February 9, 2005

Political Apathy Overwhelms C.U.

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Apathy is the most prevalent political problem on campus today, student leaders of major political organizations claimed. Liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, members of active political groups on campus agree that most students just don’t seem to care.

“I think student apathy is one of the biggest challenges facing universities across the country. Obviously it’s vitally important for students to know what’s going on in the world and to register to vote and to actually vote,” said Michael Zuckerman ’06, president of last semester’s Mock Election and current vice president of the Cornell Political Coalition.

“Campus organizations and Cornell have moved in the direction of student involvement and activism, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Ross Blankenship ’05, director of the Cornell College Republicans, added that “students [are] a little more apathetic. It wasn’t as politically active as it could have been,” referring to the peak of the presidential election season.

Mitch Fagen ’07, vice president of the Cornell Democrats, pointed out that it was “frustrating” that “a lot of people who are the apathetic students if they’re asked, will say they’re liberal or that they’re conservative, but they really don’t care that much.”

Steve Grossman ’07, programs chair of the Cornell Democrats, had a theory to explain today’s apathetic students: “People often compare [student activism today] to how active people were during the Vietnam era…during that time period, students were fighting for representation…and the concerns aren’t as immediate to students [today]…that’s the reason you can’t always energize them as much.”

Isaac Kramnick, vice provost of undergraduate education, observed, “What is most striking about the political climate on campus today is the deafening silence of students about the war on Iraq…[it] suggests an absolute absence of student protests against the war. On campus, the principal critics of the war are the faculty. What is so surprising given the constant analogies between Iraq and Vietnam is the quiet of students. Now…why the silence of students? The two most obvious explanations are the lack of a draft and the post-9/11 success of the administration and the American media to portray the war in Iraq as a war against terrorism.”

The discourse among students, they also said, has died down since the election in November, despite the fact that many groups continue to coordinate debates, lectures and other political events on campus.

“During the election season, there was an incredible amount of activity on campus, a lot of it stemming from Mock Election and other organizations…there was a buzz on campus which was really exciting. Even after the election, of course it’s less, but I think that there’s still a lot of political activity on campus,” Zuckerman said.

Josh Rubin ’06, campus coordinator of Democracy Matters, said that “…the election energized many students on campus…I think that it has died down to a great extent…it would be great if now, in the wake of the election, we could find a way to keep interest in politics up.”

“The real problem is not division itself, but the level of discourse. Uncompromising conservatives, radical liberals, and any number of other extremists could coexist intelligently on any college campus, as long as they’re civilized and thoughtful. But when you’ve got those ridiculous ideologues in the mix – the sorts of people who are less interested in making society work, than they are interested in the melodrama and sanctimony of screaming stupid slogans, and pretending to be emotional, and acting outraged that their opposite counterparts should even exist – that’s when you see harmful division,” said Jim R. Shliferstein ’06, president of the Cornell Political Coalition and Sun columnist. “I think the silent majority are neither obnoxious liberals nor obnoxious conservatives. The majority of Cornellians are politically disinclined moderates: people who would prefer that their opinions make sense than that they make waves. Not that you hear much about them.”

Christopher J. Sasiadek ’05, campus coordinator for Democracy Matters, took a national approach to discussing the issue: “The greatest achievement of the Bush administration has been the diminishing of political discourse in this country. He has appointed an attorney general who has declared that opinions differing from those of the president are treasonous.

He has used national defense as a tool with which to muffle criticism and stifle debate. His entire manner of addressing issues of national import is flawed and un-democratic.”

Blankenship said that “the political discourse has definitely softened…we have to really continue the debates” that occurred prior to the election.

Josh Dormont ’05, president of Americans for Informed Democracy, observed, “Since we got back from break there’s been surprisingly little activity at all from either end. I think people are just tired of politics in general, and without any major visible crisis, Cornellians go back inside the Ithaca bubble.”

Despite this softening of discourse, Fatima Iqbal ’05, member of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, said that “Partisanship has remained strong on campus…”

Eric Shive ’07, editor-in-chief of the Cornell American and first vice-chairman of the Cornell College Republicans, said that “The relationship between Bush-supporters and Kerry-supporters on campus has not changed since the election. The only difference now is that Republicans will have to endure four more years of liberals comparing Bush to Hitler.”

Dormont pointed out, “Partisanship has marginalized the moderate voice, as odd as that sounds, and forced people into positions they might not necessarily agree with.”
Despite this partisanship, however, Wayne Huang ’07, editor-in-chief of Turn Left, said that their on campus relationship with the Cornell Review is a “cordial” one, adding that former Review editor-in-chief Paul Eastlund is “very moderate.”

A recent study done at the University of California, Los Angeles found that approximately a quarter of college students identified themselves as liberal, a quarter as conservative, and the rest were “middle-of-the-road.” When it came to what percentage of students identified themselves with a particular political view, liberal or conservative, student leaders all concluded that Cornell was far more liberal than the findings of the UCLA study, many of them pointing to last semester’s Mock Election results as an indicator of the spectrum of political views of students.

When it came to exactly how liberal the students are, however, the Cornell Democrats and Cornell College Republicans differed widely.

Blankenship argued that “there are a lot of students, particularly independent students, here who are afraid to say that they’re conservative-leaning or just say that they’re Republican, and in reality…those [who are] middle-of-the-road on a whole…are actually more conservative.” He added that many liberals on campus were more left than the national standard of liberalism and in fact, that the conservatives on campus were much more moderate than the national standard of conservatism.

Tim Lim ’06, president of the Cornell Democrats, thought differently of the political spectrum expressed on campus. He argued that the Cornell Republicans, the Cornell Review and the Cornell American were very far to the right of the national party stance.

Louis Wasser ’07, executive managing editor of Turn Left, said that “if you ask people…they might put themselves in the conservative category, but if you went through on an issue-by-issue basis, the young people especially are more, at least when younger, compassionate towards others and less economically oriented and worried about their own pocketbook.”

The UCLA study also found that a quarter of freshmen believe that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in America. Political student leaders, however, generally disagreed with these findings. Fagen argued that while such discrimination continues to exist, it is difficult to measure. Lim added that “instead of being more overt, it’s more subtle now.”

Iqbal observed that “discrimination still occurs in the nation at large and has spread to include more groups in recent years, especially Muslims and Arab-Americans. This discrimination is being done in the name of patriotism, and the only away to alleviate it is through education and racial understanding.”

Shive said, “Racial discrimination is alive and well at Cornell. The university employs affirmative action policies that give members of certain groups points towards admission simply for having a particular skin color. This system devalues minority achievement and reinforces the false notion that minorities would not be admitted to Cornell without special help.”

Most student leaders agreed that social security would be a large issue in Bush’s second term, among other issues such as the war on terror and Iraq. Several mentioned the likelihood of Iran and Syria becoming important issues, while others said Supreme Court appointments and campaign finance reform would be the primary topics of these next four years.

Cornell Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that a national third party would be welcome. Grossman explained, “The idea of a third party is very healthy, because it makes sure the two main parties right now are true to serving the people, because the third party is a viable threat, it causes the other parties to reflect on what they’re doing.”

However, some argued that the American two-party system today seems to guard against their viability.

“It would be more representative of our country to have more than two political affiliations, but nearly impossible based on the U.S. political structure,” said Christy Paul ’07, member of Democracy Education For Our Generation.