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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

In April 2022, I moderated a meeting of student leaders from across campus to discuss civic education and barriers to student engagement going into the midterm election. Nearly every participant spoke to the same obstacle preventing peer engagement: polarization. 

The room was unanimous from Student Government officers to multicultural association presidents, from Greek chapter leaders to academic honor society members. UF’s campus was a hostile place for someone — anyone — to speak their mind.

It has become something of a cliché that young people will save democracy. From older Americans looking for a light at the end of this tunnel of polarization to enthusiastic young people eager to take the wheel from our generation’s predecessors, many look to today’s youth as a silver bullet against the gridlock, polarization and democratic backsliding that has characterized American politics almost as long as Gen Z has been alive. 

However, it is essential to understand the difference between what is possible and what is inevitable. Gen Z saving democracy is possible. It is not inevitable. And if we fall asleep at the wheel, our generation may be the last to live in a free and open society that values cooperation, compromise and consensus.

That meeting in April 2022 served as the inaugural conversation of what would become the Gators Vote Cabinet, UF’s nationally acclaimed student civic engagement initiative. Despite our best efforts, I fear UF’s hostile political climate hasn’t changed much since then. If anything, it may have gotten worse. 

I briefly served in our school’s bitterly divisive Student Senate and resigned on principle last May in disgust of how unproductive the body was. During my tenure, the body rarely functioned due to partisan division, and that gridlock remained in place throughout the Fall 2023 semester.  

Refusal to negotiate was pretty much the only thing most students knew about either party in SG, and the stalemate was not broken until the apportionment of the Fall seats was altered to all but ensure a supermajority for one of the two parties — a solution as illiberal as the behavior leading to the crisis in the first place. 

SG isn’t the only campus institution with poor civic health.  I’ve helped organize past campus protests — and have written in this paper about them — but have admittedly grown dismayed at how the only real impact of speaking out at UF is that you lose the opportunity to ever work with those who disagree with what you are doing. 

Recently, the state announced it was yanking funding for all DEI programs in the Florida College System, the most extreme and overt effort yet by the state executive branch to eliminate ideas it does not like from higher education. As for actual progress, little is made because few are willing to engage meaningfully. 

This problem is not exclusive to UF. Campuses nationwide experience drama in student governments and hostile encounters between campus protestors, counter-protestors and administrations. And to a great extent, such encounters are vital to a healthy democracy. The cornerstone of a free society is the right to speak openly and honestly about how one feels. So, too, is the right to vociferously disagree when you encounter opinions you don’t like. However, UF’s students and leadership alike have proven uniquely poor at handling these exchanges.

It is a point of pride for our university that we are the nexus of research for one of the most dynamic states in the country and that the students here today will lead all of Florida into the future. Yet just as much as Florida follows UF, UF also follows Florida, and we are the flagship university of a state that may be the most divided in the United States. In my experiences with Student Government, campus protests and civil discourse on campus, my peers (and myself) were in many ways merely emulating what we see in Washington D.C., Tallahassee and even Tigert Hall.

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Young people have the potential to save democracy. Still, to do so, our generation -– especially those who fancy themselves future leaders -– would do well to remember that healthy democracy requires cooperation. 

Yet, perhaps paradoxically, it also means collectively refusing to enable those who would rather silence their opponents, whether by manipulation or force. At UF, from the students up to the governor, those attitudes aren’t only present -– they’re prevalent. And if UF students are going to save democracy in Florida, we will all have to get more vigilant about defending its core tenets.

Andrew Taramykin is a UF history and political science senior.

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