Students at Shepherd University contemplate the current political landscape as it creates a deep divide nationally between red and blue states.
“It’s obvious that there are some people who are supportive of President Trump’s administration, in particular some of the executive orders, and it’s also evident that there are a number of people who are very opposed to these actions,” said Joseph Robbins, chair and associate professor of political science.
According to the Secretary of State Data Services, West Virginia proved to be overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump, with 68 percent of the vote for the president, and 26 percent for his Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton. Jefferson County voted 54 percent for Trump and 39 percent for Clinton.
Shepherdstown showed its colors a little differently. Of voters who chose either Trump or Clinton, only 38 percent voted for Trump while 61 percent voted for Clinton. Many business owners in town have come out against the immigration ban and the border wall, and townspeople came together to arrange transportation in five buses for the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. By the end of January, Trump opponents organized in a day a protest outside the Bavarian Inn during a legislative retreat of U.S. Senate Democrats.
Because Shepherd University is full of students with a diverse array of backgrounds and from different areas, it is difficult to pinpoint a prevailing political opinion. It is possible, however, for the brutal rift that has infected the U.S. to influence Shepherd.
Students spanning the spectrum can see the reasons such an intense and passionate debate has sprung up. Georgia Musselwhite, vice president of the College Democrats at Shepherd, said fear is a major contributing factor to the political divide seen in the U.S.
“Corrupt politicians have used fear to create scapegoats, while they take advantage of Americans,” she said. “While we are distracted by so-called ‘radical Muslims’ and issues like transgender bathrooms, politicians are using that time to pass laws that kill the ecosystem, put us more in debt, and infringe upon our most basic rights.”
Courtney Knill, vice president of the College Republicans at Shepherd, said she suspects the Democratic Party has “gotten used to winning.”
“We’ve had eight years of a Democratic president,” Knill said. “We’re finally old enough to vote, and we’ve all been growing up seeing the party we loved lose.”
Other students are frustrated that stereotypes often overshadow the truth as people seem to care less about genuinely listening to those around them.
“I think that Republicans view Democrats as weak bleeding hearts who get some sort of pleasure from complaining,” said Musselwhite. “I think they view us as the enemy, who single-handedly corrupted Washington.” Jacob Neterer, 19, said that sometimes the left looks at all Trump supporters as “racist, sexist or homophobic, even though that may not be how we feel.”
“I don’t hate anybody. I just have more conservative values,” he says.
Knill thinks that the media also helped cause the political rift. “Everyone was predicting that Hillary was going to win and that wasn’t really the case,” she said. “We think that they weren’t reporting the truth.”
The media surrounding the election has been largely focused on negative aspects of both candidates. However, one of the responsibilities of a free press is to hold those in power accountable for their actions. Musselwhite thinks this is an important piece of democracy, and one that citizens should take advantage of as well as the press. “The country should learn to hold the government accountable, as it calls for citizens to do in the Constitution,” she said, citing accountability as something that could lessen the divide.
Robbins, who is also the faculty advisor for the College Republicans, notices the potential for tension to leak into Shepherd’s campus, as he sees students from both ends of the spectrum who are interested and active in politics. “A few of our students attended the inauguration in support of President Trump while a few of our students attended to protest,” he said.
Knill was one of the students at the inauguration to show her support, but she said that she left when the riots began to break out. “I felt so unsafe, I had to get out of D.C.,” she said.
She said that one of her friends, a fellow College Republican from another part of West Virginia, had his “Make America Great Again” hat taken and burned by protesters.
“We see a lot of hate from the other side. While we don’t agree with some of their views, we try to stay as professional as possible. We don’t want to insult anybody, so we try to do our best to rise above,” said Knill.
Knill has found that the professors can be worse than the students at times. “In the past, I’ve had professors giving me trouble because most are liberals,” She said, adding that she has even experienced professors who “try to get you to think like them.”
There are several factors of today’s political climate that students believe have created the prime atmosphere for a divide. Musselwhite thinks that, occasionally, people do not educate themselves well enough on the issues, which could be a product of people’s environments or of the country’s current standards in education. “Education, both personal and as a country, should be held to a new standard,” she said. “A country that is intellectually blind is much easier to manipulate.”
Knill said that part of the problem is that many “think it’s OK to lash out and be mean to people.” She added that “people are only tolerant of certain things. They’re not tolerant of all ideas.”
She said that she would much prefer to be understanding and see both sides of an issue than “see things get ugly”.
Musselwhite agrees that tolerance and respect is important, “especially in regards to people or groups which others might not understand or might be fearful of.”
Knill, along with other students, tries to keep this in mind when dealing with different opinions.
“My coworker and I, for instance, can still have nice discussions. We’re complete opposites, but we’re still able to eat lunch together,” Knill said.
“You learn a lot more listening to people with different points of view that people with the same point of view,” said Conner Disotelle, 20, a sports communication major. He has been in conversations with people he has heavily disagreed with, and while it might be hard, he thinks that understanding others is the answer.
“If I lash out at them, if I don’t bother to try to look at them from a different perspective, then all I’m doing is making my party look bad,” Disotelle said. “All I’m doing is making the Republican party look intolerant, which is the stereotype
we get. Why would I want to contribute to such a negative stereotype when all I want to do is try to spread conservative values to other people?”
However, not all students think people should be mindful of how they interact with those who think differently than them. “I disagree entirely,” Kennedy Cook, 20, said. “Freedom of speech.”
Robbins said that, although it’s hard, the most significant thing people can do to decrease the divide is forge ties and interact with people of all backgrounds and political affiliations.
“It won’t always be pretty, but it’s essential,” he said.
“I think it all depends on the people both outside campus and on campus, and how much we let outside influences affect us—in some cases, infect us,” Robbins said. He said the key is understanding differences, such as why Trump won the Electoral College vote.
“There are a lot of people who feel as though they have been left behind, they have been misunderstood, or their views have not been represented. In that sense, I think that ignoring or not taking that seriously is problematic, much the same way as not taking the other sides’ views is also problematic,” Robbins said.
Robbins said he has not noticed much animosity between students in his classes. “One of the things that is really impressive about Shepherd is the respectful atmosphere that most of my classes have had, if not all of my classes,” he said.
Overall, Knill says everyone wants the same thing: “A safe place to live, to create a life where we can have happiness, to get along.”
“If we can get closer to that,” she said, “things will get better.”
Pandora Affemann is a Staff Writer for the Picket. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.