By Anne Li and Estefanía Acuña Lacarieri
Cameron Lange, a junior from Los Angeles, is the epitome of a politically involved student. She is co-president of Stanford Democrats and makes time to call or canvasses for her preferred candidates.
But as one of the most significant midterm elections in U.S. history loomed, Lange was disappointed by a lack of civic engagement among her peers.
“[Stanford] feels like a country club or a resort that’s perfectly manicured and cut off from the real world and average people and their problems,” she said. “Issues like poverty and homelessness, that if you live in a city like Los Angeles are constantly visible, are rendered out of sight out of mind.”
Lange is not the only one who feels this way. In interviews with 10 Stanford students from both ends of the political spectrum, there was one area of consensus: Student civic engagement and productive political conversations on campus are rare.
While Stanford’s vision statement emphasizes “civic engagement and a respect for robust discourse in education and residential life,” some students expressed fear about voicing more conservative views and others worried about political apathy.
Stanford students are not immune to polarization. Ahead of the midterm elections, their views mirrored national partisan divisions on priorities.
For those who vote Republican, a Pew Research Center survey last month found that immigration, the economy and violent crime were top of mind, the latter two of which are also priorities for Republicans on campus.
Senior Sarah Olmstead, a member of Stanford College Republicans (SCR), worries about how crime in her small town has been impacted by policies enacted under New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham. Olmstead is frustrated by Grisham’s economic decisions related to Covid. She plans to vote against Grisham in the midterms.
Seamus Callaghan, a second-year Ph.D. student and president of SCR, also named the economy as a prominent issue. He is concerned about how inflation is impacting “people’s ability to just buy the things that they need to survive.”
Stanford Democrats’ priorities are similarly aligned with national party trends. According to the Pew Research Center survey, Democrats are prioritizing the future of American democracy, healthcare, abortion and climate change. The issue that Stanford Democrats did not mention as vehemently was healthcare.
Emma Buday, a junior who is co-president of Stanford Democrats and member of StanfordVotes, said protecting the climate is important to her. She recalled witnessing climate change denial in her home state of Michigan, even as her uncle’s home sinks due to Lake Michigan’s rising water levels.
She has also noticed apathy at Stanford. “It’s slightly concerning that we’re not as excited about the issues now and how that will bleed into our adulthood if we just prioritize our own individual interests,” she said.
Senior Molly Glickman, a member of Stanford Democrats, is particularly worried about indifference and low engagement among her peers in an election cycle when she believes that “everything is at stake,” especially democracy.
“Stanford students are some of the smartest people in the country. They’ll kind of pour themselves into certain academic or career endeavors,” Glickman said. “But when it comes to civic engagement, I would say it is a little bit surprising for an institution of this caliber.”
According to Glickman, this is due to a “self-perpetuating culture” on campus: As students notice that their friends do not engage in political dialogue, they are less likely to join, and vice versa.
Ria Calcagno, a junior who is part of Stanford Democrats, blames the lack of productive conversations on the so-called Stanford “bubble of paradise” where “it can be easy to check out a bit from the real world.”
Like Calcagno, Walker Stewart, a senior and member of SCR, believes many political issues on campus are not discussed in the depth they deserve, even in classes that focus on those topics. He thinks this reflects a broader political apathy surrounding the midterm elections.
Junior Gabriella García, a member of Stanford Democrats, said this was not exclusive to the student body, noting that professors rarely talk about these issues in an organized way and that the onus falls on students to bring them up.
Olmstead said young Republicans at Stanford hesitate to discuss their political views because they are afraid of being outcast.
“I’m a woman. I am disabled. I’m [First-Generation, Low-Income]. None of those identities have ever made me scared at Stanford,” Olmstead said. “But ‘conservative’ as my identity has made me very scared at Stanford more than a few times.”
Freddy Rabbat Neto, a senior who votes Republican, blames the campus atmosphere for making it difficult for conservative students to openly express their views. “Stanford unfortunately seems to focus only on one agenda and silences any other types of thinking, which I think is a pity for the university,” Neto said.
Junior Quennie Nguyen, who is a registered Republican, noted that students at Stanford skew liberal. A recent poll by The Stanford Daily supports her observation, finding that students’ main priorities for the midterms were abortion, climate change and threats to democracy. These priorities closely align with the Pew Research Center survey’s findings about Democratic vote preferences.
Some students observe a chasm between Democrats and Republicans on campus. “It often feels like not only Stanford, but the rest of the country is at such a separation that nothing I do will actually make a sizable difference,” Olmstead said.
As in the rest of the country, political rhetoric on campus “can be quite inflammatory,” said Nguyen, who does not agree with SCR.
“You have very vocal people on each end and that just ruins the conversation,” Neto said. “When you go to SCR it’s a bit too vocal. A lot of liberals are also very loud, and it becomes hard to just propose anything in between.”
This all raises the question of how Stanford can effectively fulfill its vision to promote civic engagement and respect.
García believes that solutions could come from individuals with authority, including professors, resident assistants and politicians. “Not a lot of politicians try to communicate with young voters,” she said. “When they come to campus it shows that they care.”
She also believes that professors could be more vocal about making people excited about the elections and voting.
Brian Coyne, Stanford lecturer in Political Science, has advertised Democracy Day to his students and encouraged them to participate. He phrases questions in a way that invites students to empathize with others’ views. Instead of asking students what they personally think about a given topic, he asks them: “Why might a reasonable person support this?”
Coyne emphasized the distinction between a political debate and a class. “In politics, we’re trying to convince each other about what we should do. But that’s not what a class is. That’s not the goal of a class,” he said.
Other students believe that a commitment to respect and open-mindedness that extends beyond classrooms would facilitate political dialogue on campus.
“I think we only grow by looking at both sides of the argument,” Neto said. “The main part of democracy is hearing the other person out.”
Students on both sides said the stakes are particularly high this election cycle. For Lange, the election is a “temperature check to gauge what we believe in as a nation.”