Political polarization shapes distinct student views, identities

Devan Fink, Online Editor-in-Chief

The room is tense. Questions are fired across the room; students are probing one another on their views. The discussion, although polite, becomes heated at times.

At the conclusion of the discussion, AP United States History (APUSH) teacher Christina Palo asks the daunting question, “How many of you think that we should remove Confederate statues outright?”

About a third of the class raises their hands.

“How many of you think that, at the very least, the statues should be moved to museums?”

Approximately three-quarters of the class expresses their agreement, including some of those that believe they should be removed altogether.

“And, finally, how many of you think that Confederate Monuments should be kept as they are?”

The last quarter raises their hands.

In mid-September, Madison juniors who are taking APUSH were faced with this complex question. These students were given articles to read, charts to analyze and sources from both sides of the issue before they developed their opinion that they would share in a Socratic Seminar with the rest of the class.

“Students are really interested in current events, and there’s a lot happening,” Palo said. “Giving them that opportunity to discuss and debate and learn more about it also helps them figure out their own political beliefs.”

The discussion was indicative of how many describe the United States in the present: divided. While this polarization may seem unique to 2017, Americans’ conflicting opinions have always driven them apart.

In 1788, when the Founding Fathers were drafting the Constitution of the United States, two separate factions arose: the Federalists, who were in favor of a strong central government and therefore supported the Constitution; and the Anti-Federalists, who wanted the very opposite. In the 1860s, America was legitimately divided as the country fought in the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. In the 1950s and 1960s, America was conflicted once again during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

While the United States was a country that has been built on divisions throughout its history, resolutions between the opposing blocs always occurred. It often took compromise, with people from opposing viewpoints crossing the dreaded middle ground in order for plans to be completed. Our entire federal government system is a result of a compromise; most notably, the reason we have a bicameral legislature is due to the “Great Compromise of 1787.”

In 2017, America is polarized once again, but no compromise seems imminent. According to a 2014 study published by the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of Republicans in 1994 were more “conservative” than the median Democrat. By 2014, this number jumped to 92 percent. The same goes for Democrats. In 1994, 74 percent of Democrats were more “liberal” than the median Republican; this number rose to 94 percent 20 years later. About one in five Americans express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions, doubling in the 20 year period.

“If you speak to people, you can determine the types of politics that they subscribe to,” Vice President of the Political Forum Club Jan Blackmon (’18) said. “With a lot of the issues that are going on in the mainstream, a lot of people tend to have a type of ideology that they subscribe to, or a certain set of views.”

According to a Hawk Talk survey that received 220 responses, 98 percent of students believe that the United States is currently politically divided. In addition, 65 percent believe that Madison is politically divided.

In Northern Virginia, we’re really blue. The last election really showed it,” AP Government teacher Frank Franz said. “I see a lot more blue than I see red. Especially after the presidential election, I had my blue kids teary-eyed in class. And then my red kids, they were very proud, walking about, chest out and everything.”

According to Dr. Tristan Bridges, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara the United States may seem more divided now than ever before due to ideological consistencies within parties. This means, for example, that one Republican is likely to share views on two separate issues with another Republican, even if there is not a real logical connection as to why one issue relates to another. Democrats, too, experience this phenomenon.

“The group that turns out to vote also happens to be the most ideologically committed and polarized Americans,” Bridges said. “The people showing up to actually cast their votes are primarily the most liberal and conservative among us.”

The polarizing of the United States does not just apply to voting-eligible adults; high schoolers, too, find themselves showing more ideological consistencies. Many experts believe that this is because of the internet and social media, which allows anyone to be able to confirm their views regardless of legitimacy.

“Listening is one thing, but this is the hard thing, especially about Twitter and Facebook,” Franz said. “People put explosive stuff up, and they don’t care what they say. So if you try to follow someone who might be different from you politically, and you’re getting all this stuff that seems insulting to you, and you don’t want to follow them anymore.”

A University of California, Los Angeles study from May 2017 found that the current political climate has impacted high school students. Predominantly white schools, specifically, fostered more hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Overall, polarization, incivility and reliance on unsubstantiated sources has risen among high school students.

“[During the Confederate debates,] most people seemed to be able to see the other side’s perspective, but still stuck to their views and beliefs,” Audrey Smith (’19) said.

Blackmon, meanwhile, thinks that the public education system should not necessarily have a role in facilitating discussions between students with different ideals.

“We tried to do that in Gov[ernment], and it is interesting, but I don’t think that you get a lot of participation that way,” Blackmon said. “Maybe there are a few outspoken voices who will express their opinions, but on the whole, I don’t think that there are a lot of people that are willing or enthusiastic to share their opinions.”

Franz disagrees.

“We need to show [students] how to have a non-combative discussion, and really listen to what other people are saying,” Franz said. “[Students need to] learn how to listen. When someone is talking, don’t think about the next thing that you’re going to say. Listen to what they’re saying.”

Regardless of their willingness to share their views, Bridges points out that a person’s political identity begins to form when they are young, and that it is continually shaped throughout their life.

Parents exert an enormous influence on their children’s political views,” Bridges said. “Kids might disagree with their parents, but ‘politics’ is an elusive aspect of our society when children are young and what we do learn about politics and government is often filtered through our parents.”

Although America might be more divided now than at any point over the last 20 years, Franz and Palo instruct students to listen to the other side to understand the opposition’s point of view. It might be the only way Americans will be able to overcome these divisions in our political system.

In a country that was founded on compromise, Americans apparently need to re-learn the skill. People have different views because they have different experiences, and it becomes dangerous to create a society in which people only listen to one point of view. Without understanding what makes each person unique, the American ideals will not be able to come to fruition throughout the rest of the 21st century and beyond.

“Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean that they are evil and does not mean that they are a bad person,” Palo said. “Remember that everybody has an experience or something that is backing up their belief, whether you agree with it or not.