December 2, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the Tufts community members’ discussion on the Biden administration’s domestic policies and political polarization in the United States. 

The words that arise when one discusses the current state of American politics are banal. Inflammatory. Divisive. Desensitizing. The political experiences of many Americans encompass those characterizations, and especially in a year where pivotal political developments occur almost every day, it has been exhausting to care, let alone bear to listen. 

As Joe Biden’s Presidency enters another significant hurdle through the 2022 midterm elections that are putting slim Democratic House and Senate majorities on the line, political animosity is intensifying. The Pew Research Center reported in August that negative partisanship is exacerbating, with majorities of Democrats and Republicans viewing opposing voters as “close-minded,” “dishonest,” “immoral” and “unintelligent.” 

Not only is negative partisanship worsening, but political violence is also intensifying. As a study conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies outlines, the percentage of domestic terrorist incidents has substantially increased, with white supremacists and various far-right extremists conducting 49% of all attacks and far-left terrorists constituting 40%of all domestic attacks in 2021.

In a politically volatile America, what can Democrats and Republicans agree on? Actually, a fair amount, as leaders of political organizations at Tufts point to the possibility of a greater civil dialogue.

To begin, Tufts Democratic and Republican student leaders both expressed alarm over the intensification of climate change and an urgency to address what United Nations  Secretary-General António Guterres has declared as an emergency.

In this context, Trent Bunker, vice president of Tufts Republicans, acknowledged the Biden Administration’s efforts in addressing climate change. 

“In terms of the Biden Administration, I’d also say that [Biden] has taken some important measures … His work on the climate, though, [is] maybe not targeted toward the ways that we want to see climate change addressed, because it is one of the biggest threats that we face as a nation,” Bunker said. “At least he recognizes that these things are issues, … and he’s taken steps to counteract that.

Echoing Bunker’s sentiment, Mark Lannigan, president of Tufts Democrats, predicted that more people will act across the political spectrum in acting on climate change.

“Climate change, I think, is going to become increasingly apparent to everyone,” Lannigan said. “I think more and more people will be getting on the aggressive climate action train. Because even in Republican states right now, we’ve been seeing climate mitigation efforts … Those are, I think, baby steps in [addressing] the climate crisis.”

Out of this discussion, policy similarities emerged between Lannigan and Bunker. When discussing solutions to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, both sides articulated their support for the development of nuclear energy. Although Americans have noticeably mixed views on nuclear energy, some energy policy experts are increasingly seeing nuclear energy as a complementary component in addressing climate change. Both Bunker and Lannigan take the latter approach.

In this regard, Lannigan referenced the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s goal for adequate climate action before climate-related conditions get worse.

“Our number one goal [is] getting to 2030 without the planet on fire, and so I think that means taking aggressive approaches,” Lannigan said. “I think nuclear energy is … the fastest way we can get to our goal. That doesn’t mean to replace solar energy or wind energy … But specifically, I just don’t think that we’ve invested enough in nuclear energy options.”

Similarly, Bunker spoke positively of nuclear energy as a climate mitigation strategy

“Nuclear is a very promising avenue,” Bunker said. “Less deaths per unit of energy output than any other form of energy, less radiation emitted from a nuclear plant than from a coal plant. So we see a lot of potential in that avenue.”

However, policy differences between the two also became noticeable through the conversations. When discussing the climate provisions included in the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by Biden in August 2022, Bunker criticized its electric car investments as misguided to address climate change.

“A lot of the money put toward climate in this bill are toward these electric car subsidies, which are very specific for only certain types of cars,” Bunker said. “These types of cars are only going to benefit people toward the upper ends of the income distribution. Electric cars … are mined from lithium, taken unsustainably from areas around the world where child labor is rampant. … So, this [electric vehicle] push is slightly misguided right now.”

By contrast, Lannigan shared that Biden’s implementation of the IRA was a step in the right direction for bolder environmental policy in the future. In addition, Lannigan cited the Green New Deal, an environmental policy initiative that has become a mainstay in Democratic politics, as a necessity to move forward on climate policy .

“I do think we should be celebrating the steps that we take along the way, and I think [the IRA] is a really good first step in investing in climate legislation,” Lannigan said. “I think that a lot more Democrats are getting on the Green New Deal train as well …  I think what we’ve realized is that a climate approach that centers environmental justice communities is popular, and an environmental approach that centers labor is popular.” 

Another domestic issue that has become more contentious throughout the past year of the Biden Administration is reproductive rights. Since Dobbs v. Jackson overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June, Republican-governed states have enforced more stringent abortion prohibitions. 

Recently, Arizona Superior Court Judge Kellie Johnson ruled that a 1901 ban on abortions, which carries one exception in the circumstance when forced birth threatens the life of the mother, can be enforced in the state. In contrast, Democratic-governed states are enacting abortion protections. Connecticut Democratic Governor Ned Lamont signed a bill in May that establishes protections for abortion providers and out-of-state travelers who want to get an abortion but cannot legally do so in their home state

During this discussion about abortion with the Daily, Bunker expressed support to out-of-state travelers seeking an abortion.

“If a woman … goes from Texas to Massachusetts, for example, and wants an abortion, she shouldn’t have to face penalties in Texas — that’s preposterous,” Bunker said. “[Out-of-state abortion penalties are] blatantly unconstitutional.”

In addition, Bunker spoke out against South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham’s recently proposed the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children from Late-Term Abortions Act. If signed into law, the bill would enact a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and physical dangers to the life of the mother, according to The New York Times.

Bunker elaborated on his opposition to Senator Graham’s proposal, describing it as a “political play” in his view.

“I would say it’s quite hypocritical of the [Republican] party to [have states’ rights] be the rallying cry against Roe v. Wade for the past 50 years, and then, all of a sudden, Graham [proposes] this 15-week ban,” Bunker said.

For Lannigan, Biden and Democratic leaders ultimately need to go further to protect and secure abortion rights nationwide. On such a view, Lannigan cited Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal, which suggests that the Department of Justice consider the possibility of providing reproductive care, including abortion access, on federal properties. 

“I think the administration could go further in [protecting abortion rights],” Lannigan said. “There’s plenty of federal land across the country in states that currently either have abortion bans or are passing abortion bans … that you can lease to abortion clinics [at a federal level] … We should be pursuing that.”

In a further contrast to Bunker, Lannigan does not see such Graham’s proposal as hypocritical for Republicans.

“I don’t consider it exactly Republican hypocrisy, because I think this was always their plan,” Lannigan said. “I don’t think there was ever an instance in which abortion was not going to be overturned as a right nationwide and it was not going to be followed up by an abortion ban proposal.”

On top of that, Lannigan called for the Democratic Party’s legislative efforts to enshrine the abortion protections into law, previously protected and established by Roe v. Wade.

“I also think that Democrats should be pursuing their own legislative action on this, which is to enshrine abortion as a right across the country, nationwide, in Congress,” Lannigan asserted. “[Democrats] have the ability to do it right now. They have a majority in the House … [and] a 50-50 [in the Senate] with the Vice President’s [vote to break a tie] … That is something they have not passed, but it is something that they definitely should pass.” 

Overall, what came out of these conversations at Tufts was an acute awareness of political polarization that reflects the nationwide trend. Compromise is being abandoned for short-sighted partisanship that further inflames political tensions, which, in turn, throws goodwill out of any consideration. In this context, even when differing perspectives share some common grounds, differences often win out. 

And it is a problem that Magali Ortiz knows too well. Ortiz is the co-president of Cooperation and Innovation in Citizenship, a non-partisan organization at Tufts, which aims to promote “meaningful political discourse on campus and surrounding communities,” according to its website.

Ortiz shared her personal observation that sheds light on the political polarization nationwide.  

“I am someone who has been friends with people from across the political spectrum my whole life … but it has been interesting to see people that used to … disagree with you in a certain respect … go further and further off … the ‘deep end,’” Ortiz said. 

Growing up in a family that moved around the world and valued critical thinking, Ortiz added that she came to understand the importance of balance and compromise, even when political differences become drastic. Ortiz noted the presence of what she refers to as an “echo chamber” that reaffirms and perpetuates one’s viewpoints.

Such an echo chamber, Ortiz explained, can inhibit constructive conversation and heightens peoples’ differences when similarities should be emphasized. For Ortiz, what is needed is more dialogue that gets out of peoples’ comfort zones. In a fracturing America, real understanding can be accomplished through these conversations, she emphasized.

“I think a big thing is knowing when to recognize that you are in a bubble and be able to push yourself out of it,” Ortiz said. “I am thinking of a conversation I had in a bagel shop a couple weeks ago, where I just ended up having a conversation with this cop who works in Medford … and had [a different take than] you would see from most students that you would talk to on campus … [and so] a really big thing is being okay with being uncomfortable.”

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