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Hidden Tribes: Political Polarization and the Threat to Democracy

Hidden Tribes: Political Polarization and the Threat to Democracy

A recent report from the Brookings Institute surveying college students’ opinions of the First Amendment shows that roughly 1 in 5 undergraduate students in American universities believe it is acceptable to incite physical violence on people that engage in “offensive” speech. The report also concluded that while the majority of students recognized the inherent importance of dialogue and diversity of opinions on campus, some still overwhelmingly believed that forcibly silencing certain speakers was an acceptable practice. In an ironic yet disconcerting way, this report tells us that while some college students consider the college campus a pillar of democracy and free thought, they too have little interest in being exposed to ideologies foreign or “hurtful” to their own. Contextualized in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, American politics has become increasingly and toxically polarized, which begs the question of whether individuals are inherently tribe-oriented and what this means for the future of the nation.

This issue of American tribalism and group dissociation has been a particular point of discussion for Fr. John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit priest and theologian. While he specifically focuses on the relationship between religious pluralism and democratic institutions, Fr. Murray does examine the requirements for a democratic, united society and how human nature plays a role in that. According to Fr. Murray, a virtuous society, and by extension virtuous peoples, is the only means of fostering universal freedom and prosperity. While his considerations imply some religious affiliation, it more so relates to a certain respect for others and for diversity, which in turn catalyzes a shared perspective on the importance of self and others alike. However, this plurality that aids in establishing unity and diversity can also further divide us. Given human tendency to surround ourselves with individuals and ideas we are familiar with, Fr. Murray raises concern that the various communities that make society thrive can also become too steadfast in their distinctiveness and become isolated and stagnant. When discussing this in the context of American politics, such divisiveness has been assumed to be unilateral, when in truth it has become a bipartisan issue.

In what is surely exacerbated by the rise of the Internet and the increased partisanship of politics after the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have developed a sense that a binary us vs them, red vs blue, is the only realistic way the country goes forward. This need to pick sides then is often used as justification for implicit and explicit acts of silencing in order to assure one’s point and one’s side is right. While being politically vocal and civically active is not inherently wrong, the issue arises when that which we are condemning isn’t truly hateful, violent speech, but rather speech we simply disagree with. Just recently, a professor from the University of Southern Maine lied to administration about the course she was teaching, misusing grant money by having students board buses to physically assault supporters of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. This problem too exists outside college and liberal spheres of thought. Many extreme religious and conservative groups have taken to Twitter to quell attempts to recognize LGBT peoples as legitimate, sending death threats to people like Fr. James Martin, who have been vocal about bridging the gap between religion and sexuality.

It is clear that American discourse is far from civil, with spirited dialogue falling at the wayside to complete viewpoint hegemony. Because some cannot and will not entertain opinion that exists beyond their frame of reference, it only follows that such viewpoints, no matter how radical they are, will appear hateful and threatening, thus becoming something we will blindly suppress. Such inability to hold conversation should strike us as concerning and in need of remedying, but again, many have no interest in addressing the toxicity that has been present in American public life. In response to the increased violence occurring during the protests of certain “controversial” speakers on college campuses, a recent article in “The Chronicle for Higher Education” argued that universities should be more prudently and financially prepared to prevents instances like this from exacerbating. Considering that U.S. colleges and universities have spent millions of dollars in security at speaker events last year, $5.8 million by UC Berkeley alone, it seems irresponsible to place further burdens on taxpayers and university funds to mitigate these chaotic scenes. Likewise, I believe this idea posed by the chronicle incorrectly claims that college students are themselves not at fault for this violence that is transpiring. Instead of properly delineating that certain chaotic behaviors have consequences, this article  implies that violent protest is inevitable, and that schools should simply expect such to occur.

In order to truly reform the discourse that occurs on college campuses, and the discourse throughout the nation, it is imperative that we teach America’s youth from early on that what is different is not something that is inherently scary, threatening, or “offensive.” By getting information from different news sources or doing something as simple as having conversations with people who do not look or speak like you, we can try to prevent such exacerbated conflict from occurring in the future. We are a nation of individuals, with diverse thoughts, goals, and lived experiences, and it only follows that such diversity remain respected, not damned, by a society that prides itself in democracy.

Works Cited

Berman, Jillian. “U.S. Colleges Spent Millions on Security Last Year to Host Controversial Speakers.” MarketWatch, 10 Oct. 2018,

Gallagher, Noel. “Professor Who Offered College Credit for Trip to Lobby Sen. Collins Is Barred from Teaching, Says USM.” Press Herald, 18 Oct. 2018,

Gose, Ben. “Don’t Stop Inviting Controversial Speakers. Just Prepare Prudently.”,

Murray, John Courtney. We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Smarick, Andy. “To Reform Campuses, Start with Pre-College Reforms.” The Weekly Standard, 22 Oct. 2018,

Villasenor, John. “Views among College Students Regarding the First Amendment: Results from a New Survey.” Brookings, Brookings, 20 Sept. 2017,

Wang, Amy X. “One in Five College Students Says It's Acceptable to Use Violence against an ‘Offensive’ Speaker.” Quartz, Quartz, 21 Sept. 2017,

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