Two years ago, a debate was thrown on this campus about whether or not to repeal Obamacare. At that time, I wrote the following:
“At the time of this event, only 17 percent of Americans support the latest version of the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the GOP replacement for Obamacare. While 17 percent doesn’t seem low, it is actually excruciatingly so in the context of polling numbers. For your reference, 29 percent of Americans surveyed back in 2015 supported replacing the Obama administration with a military junta. And, of course, anyone who seriously suggests a military coup — especially in the latter days of the Obama administration, where everything was going fairly smoothly — would be laughed out of any serious political conversation.
And yet, repealing Obamacare, a position that is even more on the fringe and almost twice as unpopular as, again, overthrowing the democratically elected U.S. government via a military coup, is somehow to be respected as a legitimate position that we should hear out, even though an overwhelming majority of Americans, including most Republicans, reject it.”
I don’t bring this up because I enjoy block quoting myself. I do it because the unfortunate situation of the day requires it. Because once again, a fringe, far-right view is being wrongly elevated to the position of mainstream on this campus.
On Tuesday, a debate was held between the Stanford Debate Society and the College Republicans, with the latter arguing that abortions are never justified — a stance in line with the latest wave of anti-abortion legislation being passed in states around the country such as Alabama. Much like the Obamacare repeal two years ago, this is a stunningly unpopular position.
Gallup has been tracking public opinion on this stance / belief since 1976, and support for banning all abortions has been consistently low, hovering at about 20 percent of the US population — it was 18 percent in 2018, although polls have that number as low as 14 percent. In other words, for as long as polling data exists, this idea has never been anything except deeply unpopular. Meanwhile, the idea of replacing the government with a military junta via coup, which I brought up two years ago, is still polling around 25 percent. But, let’s just not stop there! Here’s some more seemingly insane ideas that are actually less fringe in terms of popular support than this abortion ban: Making the President an autocrat? Supported by 22 percent of Americans. The proposition that interracial marriage is “morally wrong”? Supported by 20 percent of Americans.
This frame of reference shows just how fringe and unpopular abortion bans — which the College Republicans enthusiastically defend — truly are. This unpopularity is important to contextualizing the latest developments in abortion law. Like a lot of my fellow students here, I was mortified when I read about the draconian abortion laws, and had an acute moment of crisis where I asked myself: How could people support such a thing?
And the short answer, as the polling shows, is that people don’t. But, if I hadn’t done the research for this piece, I would have never known that less than one in five Americans supported these abortion bans, and that shows just how skewed our conversations on campus have been — not against conservative positions ranging from abortions to healthcare, but towards them.
We are being gaslighted. Gaslighted into believing that our views and values only seem popular or correct because we live in some sort of liberal bubble; gaslighted into believing that our views are incompatible with those of the “real Americans” from the “Heartland”; but, most importantly, gaslighted into believing that the extremist fringe views — whether it be this abortion ban or others — that the College Republicans endorse are somehow deserving of half the stage. We have grown so accustomed to the framing that somehow, the only reason we are not seeing as many, say, voices of support for these abortion laws on campus is because we are a liberal silo where conservative supporters for these laws are underrepresented or even silenced. The reality seems far more simple: We don’t see support for these views here because we’re not seeing them anywhere. These ideas are not repressed — just the opposite, they are given an immense platform, both on campus with this debate and nationally in far-right politicians. Yet, even then, they are just not that popular, not on this campus, not on other campuses and not in America as a whole.
But, for organizations like the College Republicans, they have no choice but to keep on spreading this nonsense narrative of ideological repression. It is a matter of survival, because the alternative is to admit that their ideas are bad and unpopular, which is to in turn concede their irrelevance on campus. If they want to continue to be dishonest actors and spread this false narrative, that is their prerogative. It is the responsibility, then, of every honest actor on this campus — everybody who wants a quality environment for campus discourse— to wise up and not fall for it.
And that is the ultimate hope — to build a better atmosphere for conversations and discourse at Stanford. To be clear, that does not mean silencing anyone or their opinions, however unpopular. However, it does mean that we should be taking a much closer look as to what conversations are being prioritized and what opinions are being brought to the forefront. By virtue of sheer logistics, there is a limit as to how many forums and debates like the one we had on abortion we could have. So, in this case, by giving a platform to the fringe idea of banning all abortions without any exceptions, far more relevant (and arguably productive) conversations had to fall by the wayside, including, for example, the deeply consequential topic of how we should regulate legal abortion. If as little as 14 percent of Americans want to ban all abortions, but as many as 86 percent want at least some abortions legal but don’t necessarily agree on which, the more relevant and useful conversation is clearly to talk about divisions within that camp, where I am sure there is a lot of healthy disagreement that might actually produce new understandings, change minds and be productive. However, we can’t: We’ve stopped talking about things that matter, because we’ve had our public forum hijacked by a tiny, vocal minority that whines for attention and insists we only focus on their bad ideas that no one supports. Once we reject the notion that they are a relevant voice in campus discourse, we might finally have the campus political climate that we and a world-class university such as this deserve.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.