The Young American Leaders Initiative hosted a talk on political polarization Wednesday afternoon.
With only seven students, the turnout was small, but YALI founder and president Sonny Haquani said the group filmed the event so that it would be available to a broader audience.
Along with Haquani, the event was led by UNM political science professor Michael Rocca, who said the event was not designed to show students how to change polarization, but to encourage students to improve the level of political discourse.
“There’s going to be honest disagreements. This goes all the way back to Hamilton and Jefferson — they disagreed. This is something that’s been in American politics for 200 years,” he said. “The point (of the discussion) is to talk to students who maybe disagree. How do we talk to each other in a constructive way?”
There is a debate within political science around how polarized U.S. politics actually are, Rocca said. Political polarization is typically evaluated through opinion polls and it’s clear that people who are politically active are more polarized than the average American.
“There’s no doubt at the elite level — that means congress, that means governors, even the media — that there’s polarization,” he said. “The debate is, what is the mass population like? If you were to take a snapshot of the American public, are they polarized?”
Rocca believes the typical American is too busy living their life to be politically engaged and so is less polarized. Another reason the government may be so polarized is campaign contributions.
“The people that elect members to congress, and the people congress therefore listen most closely to, are not only those who vote, but those who contribute money,” Rocca said.
He said not all voices are well represented in Congress, but there is incentive to pay attention to people who might typically be disenfranchised or disadvantaged because representing as many people as they can helps congress members get reelected.
“I think it’d be naïve to say that there isn’t a divide in representational quality,” Rocca said. “There are some who are better represented than others and it goes back to my earlier statement, that those with resources and those who are able to spend those resources are better represented than those without resources.”
Some believe politics will continue to be more polarized, but we may be in a moment of political adjustment, he said.
“We might be seeing it right now, where the American public becomes so disenchanted with what’s going on in D.C. and so many Americans are feeling like they aren’t being represented by the politicians they elect — and there could be a backlash,” he said.
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Changing U.S. demographics may also make politics more moderate, Rocca said, as some political scientists believe the quickly growing Latino population tends to be more moderate and may move their representatives back to the center.
Rocca added that if there is a time for a third party candidate to shake things up, it’s now. But the institutional barriers to third parties make it difficult for them to create change, he said.
For a political scientist, U.S. politics are never boring, but now people are more engaged than ever, he said.
“I’m recognizing it in my classes. Attendance has been amazing and I think it’s because so many people are recognizing what’s going on in American politics,” Rocca said.
Math major Lia Torres is one of those engaged students.
Torres said she hopes to see more events like this on campus because having thoughtful political discussion is important.
Haquani said anyone is welcome to join YALI, and that they hope to foster interest in public service.
“I would encourage everyone to participate if you want members of congress or even state or elected officials to represent you and your interests a little bit better. It’s absolutely essential that everyone participate,” Rocca said.
Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.