Far from the protests, some students try to meet in the middle

Many young people are searching for a different way of approaching politics.
Many young people are searching for a different way of approaching politics.

Summary

Gen Zers look for dialogue amid the acrimony. “A lot of us are scared.”

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif.—The conversation was halting at first, not because the students didn’t have anything to say, but because they were afraid. Later, they would say their political discussion had been clarifying and even cathartic.

They sat scattered in a classroom after hours on chairs attached to desks, 15 undergraduates at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, trying to make sense of the world and its discontents, starting with the recent campus Israel protests. “I see people saying, like, ‘the students just want to feel heard,’ and it’s like, no, they want to make a difference," said Conner Phillips, a 20-year-old history major with bleached-blond hair.

“They’re missing the complete point," agreed Baohan Tran, a 21-year-old political-science major wearing a black hairband.

“This disruption is obviously unfortunate, but now the whole world is talking about it, including the president," said Kayhan Mokhtari, a 19-year-old majoring in business.

The protests that have upended colleges from coast to coast have focused America’s attention on the volatile condition of campus politics and the unsettled state of the youth vote that could prove critical to this year’s election. But less than one in 10 college students have participated in the protests, according to a recent Generation Lab poll, and while a plurality supported the protests, most opposed disruptive tactics like occupying campus buildings.

Even as some young people are erupting in anger, the students gathered here—a group that came together on a recent weekday evening for a political discussion hosted by BridgeUSA, a national organization devoted to improving campus dialogue—are evidence that many are searching for a different way of approaching politics.

But they have few constructive outlets for political discussion in a campus atmosphere dominated by extremes and activist fervor. As the students here chatted about current events, their frustration with their political choices was apparent, but so was their yearning for an alternative to the militancy that has consumed so many of their peers. Most were in middle school when Donald Trump was first elected in 2016 and in high school during the pandemic dislocations and social-justice protests of 2020. Having come of age in a time of toxic polarization, their young lives marked by violent disagreements that have torn apart families and communities, they were hungry for some sort of constructive engagement—an idea so exotic that just taking baby steps toward it felt scary.

That deficiency is precisely what BridgeUSA was founded to address. Co-founder Manu Meel was a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, when student demonstrations against a 2017 speech by the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos degenerated into violence. The fracas upset Meel, an apolitical pre-med, who believed the extremists on either side didn’t represent most students who didn’t have strong opinions but lacked ways to talk things out, without being bullied into taking sides. After graduating in 2020, Meel and others took BridgeUSA national. It now has chapters at 63 colleges and 17 high schools in 39 states, and will hold its third national summit in Chicago over the summer.

“The real divide in Gen Z is not left-right but moderate versus extreme," said Meel, 25, whose organization is funded by an ideologically diverse group of donors and foundations. His inbox has filled up lately with speaking invitations from major grown-up organizations anxious for approaches to tackle the polarization that some see as a central problem threatening the nation’s, and the world’s, future. “There’s a silent majority that wants to have a dialogue, but all the air is taken up by the vocal extremes, and the universities are held hostage by them."

Cal Poly SLO, a top-rated school for engineering and agriculture located on an idyllic stretch of coastal Central California, isn’t a particularly political campus. Though students report tensions, it is a far cry from the raucous atmosphere at many California campuses. Eight hours’ drive to the north, at Cal Poly Humboldt, anti-Israel protesters shut down the campus, defacing and barricading themselves inside campus buildings for weeks.

At Cal Poly SLO, there have been sporadic protests over the past several months, including one that led to student arrests in March. Earlier this month, about 100 students and faculty gathered for a campus “die-in" to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, while a handful of pro-Israel demonstrators looked on peacefully, according to a KCBX radio report. On Thursday, local police arrested six protesters, including a chemistry professor, after they blocked an entrance to the university. When the giant letter “P" on the hillside overlooking campus was painted with the colors of the Israeli flag, the sanctioned display was defaced with the words “Stop the Genocide." Some students have put Israeli or Palestinian flags on their backpacks. A few weeks ago, a student in one of Madison Mairs’s music classes stood up and yelled “Free Palestine!" and walked out in what appeared to be part of a coordinated action, she recalls.

Mairs, 20, helped start the BridgeUSA chapter with her friend and dormmate Grace Reiff, also 20, when both were freshmen last year. The two blond political-science majors both come from politically mixed families and communities that have been riven asunder by politics in recent years. Mairs is from Orange County, Calif., Reiff is from Seattle. Both describe a passion for getting involved and trying to make the world a better place, tempered by an aversion to the anger and division of the political arena. When the opportunity arose to lead a nonpartisan political discussion group, both thought that sounded appealing.

“I found that during Covid everything got very polarized, and the activism that was happening didn’t feel as civil as I remembered," said Mairs, whose mother had taken her to political demonstrations since she was in kindergarten and who led a gun-control walkout at her middle school. “I’m still passionate about a lot of issues, but I love the idea of listening to all sides and having open conversations."

In high school, Reiff’s family, mostly apolitical themselves, teased her that she was destined to become a politician because she was so poised and opinionated. She watched as Seattle was “turned upside down" by the 2020 protests and wished there was a way for people to recognize each other’s humanity across different perspectives. “So many friends and family members don’t have relationships anymore because of politics," she said. “It can turn so ugly so quickly when people aren’t trying to understand each other."

At the BridgeUSA meeting, Mairs and Reiff stood at the front of a classroom in the red-walled Agriculture building. A table was draped with a banner with the group’s logo and the slogan “Constructive Dialogue. Ideological Diversity. Better Understanding."

As the sun set outside and students in sweatpants filtered into the room, Reiff read a set of “discussion norms" off the overhead projector, including “Critique the perspective, not the person" and “Recognize that participants represent only their ideas and are not expected to speak for their entire social group."

Part of what’s driving the spasms of campus outrage may be a lack of other venues for political expression. At Cal Poly, both the College Republicans and College Democrats are defunct. Nationally, today’s students can feel faced with a choice between the far-right Trumpism of organizations like Turning Point USA, known for racially inflammatory antics and surveilling liberal professors, and the far-left zealotry of protesters who romanticize armed resistance and see everything from Palestinian liberation to climate change as part of an urgent “omnicause." There’s little space for open-minded exploration. The Bridge students lamented that their professors seem to avoid hot topics, making it hard to get educated on highly charged issues. “We want to learn more," said Isabella Veran, a 20-year-old sociology major in a baggy white sweater. “It’s disappointing that they’re not addressing it."

Discussing the election, the students sought to understand the candidates’ appeal. It was a left-leaning group, though it contained at least one Trump supporter and some who seemed curious about independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “It’s disappointing that these are our two best options, an old guy who can barely form sentences versus Trump, who’s a racist," Mokhtari said.

“It’s not enough to make me vote for Trump, but you wish we lived in a different world where the candidate was not Biden," Phillips said.

Kate, a blond-haired student who declined to give her last name, said Trump appealed to her as a businessman who could strengthen the economy. Rather than jump down her throat when she said this, the President Biden-supporting students responded with curiosity and anecdotes about the devotion and patriotism of Trump supporters in their communities. “His supporters feel like, as committed as they are to him, he’s committed to them," Reiff observed.

To be sure, for many of their peers, the division these students lament is a feature, not a bug. Plenty of idealistic youth perceive today’s problems as too urgent for compromise and view the disruption of a corrupt status quo as necessary. Using their bodies to jam the gears of oppression is the only way they see to force a response from a system that shuts out their voices. As this generation prepares to steer the future course of the nation, politics will be a contest over whom the future belongs to.

Debriefing after the Bridge meeting, several students said it was a relief to be able to talk about politics without feeling like they were walking on eggshells. “I lean liberal, but sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m not sure I agree with that,’" Phillips said. “But I don’t want to say something that would get me ostracized by the group I identify with."

Dylan Taxer, a 20-year-old political-science major, said some of his family members are no longer on speaking terms. “It’s amazing to see how polarizing politics has become where they can’t even talk to each other," he said. “A lot of us are scared because we’ve seen it with our own friends and relatives."

Meel, CEO of the national group, says the goal isn’t mushy-headed centrism or “kumbaya nonsense," but finding ways for even strong disagreements to be expressed without anyone being demonized, shouted down or violently attacked. For this seemingly anodyne stance, he has been called a fascist more times than he can count.

“This is your opportunity as young people to try to change the culture on campus," he told the Cal Poly students as they filtered out into the night. “You’re actually advocating for something that is, like, countercultural. It’s a middle finger to how f—ed up our politics is."

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@wsj.com

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