Polarization ain’t just for Congress anymore.
Political polarization — the “concentration about opposing extremes of groups or interests formerly ranged on a continuum” according to Merriam Webster — has plunged into our everyday lives. Taking a strong stance and crafting some sort of political identity is part of our culture now. “Who did you vote for?” has replaced “What’s your sign?”
It’s easy enough to get shocked by the data. This past June, the Pew Research Center released a study on “Political Polarization in the American Public” that showed just how radically polarization has intensified. The study found that 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican ... Not exactly optimistic news for the hope of ideological compromise. What’s worse, though, is that roughly a third of members in each party have extreme views about their political counterparts: 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans see the other party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” Even for a study on extremism, that’s surprisingly strong wording.
As frightening as these numbers are, they just corroborate what we already know. Political extremism isn’t news to anyone. The shocking part, at least for me, comes when those statistics translate into cultural consequences. Last week, while I watched “The Daily Show” in an attempt to justify my procrastination by “educating myself on current events,” I gaped at Jon Stewart’s reference to another polarization study. In 1960, only about 5 percent of Americans said they would be “displeased” if their children married someone of the opposite political affiliation. In 2010, that percent soared — with 49 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats admitting they’d be upset.
At a place as open-minded as Penn, I want to say we’re above the national trend. But polarization colors even those who claim to be accepting. I consider myself to be a tolerant person. At the same time, I’m quick to draw conclusions about someone based on their stated political preference. I try to catch and correct myself, but I’m worried our biases manifest in ways we’re not even aware of. There are unconscious elements of every form of discrimination. It’s possible that we close off options — be it friends, classes or even job opportunities — based on perceived political affiliations.
We should be better than that. While the largest political group on campus is the non-partisan Government and Politics Association, there are far more affiliated than non-affiliated clubs at Penn. Moderates have a hard time finding a political home, especially amidst petty clashes between opposing groups.
We need to start seeing political affiliation as another form of diversity. We’re a campus that’s stunningly diverse — 45 percent of my freshman class self-identifies as minority — and we confront any student or school action that’s even remotely tinged with discrimination: PhiDelt anyone? Penn’s environment has conditioned me to call anyone out on their misogyny, cultural appropriation or heteronormativity, but when someone tells me they’re part of Penn College Republicans, I automatically associate them with the extreme and negative aspects of the Republican party. I’ve found Penn students to be tremendously accepting of those with different races, genders and social classes. Why do we draw the line at political parties?
Instead of dividing into separate echo chambers, we need to focus more on generating productive political debate and dialogue. We can all agree there should be more compromise in Congress; we should hold ourselves to that same standard.
With any concerns about Penn, of course, there are concerns about the future after graduation. I’m torn between putting my involvement with Penn Democrats on my resume or not. I’d feel dishonest not including a component of what I do on campus, but I’m worried about the automatic assumptions employers will make. I don’t want to strike a negative chord with a conservative employer, but as someone passionate about politics, I feel like my political identity is an integral part of who I am. Still, I wonder if that sense of ownership is just another symptom. Maybe I should spend less time hanging up “Ready for Hillary” bumper stickers and more time searching for a cure.
DANI BLUM is a College freshman from Ridgefield, Conn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Danalyst” appears every Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
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