College freshmen becoming politically aware, polarized

Daily Sundial

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There has been a rise in freshman political orientations as being “far left” and “far right,” according to a study by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

The study, entitled “The American Freshman,” is a yearly report that is administered by the Institute to observe freshmen college students’ attitudes that change during exposure to college, said Linda Sax, author of the report. Their attitudes are then followed up over time, and the Institute tries to explain why the changes have occurred, she said.

According to last year’s report, the number of students that identified themselves as liberal or “far left” was 3.4 percent, compared with 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 identifying themselves within political extremes has not been a stable trend, but has been affected by last year’s presidential election, Sax said. This is because political affiliation, one way or the other, is stronger during election time.

“(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, 24, senior social welfare major, said her political affiliation did not necessarily changed during election time.

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

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

This is related to the increased rate at which people identify themselves with a particular party, and how they vote during an election, said Mehran Kamrava, associate professor and political science chair. People have to vote for one person or the other, he said.

“People’s opinions tend to form, (and are crystallized),” Kamrava said.

“The candidates had an effect on people,” said Martin Saiz, political science professor. “This is because it is the candidates that have become polarized, even though most people may consider themselves to be moderate. Both parties) mobilized their base. (Students were) more apt to choose.

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

This trend is due to the war in Iraq and election time, which cultivates student interest, Saiz said.

“(The Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks) have served to polarize people’s opinion. People’s perception of politics change (when they are paying attention to issues that have a direct impact on them),” Saiz said.

Baxter agreed.

“(Issues like the war) make me interested, but it 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.”