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What political polarization means for the 2020 election

| Thursday, November 14, 2019

“Political polarization” is a term that is often thrown around in the media and news. By definition, political polarization is the “divergence of political attitudes and ideas to the ideological extreme.” Polarization is the idea of “us” and “them,” and this ideology can and does cause confusion and tension between those with differing views. The dangerous view of an “us” and “them” mentality becomes toxic when the view shifts to an “us” versus “them” mentality. It appears that during Trump’s presidency, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly avoiding bipartisanship. Polarization forces those on the right to be pushed further right, and those on the left to be pushed further left. This causes improper and unjust labeling of an individual based on their political views. Too often, we stereotype the terms “conservative” and “liberal,” and categorize people based on the stereotype of their identified party. Polarization deepens the divides that already exist in the political world and negatively impacts the relationships we have. Political polarization has always existed, through both Republican and Democratic presidents and will continue to always exist.

To fully understand what political polarization is, one has to understand the underlying root causes of political polarization are. One problem is that in the current political system, an incentive exists that rewards hyperpartisanship. Following the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission Supreme Court case, in which the court decided that corporations could give unlimited amounts of funds to elections, leaders have been more inclined to vote or act certain ways to ensure funding to their campaign. A Republican senator will always be hesitant to support pro-choice legislation, even if they themselves are pro-choice. Many Republicans are supported financially by pro-life groups who funnel lots of money towards their campaigns, and these elected officials tend to act in such a way to continue to receive these funds. These outside groups are a function of parties, thus contributing to gridlock and polarization within the national government. If our political system is infiltrated with hyperpartisanship, how can we expect the people in this system to act differently?

So, as the 2020 election approaches, how can we, the American people, use this understanding of what political polarization is to our benefit? First of all, as has been evident in the past three years, many of the presidential candidates, congressmen and women, and especially the president himself utilize social media, especially Twitter, to relay fast news and information to the public. Media tends to highlight the extreme beliefs from those on both sides, often leaving those who identify as moderate without a voice. A Harvard study found that politicians attract a larger audience on social media when they are more outspoken and ideologically extreme than those who are more moderate. The use of social media has had a negative influence on the way the “other side” is perceived to those with opposite views, thus further driving a wedge between multiple political sides. It is our duty, especially during the upcoming election, to remember that the arguments we see on social media should not be taken verbatim, but instead should motivate us all to discover the real truth and use the differences found online to bring people closer.

In my short experience here at Notre Dame, I have discovered that although our student body is constructed of people with many different views, our campus is not necessarily polarized. I have found that those with differing views are able to discuss their differing views, not simply yell or attack the other person for their different ideas. In my opinion, this may be due to the lack of political interest on campus. It is surprising that even with the spotlight Notre Dame has been receiving over the past month after announcing the hosting of a presidential election, and with the events put on such as discussions with Paul Ryan and Condoleezza Rice, there has not been nearly as much political involvement as I expected.

I do believe that other college campuses are more politically polarized. A 2016 Washington Post study found that at UCLA, 42% of freshmen identify as “moderates.” This means that more than half of the college freshmen at this campus are definitely split to one side or the other. Although I do not believe our campus is necessarily polarized; however, there definitely are many different people with a wide range of beliefs, and I think that as the next election approaches, especially with Notre Dame hosting a presidential debate, a deeper divide will be sparked throughout campus, to which there are a few tools we can use to battle this polarization.

The first and most simple solution is simply to talk. As many of you have noticed, BridgeND has been displaying conversation boards in both of the dining halls, so far asking your opinion on health care in the United States and how Kanye’s new album has influenced you. Although some of the responses have been jokes (my personal favorite: “Jesus is King is the second worst thing to happen to Jesus”), those who have stopped to read the boards can agree that they have been impactful. These conversation starters encourage one to think a different way, or to find comfort in the fact that others agree with them. These boards are a great example of what we all need to be doing regarding politics, especially in the coming year: talk. We should all be talking, not using social media, to discuss and debate our political views.

Another solution to the polarization problem is to challenge yourself to ask the tough questions, and when doing so, be open to understanding someone who may not share the same opinions as you. At least in my high school, politics were often considered a taboo topic because people were afraid of someone disagreeing with them. It is exactly this problem that explains why polarization is such a prominent issue, especially among young people. Regarding open political discussion, we need to change the status quo from one of fear and ignorance to one of openness and understanding. Through engaging in conversation over the course of the next year leading up to the presidential election (and beyond), one by one we can battle polarization and close the divide to initiate understanding and acceptance throughout the country. 

Rachel Stockford is a freshman in the Gateway program who, when not writing about political polarization, enjoys watching Presidential debates and supporting Mayor Pete. She is a member of BridgeND, a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Mondays at 5 p.m. in the McNeill Room of LaFortune Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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