Columns » Jay Barth

An ideological canyon



If you're troubled by the political division in America, two surveys of our youngest adults released in the last week indicate you haven't seen anything yet. Both the latest iteration of an annual survey of first-year college students and the quarterly survey of Americans under 30 by the Harvard Institute of Politics highlight the depth of the political polarization in those just entering the electorate.

Young people generally leave high school either unsure of their political beliefs or lacking the confidence to state them publicly. Thus, most often seek safe haven by calling themselves "middle of the road." This is no longer the case among the youngest American voters; only 42 percent portray their views as moderate. In the more than half-century of the "American Freshman," a survey conducted annually since 1966 by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, never has an entering class of college students shown themselves to stake out a clear position on either the left or right of the political divide. One side of that divide is larger with those on the left outpacing those on the right by a 36-22 margin, suggesting that this future of progressivism will remain healthy well after Bernie Sanders' exit from the political stage. However, the sharpening political division is an ever-more-telling story for the future of the American democratic experiment that relies upon some level of compromise to solve the biggest challenges at any level of government. (Interestingly, much of the polarization is driven by gender; the survey also shows the largest gender gap in political ideology in its history with 41 percent of women deeming themselves "liberal" or "far left" with only 29 percent of their male classmates doing so.)

The latest Harvard study of those 18-29 reiterates much of what is seen in the "American Freshman" survey — this generation of voters' relative progressivism, the sharp gender divides and their polarized political views. Respondents are deeply aware of the costs of that division, including the fact that it has pushed them away from governmental service (on average, they say there's only a 9 percent chance they'll seek office before age 50) and has led them to believe that politics is no longer able to meet the nation's most pressing needs by over a 2-to-1 margin. The bit of happy news in this flurry of survey data is that young voters are dedicated to doing what they can to fill the political divide; six in 10 say they want to work to "unite, not further divide, America." Interestingly, this commitment crosses just those same chasms: 62 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans endorse this sentiment

No matter how conscious this generation is of the costs of political division and their desire to remedy it, the Harvard survey shows this generation increasingly is cocooning itself in two different worlds where these divisions are more likely to be enhanced than overcome. The survey asked young voters whether or not they have a "close relationship" with those from various backgrounds. Those on the left and those on the right differ sharply in whether they have a "close relationship" with individuals who are gun owners, military veterans of the most recent conflicts, religious evangelicals, Muslims or who are openly LGBTQ. The sorting is exactly along the lines would one suspect, suggesting the polarization that is an inherent part of contemporary American politics will likely be even more pronounced by the time my students begin to take control of the wheels of American democracy.


The timing of my columns and the fact that so much else has been written about it led me to avoid arguably the story of the year in Arkansas: the state's messy experiment with mass execution. Living in such a tightly interwoven state makes one aware of how battering the entire situation was for so many — from lawyers on all sides, to religious leaders, to prison officials, to parole board members, to journalists, to judges. Much energy has been expended on the behavior of one judge — Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen — but not nearly enough has been written about the exemplary work of another, federal District Judge Kristine Baker. From her dedication to thorough fact-finding in a multiday trial to her thoughtfully nuanced 101-page opinion that briefly stopped all the executions, Baker showed her work ethic, her smarts and her awareness of the stakes of the issue. Her dedication to the process did not end with the four executions. Instead, last week, she ordered that an autopsy be performed on the final man executed — Kenneth Williams — and blood and tissue samples be collected from him so that we might better understand the lethal injection regimen in use in the state. No matter how one feels about the death penalty, Baker showed herself to be an exemplary judge at a tough time.

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