Social Isolation, Social Media, and Socialism: How the Past Two Years Have Transformed Campus Politics

It’s been an unpredictable past few years, to say the least. But if there’s one thing that doesn’t come as a complete surprise, it’s that young people — caught in a whirlwind of COVID pandemonium and political insurrections — have begun to think more critically about the economic, social, and political systems that rule their daily lives.

It’s no secret how uber-polarized the political sphere in the US has become over the past few years. And unsurprisingly, it’s the younger generations who dominate the left side of the tracks. Increasingly, 18–22 year olds are navigating college with a critical and curious eye — perhaps eager to challenge the status quo, reject the political views their family imparted to them, or pick apart the structural inequities in their communities and beyond. As a result, it seems the political consensus on many college campuses has shifted leftward — and isn’t stopping any time soon.

We can see this trend reflected in the increasing popularity of socialism across college campuses nationwide. Based on the data from the past four Marriage Pact surveys at Stanford, the percentage of students who identify as Socialist has increased 2-fold since 2018 — surpassing the percentage of Republicans by more than double.

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This data raises compelling questions worth investigating. How is the political landscape on college campuses shifting? In what communities is socialism the most popular? What factors might be contributing to socialism’s rise?

To glean some answers, I first spoke to a couple of college students to get their perspectives on shifting campus politics.

One Stanford junior — an international student originally from India — says she has certainly noticed a change.

From my freshman year to my junior year, the political climate in the country as a whole has shifted. And obviously we talk about polarization all the time. I think social activism on campus is really picking up in a way that it hasn’t in a while.

I do know that some people are starting to think of socialism as something that panders less to both-siderism. I think to some extent it’s also become more of, for a lack of a better word, a “hippie” term.

She cites the summer of 2020 as a big turning point for politics on campus, as students in isolation turned to virtual spaces to exchange ideas and engage in social activism — especially in the wake of nationwide marches against police brutality.

I feel that there’s more of a recognition now than there was when I was a freshman about the personal importance of politics. I think it’s tied to the reckoning the country had after the murder of George Floyd, and about racism being much more of a lived reality for people than was maybe understood in common discourse.

At Stanford in particular, one central player in this leftward shift may have been Stanford Missed Connections — an Instagram account that posts anonymous DMs from Stanford undergraduates. During the summer of 2020, the account was dominated by political discourse in a way it had never been before. Logically, we see a clear spike in socialist-identifying students at Stanford the following fall.

I think that was a big catalyst, especially with it coinciding with the pandemic. That was also the summer when Stanford Missed Connections and other burner accounts on social media were at a high. So I think there was this really unique political moment last summer where all of these things were intersecting and people were at home, so they had time to think and debate and argue.

I then spoke to an architecture major in UF’s class of 2023, who noted that socialism’s growing popularity might be partially attributed to students’ desires to break away from the values imparted to them by their parents in red state areas.

I’m from Panama City, which is a really red town. So coming to Gainesville, it was so much more liberal already. Alachua County votes blue because of the students, but every other country outside of it is super red. So we get a weird little blue bubble in this area of Florida.

I think that when most people go to college, it’s the first time of having their own freedom, and you’re given more opportunities to reinvent yourself. It’s also a time of life where people are experimenting sexually or socially and going through lots of changes with their relationships with family and friends, and where people are wanting to grow and wanting to learn.

It seems there are multiple factors at play here. Students’ desires for intellectual autonomy and growth, combined with a sharp spike in social activism and political polarization accentuated by the COVID pandemic, have all worked in tandem to popularize socialism across college campuses.

But socialist attitudes aren’t equally popular everywhere. To explore this idea, we narrowed in on 3 additional schools varying in type, size, and geographic location: Northwestern, the University of Oklahoma (OU), and Villanova.

While all 4 schools lean fairly liberal — with more students identifying as Democrats than any other political affiliation — the specifics differed significantly from campus to campus. Northwestern had the greatest percentage of socialist-identifying students in 2020, followed by Stanford, OU, and Villanova.

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It’s also important to note that students’ political affiliations are entrenched in their unique identities and experiences. To get a better picture of the communities where socialism is most popular, we decided to break things down by ethnic and gender identity.

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Across all four schools, socialism tended to be most popular within Black, Latinx, and Native American communities, with less popularity amongst white and East Asian students. One interesting outlier was the relatively low percentage of Black students at OU who identified as socialist. Results for South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students also differed from school to school.

Overall, however, the data we gathered predominantly track socioeconomic disparities by ethnicity in the United States, whereby average income and educational attainment are significantly higher for white and Asian Americans than Black or Latinx Americans.

We also see a discrepancy across gender. The overwhelming percentage of nonbinary students at all four school identified as socialist (or communist) — though the small sample sizes make it difficult to draw conclusive claims. We also see that women across college campuses tend to lean more liberal than their male counterparts.

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There’s a common theme here: with both ethnic identity and gender, we see higher levels of socialism among students belonging to historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups, which speaks volumes to socialism’s emphasis on equity.

One thing’s for certain: college students — with their sharp, critical minds, thirst for knowledge, and forward-looking nature — are trailblazers. They comprise the next generation of voters, activists, politicians, and policy makers, and it will be fascinating to see how they will reshape the political landscape in the years to come.