The Cynicism (or Not?) of College Students' Political Views

In a presidential election cycle that at times seemingly needed new adjectives to describe its negativity, it was an interesting time for senior Mallory Patrow to measure her peers’ political cynicism and optimism. Last year and into spring 2016 that’s exactly what she did, and her findings surprised her.

“I was shocked there wasn’t more cynicism,” the communication journalism and political science major said. “I always like to see the political system’s positives because I want to be part of it in the future, so it’s refreshing to me that not everyone is the opposite, thinking all these negative things.”

Using surveys and focus groups with students across the undergraduate class range, Patrow asked what traits they looked for in political leaders and, later, what traits they see in actual politicians. Interestingly, far more positive traits matched across those areas than negative ones.

Less consistent were measurements of how much students value their vote versus their outlook on the country’s political system as a whole (not much correlation), and in general there was a mixed bag of the outlook on politics as a system.

“[The students I studied] aren’t full-out cynics, but they’re not exactly ‘Yay, politics!’ either,” Patrow said. “Parents at this point are still the most consistently influential people on their political attitude, so if they grew up in a positive household for that they’ll have more positive views, or vice versa. Media didn’t have as large an impact; it was actually just written in a couple times. So, yes, they see all these things in the media [that are generally negative], but it may not be as influential as their parents, professors, their curriculum.”

Patrow, a Wabasha, Minnesota, native, said she hopes to see this research furthered at St. Thomas after this election cycle.

“There’s perhaps a narrative that is being projected of cynicism, and it might not be that everyone is cynical, especially at this age, but more of a narrative that everyone accepts,” Patrow said. “My research definitely didn’t show what I thought it would.”