Do Denisonians Have Political Courage?

[This is part 2 of a 3 part series about minority status and democratic inclusion on campus]

By Oliver Gladfelter

With election season in full swing, campus is buzzing with conversation about politics, constant Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton references, and much more – everywhere you go, you are reminded of the election. The Denison Democrats have definitely played a part in this – with all the work they did to register voters through their Get Out The Vote campaign, it was pretty hard to walk by Slayter without being asked if you’re registered to vote. The Den Dems have also hosted viewing parties for all four of the debates and are constantly handing out all sorts of “I’m With Her” swag. However, it’s a bit of a different story for the College Republicans, who have not been so active. In fact, they’ve been conspicuously quiet.

While there are certainly unique reasons to this election why the College Republicans are sitting this one out, there may be something else causing these apparent gaps in political activity. Ideologically, the Denison student body clearly leans to the left. This leaves conservatives in an opinion minority status on campus, which may be demobilizing in terms of engaging in political issues. So, when Denison students are in the minority, are they willing to show up and speak their mind? To do so requires a bit of political courage.

To measure political courage, I used answers collected from surveying the student body in the Fall of 2015. I measured courage using questions about a facilitated deliberative forum held that semester concerning Denison issues: how willing are you to attend and participate, how much would you participate once there, and how likely are you to express disagreement in the face of a popular opinion (see note 1)? So a student indicating they were very likely to attend, participate a lot, and express their unpopular opinions would have high political courage. Possible scores for overall courage range from a minimum of 0 to a maximum of 4; the campus mean is 2.3, which equates to medium to medium-high political courage.

 Figure 1 – Political Courage of Denison Students


Are conservatives on campus stifled in their willingness to express their opinions because said opinions may be unpopular? Not really — conservatives are just as likely as liberals to participate in small group discussions about issues and express their opinions in the face of disagreement. The same can be said for Republicans and Democrats. It is reassuring that ideology and party identification don’t affect a student’s political courage. But what does?

Everyday acts of leadership – public speaking, leading a meeting, or putting on a large event – tend to  increase a student’s likelihood of engaging in political processes. Demonstrating one’s leadership skills in an organized and public way is a close kin of political courage. The more leadership experience a student has, the more politically courageous they tend to be (Figure 2).  As noted earlier, the Denison Democrats have been organizing plenty of meetings and events, while the College Republicans have been a little…quiet. However, that being said, there are no campus leadership differences by ideology or party ID. All groups tend to boast the same levels of public leadership – practicing an average of 3.25 out of 5 possible leadership skills during their time at Denison. Additionally, conservatives are just as likely as liberals to join DCGA, in which students are able to weigh in on Denison issues.

 Figure 2 – Leadership Experience Affects Political Courage


One thing to note is that the questions measuring political courage were centered around Denison issues, so maybe ‘real world’ ideologies such as liberalism and conservatism aren’t as relevant. Thankfully, we asked questions to measure perceived disagreement on campus-centric issues (see note 2). As it turns out, both perceived disagreement from one’s own social network and from the student body as a whole are linked to GREATER political courage. Students indicating they often disagreed with their friends had 6% more political courage than students who rarely disagreed with friends. Perhaps it takes some courage to make friends with students who don’t think the same way as you. Students expecting a good deal of disagreement had 11.6% more political courage than students expecting little disagreement with others on campus. The more a student feels their opinion is unpopular, the more political courage they boast. This may be out of a desire to convince others your opinion is the right one – if most of campus agrees with you already, there is less of a need to be outspoken about the issue. However, if others don’t feel the same way you do, there is more of a need to speak up and share your opinion, so as to spread your message and possibly persuade others to your side.

 Figure 3 – Higher Perceived Disagreement Increases Political Courage


The experience with disagreement is counterbalanced by a fear expressed by some (almost 20%) that they do not feel free to express their opinions because they’re afraid others will disagree. Students who feel less free to share their opinion had 13.4% less political courage than those without that fear. Thus, a student’s desire to avoid conflict may silence their own thoughts, regardless of how uncontroversial their opinion may be.

So political courage on our campus isn’t budged much by varying ideologies over world issues, yet is significantly affected by disagreement over campus issues (which speaks volumes to the Denison bubble’). Perceived disagreement is encouraging others to speak up more, while causing others to shy away from the deliberative process. This matters because in order to have a truly representative democracy, everyone needs to have equal opportunity to have their voice heard and to defend their opinion. Each side needs to be able to present their arguments and both sides of the issue should be heard, so that informed decisions can be made. Denison undoubtedly provides opportunities for this to happen, but it’s a question of whether enough students are able to overcome their fears of conflict in order to participate. If the student body was split on a campus issue, but only one side had the resources, means, and political courage to make their opinion heard, then Denison administration would have a seriously skewed idea of what the student body opinion really wants. And this isn’t purely hypothetical – there are always discussions to be had. Ergo, take matters into your own hands, get involved in campus deliberation, and show off your political courage.

So thinking about political courage and hearing only one side…because the Denison Democrats have been so active and voiceful lately, it makes sense that it seems like the entire campus is ‘With Her.’ But surely there are some Trump supporters on campus, right?…right?

Oliver Gladfelter is a huge advocate of procrastination and spends most of his time finding new ways to waste time. He also studies political science on the side.


1. For the three variables combined to measure political courage, alpha = .78, indicating high reliability (meaning the variables fit well together). 

2. The questions which asked about disagreement on campus issues were: How often do you disagree about campus affairs with your social network? How likely is it that others would disagree with your opinions? Do you ever not feel free to express your opinions because you’re afraid others will disagree?

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