Freshmen political beliefs increasingly polarized

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The number of college freshmen identifying their political orientation as “far left” or “far right” has increased during the last year, according to a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

The study, entitled “The American Freshman,” is a yearly report administered by the institute to observe freshmen college students’ attitude changes when exposed to college, said Linda Sax, author of the report. Their attitudes are then followed up on over time, and the institute tries to explain why the changes have occurred, Sax said.

According to last year’s report, the number of students who identified as liberal or “far left” was 3.4 percent, compared to 2.8 percent in 2003. The number of students who saw themselves as conservative or “far right” was 2.2 percent, an increase from 1.6 percent the previous year.

The increase in students’ identification with political extremes has not been a stable trend, but has been affected by last year’s election, Sax said. This is because political affiliation, one way or the other, is stronger during election time, she said.

“(The election) made very public this notion of a divide,” Sax said. “(Students) can only make one choice. The country was reflecting division, (which included students).”

Louise Baxter, senior social welfare major, said her political affiliation has not necessarily changed during election time.

“I would say I had the same feelings (as before the election),” she said.

While “middle of the road,” or moderate affiliations remained the biggest group for political student affiliation at 46.4 percent in 2003, that figure dropped nearly 4 percent last year to a 30-year low, according to the study.

This drop in moderate political affiliation is related to the increased rate at which people are identifying themselves with a particular party, and also to how they vote during an election, said Mehran Kamrava, political science chair.

“People’s opinions tend to form (and remain one way or the other),” Kamrava said.

“The candidates had an effect on people,” said Martin Saiz, political science professor.

Saiz added that although most people consider themselves to be moderate, the candidates themselves have become polarizing for students.

“(Both parties) mobilized their base(s),” he said. “(Students were) more apt to choose.”

In fact, overall political interest has increased for the fourth consecutive year to 34.3 percent, compared to its low of 28.1 percent in 2000. This marks the highest level of political interest for college freshmen since 1994.

According to Saiz, this trend is due to the war in Iraq and the presidential elections, which stirred up student interest.

“(Sept. 11) has served to polarize people’s opinions,” Saiz said. “People’s perception of politics (changes when they are paying attention to issues that have a direct impact on them).”

Baxter agrees.

“(Issues like the war) make me interested, but it (also) makes me sad,” she said. “I don’t agree with what Bush is doing in Iraq.”

“That’s when they do care,” Saiz said. “It’s about people’s everyday lives. We’re motivated by (the candidates), or things happen that make us care about politics,” he added.