By Kaitlyn Elia
Do you feel comfortable expressing your political beliefs on campus? Depending on whether you identify as a Democrat or Republican, your answer may vary. Overall, it appears that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike agree that everyone should feel comfortable expressing their political affiliations on campus. However, many students have noticed a severe lack of political expression, specifically among students who identify as conservatives or Republicans. If Denisonians supposedly have political courage, where is this expression? Perhaps it is a different kind of political courage we are looking for, a willingness to express potentially controversial political beliefs. There are a number of ways to participate in politics, some of which are visible and some are hidden from view. Are there differences between Democrats and Republicans in political expression?
As it turns out, there are discrepancies between Democrats and Republicans in political expression. Among Democrats, 68% reported displaying political campaign signs, buttons, stickers, and t-shirts, and attending campaign rallies, compared to only 21% of Republicans, and 11% for Independents [see note 1]. There was not, however, a significant difference between Democrats and Republicans working or volunteering on a campaign (12% and 8%), watching political debates (93% and 91%), or arguing about the candidates (89% and 88%) – all activities not under campus surveillance. However, Republicans were more likely (by 17 points) to either unfriend or unfollow someone on social media due to their political beliefs.
One potential explanation for this lack of expression is people’s expectations of disapproval or conflict. If you expect strong disapproval from others, you may be less likely to express your political beliefs. Table 1 illustrates that, in general, Democrats on campus expect lower levels of disapproval than average, Independents expect slightly higher levels of disapproval, and Republicans expect the most disapproval – in some cases 2-3 times as much as Democrats do. Additionally, Republicans correctly identify that their political opinions are in the minority on campus at a higher rate than both Independents and especially Democrats.
So, if Republicans do not feel their political beliefs are accepted among fellow students and faculty it makes sense they would be less outwardly expressive. But how political activity is actually linked to disapproval from these sources is not obvious. There is no relationship with expected faculty disapproval — we see the same level of political activity when faculty disapproval is perceived to be high or low. Otherwise, the relationship depends on where disapproval is coming from. Among close friends, disapproval has a deleterious effect on political activity (see Figure 1). Each 10 percent increase in disapproval drops political activity by a tenth of a point. [see note 2]
The unexpected finding is that perceptions of opposition from “other students” is positively linked to activism. Each 10 percent increase in disapproval raises activism by .05 points. Surely one reason for this is that politically active students know about the disapproval of other students, but it also suggests the advantage of having opposition. The President’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections for this reason – it is more inspiring to oppose than to support.
| Figure 1 – Political Activity is linked to Student Disapproval in Surprising Ways
At the same time, Republicans are not as interested in politics and campaigns as Democrats on campus [see note 3]. This is especially evident in this election where only 11% of Denison students voted for Donald Trump. It is tempting to chalk this up to expected disapproval, where cognitive dissonance encourages them to find other pastimes. However, political interest among Republicans does NOT correspond to disapproval from close friends or others. Only Democrats show a decline in interest as close friend disapproval grows.
| Figure 2 – Greater Interest in Campaigns Increases Political Activity Among Partisans
So, can we attribute the lack of Republican expression on campus to fear of disapproval or their lack of interest in the campaign? Campaign interest and partisan identification are the two most important factors in political activity, not expectations of disapproval. Campaign interest and political activity are positively related, while party ID and political activity are inversely related because Republicans are less politically active. This potentially explains the absence of conservative voices this semester, but what about the rest of the time? A fully functional democracy thrives on disagreement, deliberation, and the sharing of views of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. If Denisonians supposedly want each other to feel comfortable expressing political beliefs, there needs to be a more conscious effort across parties to both openly express their beliefs and be accepting of opposing positions. Denison is not eating conservative brains, but instead provides a free speech space that invites all comers to participate, if they are interested.
Kaitlyn Elia, also known as Katie, “voter reg girl,” or “Denison Democrats girl,” can be found hogging the Political Science lounge and preparing for the 2020 election.
1. A regression between political party ID and political activity finds a statistically significant relationship between the two (p<0.01).
2. These results are from a regression model that also includes faculty disapproval, gender, partisanship, GPA, and leadership skills.
3. The relationship between being a Democrat and being interested in the campaign is statistically significant (p<0.01).