UCSB’s Political Discourse Deficit

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Jeremy Levine
Staff Writer

Imagine two troops of gorillas engaged in a territorial dispute: the roaring, the chest beating, the feral, hormonal anger and us-versus-them mentality driving it all. This is approximately how the human brain thinks about politics.

A 2015 study led by former University of California, Santa Barbara researcher David Pietraszewski found, “As far as our brains are concerned, political affiliation is viewed more like membership in a gang or clique than as a dispassionate philosophical stance.”

We are in an extraordinarily polarizing national election cycle in which the candidates seem intent on further driving a wedge between Americans of different political affiliations. The media struggles as much as the common person to understand Trump’s and Sanders’ successes, ludicrous levels of congressional gridlock and an ominously empty Supreme Court seat. Tribal identity politics seem to be the driving force behind political phenomena ranging from grassroots movements to executive-legislative confrontation.

American politics is divisive, vindictive and confusing as hell. It will remain so for much, if not all, of our lives. Preparing students to navigate this mess is an important element of a university’s purpose.

Yet 17 of 19 UCSB clubs identified as “political” by the Office of Student Life either explicitly support a party’s broad platform or promote a specific agenda with regard to a narrow issue or set of issues that are associated with one of the parties. These clubs advocate for pressing issues with the admirable common goal of improving the world, even if in doing so their approaches to policy and activism or priorities differ.

Problems arise when clubs in different ideological spheres don’t frequently interact or debate, leaving their members convinced that only their opinions are correct. UCSB’s civil society fails in preparing students to rise above their subconscious tribal identifications and objectively decipher reality from the grandiose rhetoric.

The university itself, clubs and UCSB’s civil society as a whole have a responsibility to facilitate discourse, but the entire student body is ultimately responsible for our disconnected political community. Media organizations from The New York Times to Fox News have pretentiously decried safe spaces and political correctness as inhibitors to the free exchange of ideas on college campuses. While there are arguments to be made for both sides of that broader debate, UCSB’s more immediate problem is students’ apparent lethargy toward seeking out the ideological other, rather than anti-free speech sentiment.

So what do we make of two organizations — CALPIRG and Young Americans for Liberty — whose missions do not fall under the umbrella of party politics? CALPIRG’s mission statement states that it advocates for issues such as “environmental protection, consumer protection, and hunger and homelessness.” These are noble, important political advocacy causes that are unrelated to discourse.

Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) identifies with libertarianism but doesn’t align with a specific party. Such an apolitical free speech organization seems like the natural place for conflicting ideologies to interact — the organization is devoted to the free exchange of ideas — yet YAL has struggled to find traction among the student body beyond their core club members.

YAL’s amoral stance toward offensive speech, general dislike of feminism and enthusiasm for hosting controversial speakers alienates much of the student body. YAL succeeds in bringing fringe ideas to the UCSB campus but fails to attract an audience.

UCSB needs an independent organization with no polarizing purpose beyond providing political clubs a public arena to argue their viewpoint. An independent club or commission, potentially under Associated Students, could facilitate debates or discussions. If well-publicized and funded, these debates could gain real traction, helping expose students to information they didn’t know or opinions they hadn’t considered in a civil environment.

Although I stated that politically oriented clubs tend to have cliquish tendencies, there is nothing inherently wrong with single-issue or party-affiliated clubs. On the contrary, they are driven by passionate members supporting integral movements for change. They provide students a place to share, refine and reaffirm the strengths of their ideas. But more mechanisms are necessary for students to exchange, reform and discover the strengths of others’ ideas.