Student political stance different as time passes

Amy Hackbarth

Thirty-eight years ago, in smoky coffee shops and at sit-ins and student rallies, a weathered jangle proclaimed, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

Now, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles have determined it’s happening again.

College freshmen might be more likely to support the legalization of marijuana and gay and lesbian marriage than in past years. They are also likely to be more politically liberal than at any time since the Vietnam War, according to the study released last week.

UCLA researchers interviewed 281,064 college freshmen at 421 campuses across the nation. They found a shift toward liberal politics, with nearly 30 percent of surveyed students describing themselves as “far left.”

College politics continuously shift, said Samantha Luks, a University political science professor who specializes in political socialization.

During the Vietnam War in 1971, 40.9 percent of surveyed students called themselves “liberals,” leading Luks to think politics were related to age.

“I used to think it was an artifact of age; you got more conservative as you got older,” Luks said.

Instead, Luks found the political leanings of college students correlated with those of the party occupying the White House. Specifically, Luks said, the ideology of parties in power for an extended period of time seems to resonate with college students. During former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s 12-year era, Luks said more students were conservative.

Now, after former President Bill Clinton’s two terms, more students consider themselves liberal.

The shift doesn’t surprise Jonathan Moore, a University graduate and member of the College Green Party, who said liberal politics give students a chance to speak out about their viewpoints.

“The Green Party has the spirit and energy of change that maybe the other parties don’t,” Moore said. “Sometimes students can tap into that.”

Matt Falkner, chief financial officer for the University’s College Democrats chapter, said he considers the University a primarily liberal campus.

“If we split it up between liberal or conservative, I’d say half to two-thirds of the students would be liberal, maybe more,” he said.

Support for liberal ideas such as marijuana legalization and gay marriage rights might correspond with the amount of media coverage they receive, Luks said.

Shows like “That ’70s Show” and “Will and Grace” make such issues available to the mainstream public, she said.

“There is a definite change in how marijuana is portrayed on TV,” she said. “It used to be something only ‘bad kids’ did.”

The University student group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which advocates marijuana legalization, has noticed increased support from students, said Erin Hvisdak, the group’s chairwoman.

“Coming to college, you know these students know what’s going on,” she said. “A lot of students smoke pot at school. It’s becoming a lot more accepted.”

Amy Hackbarth welcomes comments at [email protected]