As the 2020 presidential election looms before us, the two main political parties seem to grow increasingly polarized by the day.
Yet, many students at UW-Madison recognize the importance of open political dialogue across party lines — though overcoming partisan divides can become complicated by social media and tendencies to socialize with individuals who share the same views.
Space for conversation
College Democrats and College Republicans — two of the prominent political student organizations on campus — are at the forefront of this effort to generate constructive and respectful dialogue.
The groups have worked together to put on regular forums and opportunities allowing students from all political parties to engage in meaningful conversation about various issues.
“We’re still partaking in political discourse for sure, and other political groups on campus are very active,” said Evan Karabas, communications director for the UW-Madison chapter of College Republicans. “We all have meetings where the purpose is to discuss different ideas.”
Sammy Fogel, who identifies as a socialist and supports presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, shared that when talking to his conservative peers, they were able to have calm and productive conversations and find common ground despite their highly different overall beliefs.
Fogel believes the heated political conflict on social media also plays into the divide in the Democratic party and between the two parties nationally.
“Some of [the divide] is the way that a lot of ideology and beliefs are fed through Twitter. When your arguments come in the form of tweets it's not as conducive to a long conversation where you go back and forth and talk about issues,” Fogel said. “I think that kind of civil discourse is valuable, but it’s a little bit lost given current conditions.”
The main benefit of having conversations across party lines is that it can spur overall dialogue and compromise.
“These conversations can often increase tolerance, and also tend to diminish polarized attitudes and feelings,” Professor Michael Wagner, an expert on American politics and polarization, said in an email. “They can also help us realize that people with different views are not necessarily terrible people, rather, they have placed a different level of importance on a different set of issues.”
Kalabas agreed conversations on social media often result in hostile exchanges across political parties. However, he spoke about positive experiences with political discourse on campus despite being a conservative on UW-Madison’s largely liberal campus.
“When you’re talking one-on-one with a person it’s never been a brutal interaction,” Kalabas said. “I think interactions are way different than what most people would expect.”
Despite opportunities for polite discourse, many Wisconsinites still seem reluctant to engage in conversation — research found about half of Wisconsinites stopped talking to someone because of their political views, and about one-third ended a friendship over the issue, according to Wagner.
While organized opportunities for discourse do exist — like meetings between the College Republicans and College Democrats — some students feel organic political discussion in a more casual setting is less common on campus.
Fogel believes students tend to form social groups with people who hold similar views, whether they are conscious of it or not, and therefore may not interact with many students from other parties.
“It's kind of rare that I actually end up talking about issues with people,” Fogel said.
With frontrunners in the primaries coming from both moderate and the leftist regions of the political spectrum, the Democratic party itself has also faced increased internal division.
College Democrats at UW-Madison haven’t found this to be an issue in their organization, and they welcome students with viewpoints all across the party’s spectrum.
“There definitely are two distinct sides in terms of progressives and moderates, but a lot of our meetings don’t tend to be focused on specific policies,” a spokesperson for the UW-Madison College Democrats said. “We focus on canvassing and voting democratic regardless of what that means for them. We work for the greater democratic party rather than certain candidates.”
The organization is currently working to make sure students are still voting, even if that means turning to early voting or requesting absentee ballots for Wisconsin’s April 7 primary due to COVID-19.
Socially distanced political conversations
COVID-19 is also rapidly changing the way that political discourse can occur.
With UW-Madison suspending face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester and federal and state governments urging citizens to stay home and practice social distancing, social media has become the increasingly dominant channel to continue political conversation.
“Without in-person large gathering events, it’s a social media game. People are turning more to social media because everyone’s at home,” Kalabas said. “It can get a little more ugly on social media because people aren’t face-to-face.”
Both the College Democrats and College Republicans are figuring out how to continue canvassing and organizing virtually.
In addition to severely restricting opportunities for face-to-face discourse, COVID-19 is dominating the news during a time when there would typically be significant focus on the upcoming election.
Some believe the pandemic has helped both sides of the Democratic party rally around one cause instead of focusing on their differences.
Yet, It may be too early to tell what kind of long-term effects the pandemic will have on both parties.
“It’s an interesting thing to see and look at in retrospect how it has affected polarization, because it’s an independent variable,” Fogel said. “I personally haven’t seen huge differences; besides less talking about politics, it hasn’t united or divided either side.”