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Civic Energy from Political Polarization

LEAD Initiative
October 30, 2018 Ben Belz exas A&M University-Central Texas

The political landscape in the United States over the past few years has undoubtedly been a polarized and often contentious one.  A landscape that is defined by a divisive presidential election, claims of corruption, and most recently a Supreme Court nomination that required an FBI investigation.  While I would argue that incivility in political discourse should be avoided, does that mean that the polarized nature of American politics today should be as well?

Polarization is more than anecdotal in American politics today.  Political scientists will point to roll call votes to show that “the average Democrat in Congress has been moving to the left of the liberal-conservative spectrum of the 1970s just as the average Republican has moved even more quickly to the right.” (Kousser).  What’s more, poll data shows the same movement to ideological extremes for American voters as well.  Some will argue that this sort of political polarization is bad because it can lead to a stagnated political system where those elected struggle to make compromises required to enact legislation, but history suggests that polarization might also lead to times of great civic action among American citizens.

History shows us that some of the most contentious times in American political history have also been the periods that have defined the countries politics for decades to come.  The 1960’s were a period of huge political upheaval and polarization in the United States, but also the decade of the Civil Rights Movement, expanded voting protections, Medicaid/Medicard, and the moon landing.

Another key marker that points to the 1960’s being a period of vibrant civic action is the turnout for midterm elections.  The turnout for midterm elections in the United States always trails behind the turnout for presidential elections, but the 2014 midterms had the lowest turnout since 1942, when many Americans were overseas fighting in World War II.  The time of greatest midterm election turnout in the past 80 years?  The 1960’s with 1966 having a record 49% of eligible voters participating (almost as great a turnout as the 1996 presidential election).  Many projections for the 2018 midterm elections predict voter turnouts of 45% to 50%.  Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida, said “it’s probably going to be a turnout rate that most people have never experiences in their lives for a midterm election” (Montanaro).

Here in Texas we’ve already seen unusually high early voting turnout for the midterm election, rivaling the early voting turnout of recent presidential elections.  This after having a record 15.6 million Texans registered to vote.  Here on campus at Texas A&M University-Central Texas we registered 50% more students during on-campus voter registration drives in preparation for the 2018 midterms than we did during voter registration drives leading up to the 2016 presidential election.  Texas is also home to a senate race that has seen the two candidates raise a combined record of $85 million plus.

These numbers point to a high level of interest in an election that is being stressed by many as a vitally important one for our country.  There are millions of young Americans reaching voting age during this polarized environment and millions more who have been of voting age for years or decades have renewed interest in politics below the presidential level. 

So, what does that mean for those of us working in the field of civic engagement?  I would argue that it means that our work should be much more focused on facilitating environments where students can learn more about and practice civil discourse and less focused on sparking student interest in their civic duty.  For better or worse, it would seem that work is being done by our society as a whole.  What our society is lacking at the moment is building structures that allow individuals to share their individual views in a context where they can reasonably expect to feel heard and respected.

While it may seem obvious that the more important work for colleges and universities in today’s society is to help their students become citizens who can participate in appropriate discourse no matter their background or viewpoint, I think the important shift may be in, if not appreciating, at least recognizing the value that political polarization may have in inciting civic energy in our students.  How we help our students turn that new found (or rediscovered) energy in civic action should be our main focus as civic educators.


Kousser, T. (2018). I’m a political polarization research.  Here’s what I know in 2018.  Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sd-utbg-tribalism-politics-democracy-20180316-story.html

Montanaro, D. (2018). Voter Turnout Could Hit 50-Year Record For Midterm Elections. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/10/18/658255884/voter-turnout-could-hit-50-year-record-for-midterm-elections