Political Polarization on Penn State's Campus

Ashley Poyer considers herself knowledgeable about politics, but often remains silent. That might sound strange for someone on a college campus, a community literally built around knowledge.


However, Poyer says she feels marginalized not only by people she disagrees with, but sometimes even with those she aligns with.


As a member of the Penn State College Democrats and a politically active student, Poyer (junior-data sciences), finds herself in the middle of one of the most partisan periods in the history of the United States.


Poyer, as a moderate Democrat, obviously doesn’t support President Donald Trump, yet sometimes her more centric-leaning beliefs on issues make her feel ostracized from her own party.


"I feel like if I ever have a good opinion that is contrary to their’s (far-left progressive opinions), I don't want to say it because I feel like they would all gang up on me,” said Poyer. “Like [I feel like they would say] that's not a Democratic ideal or you're not a true Democrat.”


Poyer disagrees with much of what Bernie Sanders and other progressives stand for, but finds herself feeling excluded from Democratic groupthink, especially on campus. She says she agrees with Progressives on 90% of the issues, but the other 10% feels more like it outweighs and crushes the 90%. However, Poyer doesn’t ever see herself supporting the Republican Party platform, especially with far-right leaders such as Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz at the helm.


Historically, America hasn’t been this politically polarized since the Civil War, according to Jonathan Haidt, a Social Psychologist and a recent guest speaker for Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy.


Haidt’s presentation, “The Three Terrible Ideas Weakening Gen Z and Damaging Universities and Democracies,” talks about the emergence of the culture of “Safetyism” on college campuses and how it relates to political polarization.


"There’s a new moral and political culture on many campuses… a new culture of Safetyism,” said Haidt, “The idea that students think of themselves as very fragile and they see the campus as very, very dangerous and therefore, they need protection from words, books, speakers, and ideas.”


Some on the Right would argue that understanding one another and political correctness only relates to the Left’s politics. Poyer agrees having experienced this first hand when she got in a fight with her good friend, Joe Zentini about the 2016 election and insensitivity of the Right’s rhetoric. Poyer still feels the sting of the fight even though Zentini admits he doesn’t remember what the fight was about.


"You're bound to get emotional, but there's times to separate yourself from the emotion and especially when it comes to how we pass our laws and how we discuss politics today,” said Zentini. “It's very easy to let emotion take over, but without discussion, we can’t find solutions.”


However, President of the College Democrats Kelsey Denny (junior-political science) believes it’s impossible to completely separate emotion from topics of discussion when it comes to political debates.


"I would say if you aren't emotionally invested in what you believe in, then why do you believe in it?” said Denny. “I started on the Hillary campaign and it made me love being a Democrat. At the same time, I think sometimes emotions can really overtake people and I'm saying this from personal experience, because I can really lose my cool, but I’ve seen people on the other side do it too.”


Former spokesperson for the Armed Forces and Public Relations Professor, Steve Manuel, believes that students aren’t talking to each other anymore about politics, because of the polarization and the prevalence and influence of social media on their generation.


"I think social media is a double-edged sword. It can hurt you or help you but I think it does more harm than good because it's a coward's platform,” said Manuel. “You can say whatever  you want anonymously. Nobody knows who you are.”


Poyer also notes that sensitivity to rhetoric and controversial politicized issues has been heightened through the use of social media and accessibility to extremist platforms.


Today, Poyer feels politically lost, however, she believes that the university could provide a solution to this problem and better prepare students for respectful discussion and debate on sensitive issues in the future.


"I think it would be really beneficial to have a seminar type of class that would talk about civic engagement, different backgrounds, and discuss sensitive subjects, not necessarily just politics,” said Poyer. “I think maybe a one credit class could change someone’s perspective and would make people less ignorant, especially about social issues and things like that.”


For the sake of their friendship, Poyer avoids talking politics now when she and Zentini get together, but perhaps dodging the subject isn’t really solving the issue of polarization in society.


“I think the beauty of politics and debating political beliefs is that there's always a way to find a good common middle ground that will help make both people happy find something that is effective in accomplishing,” said Zentini. “The tasks are fighting the problem that you're trying to address.”