Political independence becoming a popular declaration on campus

Wild-card generation of college students tends to shun partisan labels

May 02, 2004|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Campus resistance to the war in Iraq is growing. President Bush's approval rating among students is sliding. And the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is about as popular as an 8 a.m. class.

The tide of student political opinion that only six months ago was solidly behind Bush is shifting, and interest in the coming election among young adults is sharply higher than it was four years ago at this time.

But trying to figure out what all this may mean in November is tricky because the nation's 13 million college students are an unpredictable and civically lethargic bloc of voters whose allegiances trend away from the partisan labels of conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Political independence is the most popular campus declaration, and it is producing a new strain of volatility: political indecision.

Disengaged from the established political process yet informed on major issues, the students are a wild-card generation that grew up in the booming affluence of the 1990s.

"You have this big new demographic of pretty-well-educated people who tend to be quite liberal on social issues, reasonably conservative on fiscal issues, and betwixt and between on questions like abortion, crime, the death penalty and welfare," said Bill Galston, a professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It's going to be an increasingly powerful demographic going forward. They are still very much a work in progress."

The turmoil that centered a generation ago on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War plays out in different ways now as students grapple with the rising death toll in Iraq, the economy and gay marriage, the issue that clearly sets them apart from their parents.

While about 60 percent of Americans overall oppose same-sex marriages, a nearly equal percentage on campuses supports it, according to a recent poll from the Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

"President Bush has been using the gay marriage issue as a smoke screen because he doesn't want to deal with other issues like weapons of mass destruction, the troops still over there and an economy that is worsening," said Candice Adams, a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "He claims to be a unifier, but it's divisive to use that issue."

Randi Bradley, a senior studying politics and literature at the University of Maryland, described herself as "pro-marriage for all families." A pro-gay-marriage button on her purse says: "If you want to sanctify marriage, outlaw divorce."

A different upbringing

Public opinion analysts say student attitudes toward gay marriage reflect their upbringing - they have grown up with social diversity, much more so than their parents, and they view different lifestyles as far less threatening.

Galston is also executive director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a nonprofit group that studies civic and political engagement of Americans ages 15 to 25. He said it remains to be seen whether the Sept. 11 attacks will be a defining moment for this generation.

Early student support for the Iraq war may have partially been a response to Sept. 11.

"I completely thought the war was justified. But if we're going to fight it, we have to fight it to win," said James Schindler, an economics major at Notre Dame. "It's our duty to stay there. It would be a slap in the face of the military to leave now."

Margaret Cooley, a sophomore business major at the University of Arizona, and Joni Saquilayan, a pre-med junior at the Tucson campus, said they are torn over the war.

Saquilayan said she is leaning toward voting for Bush. "I don't agree with the concept of war, but we had to get Saddam Hussein, and he was after us and he had murdered hundreds of thousands of people," she said.

Cooley, who described herself as more of a Democrat, also favored Bush, although she said her support has been shaken by recent events in Iraq. She said she now is undecided.

The survey last month from the Institute of Politics found campus support for the war - the most important issue for students, the poll said - had dropped 9 percentage points since October, to 49 percent.

Tiffany Jollands, a Michigan State University dietetics major, said she had been inclined to vote for Bush because of his handling of the war against terrorism. Not anymore.

A self-described "Navy brat," Jollands said she is troubled by developments in Iraq and declares herself politically undecided.

"Forcing these guys to be there so long isn't right. Bush is too hard on them," she said. "He's asking too much. ... We're doing it all."

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