September 23, 2018

CHANG | The Politics of a Liberal Campus Groupthink

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As election season is starting to heat up, the political conversations I have are fading into a haze. The same talking points are repeated with a slightly different explanation. We Cornellians are fed the exhausting narrative of pessimism that we are never doing enough. The intersection of this mostly academic and social lens with our political lens contributes to a campus political culture that can be described simultaneously as “mindless” and “radical.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love to discuss politics. I just wish we could divest from our “shutdown politics” that characterize the obnoxious tribalist partisanship of Cornell

Let’s start from a national political perspective before delving into our campus politics. Midterm elections, like the one in November 2018, are typically referendums on the current presidential administration. For this reason, the president’s party usually loses a significant amount of seats. Before the 2010 midterm election, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress; in 2010 the House of Representatives flipped to the Republicans.

The 2018 midterm election is shaping up to be a lot like the 2010 election. Both Sabato’s Crystal Ball and  FiveThirtyEight predict a large Democratic gain, at least in the House. The Democrats have a sizable 12 point lead in the generic ballot, which polls whether someone would vote for the Democratic or Republican Congressional candidate in their district without tying the question to a name. President Trump’s approval rating is fluctuating around the 40 percent mark. Every liberal I know is clinging onto hopes for surefire Democratic gains that will flip the 23 seats in the House necessary to return Democratic control.

Yet, the election could still be close. We’re seeing diverse confounding elements in the modelling calculus, from black swan surprises that change voters’ perception of the Republicans and Trump, Special Counsel Mueller’s Russia investigation and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. Each of these could play an outsize influence in the Nov. 6 election. Besides, the GOP will likely win the Senate election because 10 Democrats are up for re-election in states President Trump carried in 2016. At best, the Senate is a toss-up.

Now that we have all this data, we can poke at voters’ reasons for their defection to the Democrats. Many independents, moderates and Never Trump Republicans seem to regret their decision in 2016 to vote for President Trump. A June NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows voters are more likely to support a congressional candidate who checks Trump by a margin of 48 to 23 percentage points. There’s an extremely tribal vibe in this midterm that I keenly felt this summer while working on a congressional campaign in my home state of Indiana. Voters want to vote either “against Trump” or “for Trump,” even in down-ballot elections for city and county positions. And it seems those who want to vote against the president are winning out, if the polls are to be trusted.

Nowhere is this trend clearer than on the Ithaca campus. If only Cornellians voted on Congress, we’d probably have exactly two representatives who were GOP-affiliated, and we would know exactly who voted for them. I’m convinced (by this revolutionary study) that campus politics are a liberal circle-jerk. The elite (those who have strong and well-reasoned political stances) control the politics of the few (those who simply don’t care as much). The elite are overwhelmingly liberal progressives that overshadow the very small but very outspoken contingent of conservatives.

The shaping of campus political rhetoric happens primarily through exclusion and drowning out different voices. Students who bring positions that don’t fit with the primary narrative of liberal progressivism are shouted down and insulted, as if their background and political orientation should be rejected prima facie. We can’t yell that open borders, single-payer healthcare and universal basic income are wonderful before considering the flip-side.

The campus conversations focalize around the loudest students (liberals) who control the political beliefs of most students, who are drawn to groupthink and inclusion rather than interrogating their own politics. The impact, unsurprisingly, is apathy and low voting rates especially in down-ballot and midterm elections. Foreclosing personally-developed perspectives decreases political attachment or allegiance. Shutting down dialogue only replicates the same strategies that excluded marginalized people from the political conversation in the first place. Our campus politics reduces the spectrum of acceptable political conversation to a small left-leaning subset.

This isn’t a call to have more rightist politics. It’s much more about opening up a space for political thought and deliberation. Instead of allowing students to barely stay afloat in a tiny lake of tightly tethered to the Democratic dock, we should be willing to encourage our friends and classmates to throw themselves to the sharks and find their own favorite political talking points. We may just open up a more educated public.

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.