If the law of supply and demand applied to the marketplace of ideas like it does to economics, political opinions wouldn’t be worth a plug nickel.
They are everywhere, more so than ever since the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency and especially on Iowa’s college campuses. Despite that oversupply, nothing else in this saturated marketplace can match Trump in arousing as much divisiveness, anger, engagement and a deep sense that a historical shift has occurred.
While conservative students rejoice at the November election outcome, progressives were in a funk immediately afterwards. But now they have emerged ready to man the barricades against Trumpism.
These are the predominant conclusions from a series of IowaWatch interviews with students and faculty at six public and private universities in Iowa over the past two months.
“Just going from Democrat to Republican, regardless of how you feel, it’s big change for everyone,” said Aaron Clemens, 21 of Birmingham, Iowa, a junior sociology major at William Penn University. “For a lot of people if they hear something they don’t like, they automatically get mad, and discussion goes from civil to argument fast.”
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Student journalists on six Iowa college campuses spent spring 2017 researching and writing this report under the direction of IowaWatch’s Stephen Berry. Team members were:
- Julia Davis, University of Iowa
- Krista Johnson, University of Iowa
- Leziga Barikor, University of Northern Iowa
- Susan Haack, Buena Vista University
- Allyssa Ertz, Buena Vista University
- Lindsey Graham, Buena Vista University
- Tiffany Brauckman, Buena Vista University
- Emily Kenny, Buena Vista University
- Dee Friesen, Buena Vista University
- Chris Habermann, Buena Vista University
- Chase Harrison, Buena Vista University
- Corey McConnaughy, Buena Vista University
- Kyle Wiebers, Buena Vista University
- Sami Graff, Loras College
- Temesha Derby, Simpson College
- Jeremy Esparza, William Penn University
Special thanks to Andrea Frantz, Buena Vista University.
“There’s a general vibe, you know,” said Alexander Newkirk 23, of Des Moines, a third-year history graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa. “You definitely get a sense from people that things are a lot more heated now in a certain sense.”
Clemens and Newkirk were among several college students interviewed for IowaWatch’s fifth annual College Media Project to explore the tone and character of political debate since the November election at Buena Vista University, Loras College, Simpson College, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa and William Penn University.
Their findings represent a clear departure from a perceived college-life norm of apathy to matters of politics and public policy. Youthful enthusiasm arose momentarily in the 2008 election of Barack Obama and again last year when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton in his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
But you have to reach back to the 1960s and early 1970s to find something somewhat similar to the sense of profound change that students in this year’s College Media Project found on their campuses. In those earlier years, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, anti-establishment rebelliousness and the 1968 presidential candidacy of U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy combined to create a student fervor and political engagement on college campuses, including the University of Iowa, throughout much of the country.
Since taking office, Trump’s policies have continued stirring controversy. They largely emerged through executive orders, his failed effort to repeal The Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare, and his proposed budget cuts in domestic spending, including several federal aid and work-study programs for college students. The executive orders initiated a travel ban on citizens from several predominantly Muslim countries, which is under court challenge, and a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
A CHANGING WORLD
Although the discourse so far today is much more orderly and less radical than in the 1960s, students sense the 2016 election has changed their world, and political debate is no longer a rarity on campus.
“It’s just so ubiquitous,” said Bryan Kampbell, 42, an associate professor of communication studies at Buena Vista University. He said, “There is a perception maybe across the country that, whether you are happy about the election results or not, that somehow, as a nation, we have sort of turned a corner, that things are different than they were.”
Rachel Zuckerman, University of Iowa’s Student Government president, said she believes the effects of the campaign and election are going to last awhile.
“I think there were long-term polarizing effects of the really contentious race that we continue to see play out,” said Zuckerman, 22, of Livonia, Michigan, a journalism major.
“It’s definitely taken a turn since he took office,” said Nezreen Iskandrani, 19, a William Penn freshman political science major from Lawrence, Kansas.
Although society changes as the new generation emerges, Iskandrani said she’s worried about change during what she sees as a time of unusual divisiveness.
“Change is good,” she said, “but as of right now, it is not so great,” and she doesn’t see much chance of improvement. “It’s not very possible with people having completely different opinions and we cannot get everyone on the same page in some kind of agreement.”
Some faculty members, even those opposed to Trump, see at least one silver lining in the election results: their students are engaged in public affairs like never before.
“I find that kind of a refreshing thing,” Kampbell said. “Usually, it seems I have to struggle to encourage people to tune into political questions. I find now that students walk into class and they’re pretty well-informed about what is going on and ready to debate it.”
Erin Kelleher, 28, is a teaching assistant in the Department of English and Creative Writing and had not planned to discuss politics in her class at the University of Iowa. But her students started the conversation.
“It was impressive to me,” said Kelleher, a master of fine arts candidate at the Iowa Writers Workshop.
“Students who rarely talked were voicing opinions,” she said. “Some who have parents in the immigration system were vocalizing their thoughts. And some of the conservative students were saying, ‘I hadn’t thought of it like that; thank you so much’.”
Kelleher said, “I don’t know if somebody else had gotten elected whether students would be as involved and open to talking about it as they are now.”
Many students have seen the same trend.
At Loras College, Adrienne Pearson noticed an intensity in students’ political interest. “It certainly has gotten much more active,” Pearson, a 20-year-old junior, said. “People weren’t talking about politics or even policy before; now, people are voicing their opinions much more often, whether in support or against the president.”
Pearson, a media studies major from Byron, Illinois, said she believes increased interest in politics stems from Trump policies “hitting closer to home.” She’s not sure whether people identify with the demographics affected by his policies “or if it’s because we are at an age where we recognize these thing about ourselves and how these policies affect us. So this working understanding of what’s going on is cause for concern, regardless of where you stand politically.”
TRUMP ACTIONS DRAW EMOTIONAL RESPONSES
Trump’s travel ban on citizens from several predominantly Muslim countries and policy on illegal immigrants have stirred considerable concern nationwide.
“We have a lot of students who may be undocumented or have parents who are here under different statuses from other countries,” said Annamaria Formichella Elsden, 52, Buena Vista University’s dean of the School of Communication and Arts, said. She said White House messages about deportation and Trump’s campaign allegation that Mexico is sending its “bad people” to the United States has caused fear among undocumented Buena Visa students. “I think there is reason for them feel less safe,” she said.
Rylee Kerper, 21, a University of Iowa senior, said post-election emotions remain strong and focused on taking action to counter Trump policies. “It’s less anger and more what are we going to do now …. and how are we going to help people affected,” Kerper, an anthropology major from Dewitt, Iowa, said. At a recent United Nations Association dinner, many people were advocating refugee rights, Kerper added. [Ed.note: Kerper’s college major was corrected after this story originally was published.]
“Even in my own student organization, the American Association of University Women, we have been focusing on how to improve – not necessary even the status of women – but of people of color. … There is more information available, so people know what’s going on and know their rights.”
Many fear Trump’s election will embolden extreme conservatives. Simpson College sophomore Belle Ward, 20, said she fears “people who could be more homophobic, racist, Islamaphobic are potentially less hidden about those beliefs now.” But she hasn’t seen or heard any of that behavior at Simpson, and she said people shouldn’t “vilify” anyone because of how they voted.
“We need to be able to communicate,” said Ward, an English major from Altoona, Iowa. “Whether identifying as a Democrat, Republican or anything in between or outside of these parties, Trump is our president and that’s the option we have.”
EFFECT ON MINORITY STUDENTS
At the University of Northern Iowa, Nikia Watson, 20, a sophomore political science major from Chicago, said, “The university is doing a better job at pushing for diversity and inclusion and making us feel more welcome since the election took place.”
Nevertheless, some minorities found motivation to get more politically involved after the Trump victory, said UNI junior Ashley Sanchez. A psychology and Spanish major from West Liberty, Iowa, Sanchez, 20, said Trump’s anti-immigrant actions could affect many people in the Cedar Falls area, and “we just want to make sure they’re safe and protected,” she said. “We’re no longer going to be in the shadows, that we’re going to be active and that we’re are going to show we’re here to stay.”
Such debate often spills out of the classroom and into the streets.
Although Assistant Professor Thomas Oates hasn’t seen much change in the intensity of political rhetoric on the University of Iowa campus since the election, protest events have drawn much larger crowds in Iowa City. Oates, 43, who teaches in the American Studies Department and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said previous protests usually drew about 50 to 100 people. But one after the election was “the biggest I had ever seen. Then there was the women’s march a few weeks later that dwarfed it.”
The protests haven’t always been peaceful in Iowa City. Madhuri Belkale, a University of Iowa freshman from Cedar Rapids, said tensions mounted after the election.
In late January, someone painted “Nazi scum” on a on North Clinton Street home in Iowa City where a Trump banner was hanging. A day earlier, a man burned an American flag on the downtown pedestrian mall to protest what he believed was the threat of fascism under Trump.
“So there was tension in the college community, and people weren’t comfortable talking to each other, Belkale, political science and psychology major, said. In some classes, there was no mention (of the election) until the last month. It was like it was risky. It was just we’re not going to talk about it.”
Naomi Clark, 40, assistant professor of English at Loras College, said many people are getting more engaged politically, because they heard a wake-up call. They had what she called “a false sense of security” the majority of Americans share their views, “and I think maybe they’re seeing that wasn’t so much the case, and so they are being more interested in promoting their ideas and connecting with those who share them.”
INCREASE IN POLITICAL DISCOURSE
The College Media Project reporters found the amount of political discourse increased dramatically in the first few post-election weeks through inauguration. The rhetoric then calmed, and a few students said the interest in politics has all but disappeared.
People were “hyper aware of things” during the primary and general election, said Morgan Langan, 20, a senior from O’Neill, Nebraska, and a Buena Vista College environmental science major. “Now the talk is more of like what’s happening in sports.”
Elsewhere, however, the political concerns among students continued, especially after Trump signed controversial executive orders, such the travel ban.
“I think things are starting to settle down,” said 19-year-old Kyle Apple, vice president of University of Iowa College Republicans. “The election was all anyone wanted to talk about for the first few weeks and again following the inauguration. Now, it only spikes up when Trump does something people think is controversial,” like the travel ban, which Apple supports, while everyone he hears seems to oppose it, he said.
Apple, a freshman political science major from Eldridge, Iowa, said some conservative students, though happy Republicans control the presidency and Congress, are vastly outnumbered by their liberal campus peers and remain reluctant to challenge them.
“When Republicans speak up about issues they are passionate about, they are instantly labeled racists, bigots, or misogynists. The labels attached to us for simply thinking different are wrong,” he said.
Kampbell, the Buena Vista communication studies professor, said he can understand why conservatives may feel that way.
“Sometimes I’m not sure people on the political left realize how oppressive they were being when they didn’t allow people to disagree with things like same sex marriage by immediately jumping to name-calling or trying to exclude those positions from the debate and trying to say…. ‘you’re on the wrong side of history’. Maybe if people had been listened to earlier on, then they might have been less likely to sort of push through a candidate even though he seems by all other measures to be unwise,” Kampbell said.
“So, I think some soul searching that needs to happen across the board.”
IowaWatch college media journalists contributing to this story are Krista Johnson of the University of Iowa, Allyssa Ertz and Lindsey Graham of Buena Vista University, Jeremy Esparza of William Penn University, Sami Graff of Loras College and Tamesha Derby of Simpson College.
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), The Des Moines Register, OskyNews.org and the USAToday.com network under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.