The Social Politics of Drinking

By Sarah MacKenzie

As we are reaching a milestone in the coronavirus pandemic and coming up on almost a year of mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccine chasing, the 2020 presidential election feels like a blip in an infinite amount of time. However, specifically at Denison, the election was perhaps the event of the season. And alcohol was paired with that. On a campus as small as Denison’s, it has always been relatively clear who participates in binge drinking and who does not. However, what isn’t always as clear is what political party these raging college kids belong to. Does this “social activity” help bridge the political divides on campus?

In last semester’s survey, 127 asked Denison students about their partisan identity and we thought it could be interesting to look at that answer in comparison to the drinking frequency on campus. It was clear from the figure below that students who identify as Republicans consumed more drinks in a shorter period of time than other partisans – Democrats or Independents (plus there’s no gender gap!). This data could suggest several things. One supports the stereotype that Republicans drink more than Democrats and seeing that Denison is a college campus, more beer is likely to be consumed. The other is that perhaps Republicans are more social than Democrats, at least in the Denison bubble. The third is that possibly Republicans are more likely to be involved in Greek organizations on campus, whose connection to drinking has long been established.

One of the other stereotypes is that drinkers are more social. In most cases, drinking is a social activity, though clearly not nearly the only one on campus. Is drinking linked to having more social support? In the most recent survey, 127 also asked students to rate how much they can rely on others for support on several typical dimensions: get some notes, borrow some money, bum a ride, or talk about affairs of the heart. It turns out that there’s evidence to support the social benefits of drinking, at least a bit. Those who indicated that they binge drink more frequently also indicated that they have larger social support networks. Those who drink 3+ days a week tend to have 2 more friends they say they can rely on for support (we averaged all four forms of support).

Since Republicans drink more, we were curious to find out if they also felt greater amounts of support. In the figure above, we broke out the link between drinking and support and found that it works the same no matter what partisan affiliation – Republicans had very slightly more support but none of those gaps are statistically significant. And it’s not that people who don’t drink have no support, they just report somewhat fewer people who could deliver that support.

Reflecting back on this past election and also this past administration, it is surprising that Republicans feel just as supported on this campus as everyone else. Due to the critique of President Trump’s handling of the virus, losing the presidential election as an incumbent, and enjoying approval levels hovering near 10 percent, one might suspect that Republicans feel less supported as Denison is generally composed of Democrats. Denison is a relatively small school, but is still diverse in many ways to develop a wide range of friendships.

One reason why Republicans may feel as supported as everyone else is that they are a part of organizations that reinforce social support. The obvious one to look at is Greeks. Are the Greeks at Denison gerrymandered to be Republican support orgs? According to the data from last semester, the answer is no, not really: 75% of the men who are in Greek life are not Republicans, though there are more Republican Greeks than GDIs. That figure is even greater among women – 85 percent of Greek women are not Republicans. This might then trump the assumption that all Greeks are conservative but rather that the liberals who are involved in Greek life do not feel as supported as Republicans.

The old assumption that drinking = social may have a bit of support here but it’s dangerously incomplete. Drinking is lopsided in its partisan distribution, which in part is because of its Greek connection, which is also connected to race. But drinking certainly doesn’t determine access to social support so it’s not a crutch and of course has serious downsides – sometimes creating its own need for academic help. We’re also interested in the link between involvement in campus orgs, like Greeks, and social support. How do personal priorities reflect how supported students feel on campus? It’s interesting that people choose to be involved in sister or brotherhoods and do not feel entirely supported. It makes us wonder, what are their priorities and how does this lack of emotional support affect behaviors like their drinking habits?

Sarah MacKenzie is a sustainability enthusiast who loves to learn about Denison students and how they conduct themselves on the Hill.

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