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UNC Freshmen Show Substantial Political Interest

When it comes to politics, the attitude of most college students can be summed up by Clark Gable's line from "Gone With the Wind" -- "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

A survey conducted last fall by University of California at Los Angeles researchers found only 28.1 percent of college freshmen nationwide considered "keeping up to date with political affairs" to be "essential or very important."

At UNC, 40.3 percent of freshmen gave the same response.

But UNC student political activists say freshmen are essential parts to their organizations -- actively participating in political events and serving as officers.

Craig Warner, chairman of the UNC College Republicans, described freshmen as being "vital" to his organization.

Warner said the lack of political interest on the part of some students was due to cynicism. "I'm prone to think that it's because our president over the last eight years has not behaved in the best manner sometimes," he said.

Susan Navarro, UNC Young Democrats secretary, also said freshmen have played an integral role in the Young Democrats.

"I'm a freshman and most of the executive board this year were freshmen," Navarro said. "This class came in with an awareness of what was going on politically."

She said active political organizations are responsible for the higher rate of political awareness at UNC.

"I think the reason it is higher is because groups like the Young Democrats and College Republicans are working to make people aware of what's going on in politics," Navarro said.

The majority of those surveyed, 51.9 percent nationally and 44.3 percent at UNC, responded that they were ideologically "middle of the road."

Liberals had the next largest chunk with 24.8 percent nationally compared with 30.1 percent at UNC. Conservatives were not far behind with 18.9 percent of students nationwide and 22.7 percent at UNC.

But UNC political science Professor George Rabinowitz said the survey results accurately reflect the level of political interest at Carolina.

"I think in general, interest (in politics) is quite low," he said. "I would say (the level of interest) would be slightly higher (than the national average), but not much. I think it is a little higher because this is an elite institution."

Rabinowitz said several events, beginning with the Vietnam War and continuing with the most recent presidential election, have caused people to become disillusioned with politics in general. "What I've seen is a growing sense that the political system is ineffective for (students)," he said.

Rabinowitz said he strives to instill in his students the idea that politics plays an important role in their lives. "Government is very influential in the lives of a Carolina student," he said. "It influences them from the time they get up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night."

The drinking age is one way the government impacts students' lives, Rabinowitz said. "The fact that they have to wait to 21 to drink, that's part of government, too."

But Linda Sax, who worked on the study, said the relatively low interest in politics among freshmen nationwide was unusual provided that the survey was given during an election year. "Usually in an election year you get a surge of students interested in politics," she said.

Sax said the survey results correlate to what students are saying off the record as well.

"We're talking to students in more informal settings as well and they feel they have little influence on the political structure," she said.

Despite the apparent lack of interest in politics, Rabinowitz said the number of students majoring in political science has not changed significantly.

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"I think enrollment in (political science classes) has ebbed and flowed," he said. "It's still one of our most popular majors."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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