beliefs, and hold themselves to a standard of intellectual honesty and serious inquiry often unrecognized in mainstream narratives about college students. Through bi-weekly conversation sessions around a host of contentious and timely topics (including, but not limited to, Judicial Confirmations at the height of Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation; Environmental Policy amidst President Trump’s departure from the Paris Accords; and Gun Control in the midst of a national epidemic of gun violence), we feel that we can significantly refute the claim that all college students isolate themselves from those hard conversations. In bitter weather, or in the thick of midterm season, WeListen has encouraged hundreds of students to turn out and question their beliefs, humanize the other side, and engage insightfully with those of opposing political perspectives. Continuing this work, both on Michigan’s campus and beyond, will be an integral part of demonstrating the power of campus discourse.
While organizations with missions similar to WeListen’s can be found on campuses and in communities across the country, there are components of our operational structure which make us unique. Specifically, we operate using an algorithm to create the most diverse political groups as possible. Session attendees fill out a survey asking for their political affiliation on a seven-point liberal-conservative scale, and also asks for an ideological scale specific to the issue of that week’s talk. While both are considered in sorting groups, greater weight is applied on the issue-specific question, as opposed to the broader party affiliation. This decision is not merely a logistical one, but a conscious consideration of the fact that we are seeking to transcend the party-lines which seem to define and shape so much of national politics.
Most who have attended WeListen sessions can vouch for the insight provided; students often articulate that the session aided them in “humanizing” the other side and having greater intellectual empathy for ideological opponents. Beyond these lofty concepts, though, we believe that our sessions also help to validate a more fundamental truth.
The famous Greek philosopher Epictetus is attributed with the saying: “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” We’re entirely confident that as long as we listen with the intent to meaningfully learning from one another, a world in which civil discourse is the norm can become a reality.
Conservatives on Campus
I arrived at the University of Michigan for the start of my freshman year just three months before the 2016 election. The campus, along with the nation, was divided and full of tension. This tension continued throughout my freshman year and I noticed more and more students unwilling to have conversations with those across the aisle from them. At a university where intellectual diversity should be celebrated and encouraged, I saw this concept shifting to one that was discouraged and looked down upon.
On a liberal college campus, it can be intimidating to be a conservative. Between the protests, name-calling, threats, and even acts of aggression, it often concerns me that conservative-focused events on campus need ample amounts of security, but normal events do not.
Just this semester, Students for Life, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and the Network of Enlightened Women set up the “Cemetery of the Innocents.” This event, which displayed small pink crosses to remember the millions of innocent lives lost to abortion, had to be protected by two police officers. Several individuals repeatedly showed up to throw, kick, and steal the crosses the organizations had placed in the ground.
These acts are not uncommon. In my time at the university, conservatives have been spat at, fliers are consistently ripped down for conservative events, and vulgar names are used frequently in place of productive conversations. These actions are carried out by individuals of all political thought who do not know how to disagree in a respectful manner. It is these types of actions that have propelled me into organizations like YAF that continue to fight for the ideas of individual freedom and free speech on campus, while challenging students to acknowledge facts and pursue truth.
YAF and other conservative students fight every day to protect the liberties and speech of all students—even those who disagree with us. Our country was founded by individuals of diverse thought who came together to achieve something great. Those same practices can and should still apply today, especially at public schools that receive taxpayer dollars and have students with all sorts of opinions.
In my experience, a vast majority of professors and administrators are fair and tolerant towards all political views. Some of my best conversations during college have been with professors who respectfully challenge students’ thoughts or ideas based on ideological differences. However, there are still many instances where this is unfortunately not the case.
For example, to combat Ben Shapiro coming to campus, an event proudly hosted by YAF, the University of Michigan History Department and History Club put on a protest event. Normally, this is something I would applaud. If you disagree with an event or speaker, don’t attempt to shut it down or obnoxiously protest; have another event or, even better, go to the event and ask questions. This protest event, entitled “When Provocateurs Dabble in History: Ben Shapiro and the Enwhitenment,” analyzed Shapiro’s new book, which, at the time of the protest event, had yet to come out, and which no one on the protest panel had read.
I have been told countless times by university administrators that departments and colleges are unable to sponsor political events, a decision I found to be great for a public institution. It seems as though this is not the case when the political ideologies are switched.
At a public university as large as ours, professors should understand and respect that they teach students with varying opinions. Professors and administrators need to guide students on how to think, not necessarily what to think. They have a right to their own personal opinions just like students, but should keep those separate from the lectures and overall mission of the university.
I was recently speaking with a professor who is a mentor to me and many students in the Ann Arbor area. He said to me, “Our school is currently educating our nation’s future leaders. We must do better.” It was at this moment that I fully understood the importance of conservative groups like YAF on our campus and at campuses all across the nation. Students cannot be unwilling to partake in productive conversations, opting instead to immerse themselves in a bubble of their own political thought. At a university of this size and with this much influence, we must do our very best to educate students to always pursue truth, but also to use the freedom of speech both maturely and productively.
I am proud to stand for conservative beliefs, and groups like Young Americans for Freedom will not be stopped from acknowledging facts, pursuing truth, and fighting for a unified country that protects everyone’s God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Real Polarization—An Objective Fact of Capitalist Society. Fight for Socialism!
The International Youth and Students for Social Equality at the University of Michigan
The International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) is the youth and student wing of the Socialist Equality Party. We are a leading voice on campus against social inequality, war, and the attack on democratic rights. We fight to turn students to the working class and provide an international and scientific perspective, based on the lessons of the 20th century, to fight for the socialist transformation of society. The IYSSE has been a student club at U-M since 2006.
The IYSSE, the student organization of the Socialist Equality Party, fights for socialism. We do not advocate for a reformation of capitalism, but for a revolutionary socialist perspective among workers and youth. We hold weekly meetings to discuss contemporary politics, history, and theory. On April 15, we are hosting a public meeting titled “Why Are They Back?” with a guest speaker from Germany on the historical lessons of the fight against fascism. We urge those who wish to fight for genuine socialism to attend our event, email us at email@example.com, and follow our Facebook page (facebook.com/IYSSEUM).
“Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.” – Karl Marx: Capital, Volume I
The question of “political polarization,” as it is generally raised in the media, is incorrectly posed. Behind the concept lies the assumption that the Republicans are moving to the right and the Democrats to the left, and that this divergence is bad and must be overcome. Generally, this argument is coupled with the claim that the majority of people lie in the “center.”
There are several problems with this analysis. First, it is not the case that the Democratic Party is shifting to the left. Both parties are moving—and have been moving for some time—toward the political right—defined as support for policies that increase inequality, expand the war, and attack democratic rights. The differences that exist between the Republicans and the Democrats are far less significant than what the two parties share in their opposition to the interests of the working class. As Barack Obama put it after the election of Donald Trump, the conflict between these two parties is an “intramural scrimmage” between two teams on the same side.
The Democrats center their opposition to Trump not on his fascistic attacks on immigrants, his warmongering or his assault on workers. Instead, they have attacked Trump based on allegations that he has been insufficiently aggressive against Russia. The Democrats fully support intensifying the war in the Middle East and against Russia, the logic of which is the clash of two nuclear powers. They also demand censorship of the Internet, which has already taken effect through opaque manipulations of Facebook and Google algorithms that demote left-wing, anti-war, and socialist viewpoints.
The Trump administration is not an aberration in an otherwise healthy, democratic society. It is a symptom of a broader political disease, of which the Democrats are another expression. The Obama administration was responsible for deporting more immigrants than any other president in US history, bailing out the banks, overseeing the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in US history, prolonging the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, launching new wars against Libya and Syria, and backing the Saudi war against Yemen.
The role of figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to politically chloroform the anti-capitalist sentiments of workers and youth by channeling social anger back into the Democratic Party. Sanders, the self-styled “socialist” has recently aligned himself with the U.S. regime-change operation in Venezuela under the guise of “humanitarian aid,” while Ocasio-Cortez, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, gave effusive praise to war hawk John McCain after his death.
The second error with this analysis is the assumption that somehow “polarization” is bad, something that should be or can be eliminated. In fact, “polarization” is an objective fact of capitalist society, embedded in social relations. However, the polarization is not between the Democrats and Republicans, but between the ruling class—those who own the corporations and banks—and the working class, the vast majority of the population forced to sell its labor power on the market for a wage.
Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates now own almost as much wealth as the poorest half of the American population. The wealthiest Americans live on average 20 years longer than the poorest. Forty percent of total household wealth belongs to the top 1 percent. About 20 percent belongs to the top 0.1 percent, equivalent to the bottom 90 percent’s wealth share.
The working class is beginning to fight back. Last year, the US had the largest number of strikes since 1986, including a strike of tens of thousands of teachers. In France over 100,000 “Yellow Vest” protesters have been participating in weekly mass demonstrations for nearly three months. In January, 70,000 “maquiladora” workers in Mexico went on the largest North American strike in over two decades. A Gallup Poll released last year showed that more 18–29-year-olds have a positive view of socialism than capitalism.
However, all this comes with an ominous warning: History has shown massive levels of social inequality and war are incompatible with democratic forms of rule. Far-right parties and political figures have re-emerged around the world, including the United States. The ruling elites, fearful of a mass mobilization of the working class, are beginning to turn to fascistic forces. There is a real danger facing the working class everywhere.
President Trump’s fascistic February 19, 2019 tirades against socialism during a speech in Miami show what the ruling class fears above all else: socialism itself. Trump announced, “The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere.”
It is not socialism’s “twilight hour,” but its resurgence.
Ignorance is Not Bliss
Danielle is a pre-law student in the LSA Honors Programs, majoring in political science with a focus in political theory. She works in the Roosevelt Institute reforming Michigan’s definition of incapacitation in sexual assault law.
The University of Michigan has a reputation as a hyper-liberal campus. Such an assertion negates the existence of people who identify differently. To make such an overgeneralization is to make people who don’t fit into the generalization ignored before they even get here. Not everyone at Michigan is politically active or aware. Not everyone at Michigan is liberal. Political views aren’t binary. These assumptions and generalizations have gotten us to the polarized place our country is in. Michigan has great diversity, yet due to our current political climate, this diversity means immense political polarization. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Michigan, nor are we the exception. We have come to a place in our country in which we can no longer respectfully disagree, or agree to disagree. Rather, disagreement is dealt with by personally attacking one another.
I am very liberal. I am very vocal. Many would expect that because I go to Michigan, I do not encounter impacts of polarization or that my views foster more polarization for others. I consider myself to be a Marxist, in theory, and a Democratic Socialist in practice. Once I say those terms, people tend to assume I’m radical or will be off-put and I must be crazy or ignorant. That is the issue. We assume we know someone and their values based off of relatively meaningless terms. We judge someone when we hear they identify as a republican or democrat. This country attaches incorrect characterizations to all political views. However, this is not to say that it is easy to stay neutral or impartial. It is very difficult for me, as it is for all, to resist the urge to attach a character judgment to particular political views.
I have had a myriad of experiences with political polarization on campus. During my freshman orientation, I met someone who identified as a libertarian and liked Trump. We were able to have a very civil and, in his words, “productive” conversation. I have learned to ask questions before I assume, or judge. Yet, I am quite sure that he thought the conversation went well because I held back on my views. I didn’t even really talk about them, other than notifying him I was liberal. The rest of the conversation I just asked him questions about what he thought and challenged him to think through why he believes what he does. Unfortunately, most people are not as open-minded, even when you hold back your views.
I stood in a trance as disarray surrounded me, people in front and behind me eagerly waiting for a sandwich in The South Quad Dining Hall. Through the haze came a voice that caught my attention, a girl behind me faced her friend and said, “If Bernie wins, I think I will have to move to Spain.” As a Bernie supporter, this struck me as quite confusing. Yes, his beliefs can be polarizing, but it’s not like he wanted to take away her rights or anyone’s rights. This sort of comment and close-mindedness is where all sides of the spectrum have fallen.
Regardless of Michigan “being liberal,” I have encountered multiple instances of sheer unwillingness to listen, and dismissal of any view that might conflict with their own. There is another layer to polarization I have experienced. When I discuss politics with people that mostly agree with me I tend to delve deeper into the semantics. People who mostly agree with me, but aren’t quite as liberal, like to label me “radical.” They also like to assume they have superior intelligence to me.
There are other instances in which others will claim superior intelligence. I had a discussion with someone who lives in my hall regarding economics for a couple of hours. Economic theory is something I would consider that I understand. Of course, there is always more for me to learn about everything. Nobody is ever truly done learning. Yet, the guy I was talking to disregarded my opinions concerning economics. There is a certain level of dismissal present when you are not a man discussing something that has traditionally been dominated by men. He seemed to assume that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I am not a laissez-faire capitalist. He also assumed I do not have a firm hold on how the business world works, or anything non-social issue related. This assumption goes back to the traditional view of the types of issues women versus men are thought to understand and handle.
The roots of polarization go deeper than our political identities. Polarization is a result of a lack of exposure to other groups. Whether that group is of a different race or political association. It is quite troubling to realize that our country is at a point that we cannot even respectfully disagree with one another after actually listening to what each other think. My only “solution” is exposure and education. Once we learn how to be genuinely respectful, we can begin to move forward as a country and as a people. I am not afraid to engage with people who disagree with me and nobody need be afraid to engage in discussion. We must recognize our prejudices in order to escape them.