In recent years, politics in the United States have become increasingly polarized, breeding hostility and distorting the fluid conversation which democracy thrives upon. Each party is villainized by the other; their views are dismissed as inherently wrong and used to assume individual character, often making the political minority of an area feel out of place or isolated.
Zooming in on California, it is safe to say that blue dominates most of the ballots, and at the heart of Silicon Valley, the apple does not fall far from the tree. But within this large political bubble lie some ideas that challenge those of the overwhelming majority.
At Palo Alto High School, the political scene is distinctly active with predominantly liberal students choosing to vocalize their views on current events. At the same time, however, the political climate often stifles unpopular, conservative views. Conservative students at Paly can face backlash for their stances on certain political issues, discouraging the open conversation which fuels progress and understanding.
Over her past eight years working with the Social Justice Pathway at Paly and as a US Government and Contemporary World History teacher, Caitlin Evans has witnessed first-hand the amount of social pressure that students with unpopular political opinions face. “We’ve become much more polarized than we ever have been before,” Evans said. “We definitely have students who are more moderate or conservative who have expressed to me that they feel like they can’t really voice their opinions very vocally at Paly because they will get trampled on by the general public.”
Considering the hugely liberal student demographic at Paly, it is understandable why more moderate or conservative students may feel uncomfortable expressing their views. In a survey of 111 Paly students conducted by C Magazine, approximately 80 percent of students affiliated themselves with the Democratic party, compared to a mere 8 percent of students who identified as Republicans, the remaining 12 percent defining themselves as Independent.
The pressures that come with diverging from a majority opinion are something that Evans attributes to people’s inherent desire to belong. “[When] we think that everybody else agrees with us, it’s a very safe place to be,” Evans said. “So I think that we don’t question ourselves as much.”
According to Evans, age may also play a significant role in the intolerance seen between differing political opinions. “Teenagers tend to be on the whole, a little black and white; it’s naturally where [they] are in development and thought process,” Evans said. “It’s very hard to see the gray areas when you’re young, and I think it’s much easier to be super polarized.
For students, it’s often hard to provide concrete evidence for beliefs that are backed with only a couple years of life experiences. Generally, developing teenagers focus a lot of their attention on social acceptance which plays a part in the development of political beliefs. Chris Farina, an AP Psychology and history teacher at Paly, suggests that another important factor that may contribute to the divided political climate is confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is when a person unconsciously seeks out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs and disregards any information that may be contradictory to that. “People who already have more liberal views would look for information that confirms their pre-existing belief,” Farina said. “If they did encounter information that contradicted it, they would disqualify or devalue that information; they wouldn’t weigh it as equally as whatever information they found that does confirm the beliefs they have.”
Due to confirmation biases, people struggle to find flaws in their own beliefs. At the same time, it is easier for them to poke holes in the opposing viewpoint’s ideas. Jackson Bundy, an openly conservative junior at Paly, has witnessed confirmation bias in action, both inside the classroom and in public. “Last year, there were two other openly conservative people in a class with me and the teacher, more or less, wouldn’t let us talk,” Bundy said. “[The teacher] would outright shut us down, say our views were wrong, or that our ideas are false but not actually want to have a discussion.”
The push-back Bundy has faced from both students and staff regarding his political views has discouraged him from voicing his opinions and starting discussions. “I don’t really argue with people anymore because I’m at the point where I can realize when someone isn’t willing to change their mind,” Bundy said. “If there’s someone who’s willing to talk and have an open conversation without immediately going to, ‘oh, you’re racist or sexist,’ I’m perfectly open to that.”
Along with the inability to open up a productive political conversation, Bundy has noticed that people will hide or alter their views in large group scenarios. “I’ve had political discussions with a close friend and they definitely lean more conservative than I think others are led to believe,” Bundy said. “Then, when they’re in a friend group or out in public, you can tell that they seem more liberal.”
Owen Longstreth, a junior at Paly, is a democratic socialist who is vocal about his political views and leans toward the left side of the political spectrum. “It’s really about just the problems of the US economy. We have this huge problem,” Longstreth said. “We have this incredibly rich one percent that controls everything—that’s not a system that is working. At the same time, we’ve got people that can’t afford to go to college, that have outstanding medical debts.”
Longstreth has trouble seeing eye to eye with his conservative peers. “I think that conservatives, especially the far right, like to paint this whole idea that they’re persecuted, which I think is blown out of proportion,” Longstreth said. “Conservatives just feel uncomfortable when people get mad at them for being racist.”
Working to start a peaceful conversation between both ends of the political spectrum seems like a necessary measure for some people, but to Longstreth, there does not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. “I think that we don’t really need to do this huge thing where you have to bridge the divide, so when I hear conservatives getting really [upset] about the fact that they want people to be more encouraging, my usual response is, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have policies or be talking about ideas that discriminate against people,’” Longstreth said.
A lot of times, there is a disconnect between people from opposing political parties because generalizations are often made. Because of this, Longstreth finds it hard to be friends with someone who is socially conservative. “A big part of their belief is just discriminating against people,” Longstreth said. “It’s not enjoyable to be friends with someone if they’re going to constantly talk about how much they hate LGBT people or people from Latin America.”
Longstreth is extremely active in the political scene and does his best to remain composed and even-tempered; however, his views remain fixed. “I mean, I’m passionate but I always try not to be aggressive,” Longstreth said. “I judge people based on their political views. I think it says a lot about a person and how they view the world, especially conservatives.”
The political situation at Paly has deterred many people away from open conversations and has promoted a lack of diversity of political views. Students are scared to be wrong or to have their ideas considered invalid, hindering open discussion among students. However, some teachers have been taking strides to encourage people with all viewpoints to express their ideas.
As a teacher, Evans does her best to remain impartial in the classroom in order to foster an environment where students feel comfortable sharing a variety of perspectives. “It’s not my job at all to convince kids about their politics,” Evans said. “It’s my job to teach students how the system works, and how they can be active in it.”
In her classes, Evans teaches about recognizing bias and assessing the accuracy of sources. She emphasizes that we all come from different places when we talk about politics. “It’s this idea of not going into a conversation trying to convince somebody because immediately they’re going to shut down,” Evans said. “Instead we need to meet somebody as a human. It’s just a matter of different life perspectives.”
Much like Evans, there are many people in the Paly community trying to make it a safe space for everyone, regardless of where they may fall on the political spectrum. “In general, Paly is a pretty open place for people to feel safe when discussing controversial or non-local mainstream subjects,” Jerry Berkson, Paly’s assistant principal, said. However, Berkson recognizes that the tensions between conservatives and the majority liberal student body increased following Trump’s election in 2016.
“I believe students who are on the other end of the political spectrum oftentimes have trouble promoting their views or are reluctant to do so,” Berkson said. “When Trump first got into office there were students who were harassed based on their beliefs. There are sometimes outliers who will take their disagreement on a subject too far, and then we [administrators] may need to step in.”
Perhaps one of the most well known examples on campus of a student at Paly facing backlash for their political beliefs is Paly senior Jackson Druker. During his freshman year, Druker became notorious for the social experiment he conducted for his English final. A month after President Trump’s inauguration, Druker, who did not consider himself a conservative at the time, wore a Make America Great Again hat to school.
“I wanted to see if people who had been taught for their entire life to be accepting and tolerant of everybody could still be open minded when facing that which disgusted them during one of the most volatile times in our country,” Druker said. “I think something like a third of people were chill with it, but two-thirds of Paly were like, ‘not okay, not okay.’”
The byproduct of his experiment was “social suicide,” according to Druker. “It’s awful. I wasn’t even in my friend group anymore,” Druker said. “Everybody remembers, even people who weren’t at school [that year]. They all knew about it, even if I didn’t tell them.”
One particularly memorable incident for Druker from that experiment occurred at Kirk’s Steakburgers. “Someone came up to me, they took my hat off and then they ran into Kirk’s with it,” Druker said. “They threw it on the ground, and they poured barbecue sauce on it; my friends were dipping their french fries in the barbecue sauce.”
While the incident at Kirk’s definitely stands out for Druker, it was not the only instance of backlash he faced during his social experiment. “I was also spat on, and that wasn’t fun. And I got assaulted [in the MAC], but there were no cameras. It’s like a camera blind spot,” Druker said. “That wasn’t fun either.”
Nearly three years after his experiment, Druker still faces repercussions for his act of social defiance. “Even now, I see freshmen who judge me based on what they’ve heard,” Druker said. “I have some people who turn away when they look at me. Sometimes in public, people will legitimately turn and face a wall once they make eye contact with me.”
The hatred he faced from an act as simple as wearing a hat, despite the fact that it did not fully represent his political views at the time, was enough to deter him from liberal ideologies. After the experiment, he began to align himself more with the Republican Party. Although he now considers himself more of a centrist, this has not stopped people from making assumptions about his character, delegitimizing his thoughts in favor of complete opposition.
For those living in such a largely liberal community, exposure to the ideas representing the Republican Party most often comes from the voices of alt-right extremists in the media. As a result, many students have formed a single story in their minds of what a conservative looks like, leading them to possibly assume that anyone who disagrees with the majority is a white supremacist.
These assumptions have made many conservatives at Paly feel uncomfortable about sharing their views in fear that they will be labeled in the same regard.
“One day I responded to questions for 10 hours straight on my Instagram, and every single one of them was like, ‘Why do you hate transgenders? Why do you hate gay people?’ I don’t,” Druker said. “Now that I’m out about siding more with the Republican Party, everybody thinks that I have all the ‘-isms’ attached to me or all the ‘-ists’ attached to me; it’s bizarre.”
Despite the social challenges he faced, Druker feels that his experiment was not in vain and is proud to have inspired other non-liberal students to be vocal about their opinions. “I definitely noticed that after performing the social experiment, a lot more kids werve out about [their conservative views],” Druker said.
Looking forward, Druker advises people with unpopular views to continue to stay true to their opinions and speak their minds. “Just because you might say something that people don’t agree with doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say it,” Druker said. “That’s just going to make the problem that we have worse.”
Pablo Tobaruela, a former Paly student with conservative views, also experienced how people with similar views were treated at school and how they were unable to express their opinions in the same way many of the liberal peers could. “Paly is not a safe place for conservatives,” Tobaruela said. “I know many people who are closeted conservatives, who share the same views I do but don’t feel that they may have the strength to openly share their views.”
Similarly to Druker, Tobaruela has had many wild assumptions made about him based solely on his political affiliation. “People have been quite unfair to me because of my views and have had unfair assumptions about me,” Tobaruela said. “I’ve been called horrible names like racist, sexist, homophobic, bigot, islamophobic, you know the whole dictionary.”
To Tobaruela, it is important that Paly as a community works toward creating an environment, not only where students of all races and genders feel tolerated, but also where students feel supported regardless of their political beliefs. He encourages students to look for those with opinions different from their own and strive to learn something new about a different perspective.
“Diversity is key and people often focus on racial diversity, sexual diversity, gender diversity, but many times they tend to forget about diversity of thoughts,” Tobaruela said. “I think that that is the most important of it all, I think we need to cherish the fact that we are different people with different views. I think we should be able to come together and sit down and allow each other to express them openly.”
In this current political climate, it feels as though each word has the potential to be dissected, twisted or insulted, leaving people hesitant to even approach the subject. While this inaction may alleviate an immediate looming conflict, shying away from these tough, emotional conversations deepens a political divide which has bled into every aspect of society, further separating two sides that already seem unable to understand one another. Some see this disconnect as an inevitable product of fundamental differences, while others search for understanding through human connection. But regardless of how, or if, this compromise should be reached, it is clear that an inability to converse stifles progress. Challenging peers, friends and family to sit down and have an open dialogue, especially those with differing views, is not just productive or necessary—it is brave.