Beneath Notre Dame’s iconic mural of “Touchdown Jesus,” a group of students gathered on Library Lawn. Their bright colors popped beneath gray skies — most sporting pink, some draped with the colors of the rainbow.
They had assembled to protest one of the university’s own: Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame alumna and former Law School faculty member, whose contentious nomination to the United States Supreme Court had led to a wave of political and ideological skirmishes across the country. On this afternoon in October — just days after Barrett’s nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate — those philosophical clashes arrived on the quad.
Just moments after the demonstration began, another, smaller group made its way up the sidewalk, chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” This group held American flags and handmade posters in support of Barrett.
From opposite sides of the Reflecting Pool, the two groups faced each other, cutting an almost perfect picture of division. For national political junkies — particularly those who’ve studied the theatrics of the Trump years — it might appear a familiar scene. But for those well-versed in Notre Dame’s culture and institutional sense of decorum, the confrontation was anything but normal.
Time and again during the fall 2020 semester, the national spotlight shined on Notre Dame — and the glare was often harsh. Whether it was the battle over a coveted Supreme Court seat; an infectious disease ebbing and flowing across the campus; or a series of high-profile gaffes by the university’s president, Notre Dame repeatedly found itself at the epicenter of a deeply polarized and fraught national moment.
In many ways, the commotion characterizing Notre Dame’s fall semester was a microcosm of a national predicament: divided camps with clashing worldviews, forced to coexist, if precariously. The task of healing those divisions will be one of the many challenges facing President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who on Nov. 7, after four days of counting thousands of mail-in ballots that were cast because of the coronavirus pandemic, claimed victory in a bitterly contested race against President Donald J. Trump.
As the nation prepared for Biden’s inauguration, an array of student groups continued to work hard to change the tenor of the conversation on campus. In a nation divided, they hoped that Notre Dame — which has long prided itself on being a place of community and civility — could stand as a rare example of dialogue and common trust. But doing so, many acknowledged, would not necessarily be easy.
As the senior co-chair of the non-partisan group NDVotes, Micahel Marotta has spent the semester mobilizing Notre Dame voters of all stripes to hit the polls in November. But who those voters are, and how they view the world, isn’t simple. From the outside, Marotta said, many people aren’t sure what to make of Notre Dame students’ politics.
“Some people,” Marotta reasoned, “might think ‘It’s a college campus. Academics, you know, they're all liberal.’ Or, ‘Oh, they're a Catholic school, they're all conservative.’ Or, ‘Oh, there's a lot of wealthy kids there, they're probably conservative. Oh, but there's growing minority voices on campus in positions of leadership so they might be liberal.’”
So which is it? According to David Campbell, a Notre Dame professor of political science, it depends where you’re looking.
“There's more of a conservative element at Notre Dame than in many other prominent institutions,” Campbell said, citing the conservative presence in the alumni network, board of trustees, faculty and student body.
But, he added, unlike other famously conservative institutions such as Liberty University or Hillsdale College, Notre Dame isn’t firmly conservative either.
“It’s probably more accurate to say that we have pockets of conservatism at Notre Dame,” Campbell said.
Those pockets of conservatism are a force Notre Dame administrators must consider when making important decisions, Campbell said. But they’re not the only opinions in the arena. They also compete with more liberal faculty members, students, and alumni who expect different things from their school.
And in balancing different stakeholders’ interests, Campbell added, administrators must “walk a fine line.”
“The administration has to be conscious of its constituency,” Campbell said. “I don’t think the president of Harvard or the president of Princeton has to worry about as much ideological diversity as Notre Dame's president does.”
As the tumult of the past four years have turned up the dial on American politics, that excitement and engagement has arrived on campus — sometimes in an unpleasant fashion. In a 2018 survey about attitudes on campus, about 47 percent of respondents reported that they had experienced adverse treatment at university. The most frequently cited source of that mistreatment? Disputes over political views.
Student Government’s national engagement department, led by sophomore Riya Shah, works to promote civil discourse on campus, along with student political engagement. To advance that agenda, the department formed a political council which is composed of members from multiple groups on campus, including College Democrats, College Republicans, Young Americans for Freedom, ND Votes and BridgeND.
After a summer of turbulence, College Democrats wanted to use this semester to make a difference.
“This past summer with COVID and the BLM movement, it didn’t feel like there was much we could do,” said co-president Zach Holland. “Then I came to campus, and we had a plan. We said this is what we are going to do to impact this election.”
Traditional political organizing was untenable, given pandemic restrictions. But Holland and the rest of College Democrats got creative, mobilizing its members to mail 2,000 letters to citizens in swing states.
“It did encourage us to think broader than stuff we would have originally done,” Holland said. “Covid allowed us to branch out in other ways. It really helped us get a broader impact than just the South Bend community.”
While the semester had been turbulent for many reasons, College Democrats feel optimistic about the future of their club, as well as the future of political culture on campus.
“It's easy to feel downtrodden by politics,” said Emma Dudrick, College Democrats’ other co-president. “But seeing all of these young people who are really passionate has been really heartening.”
College Republicans have been similarly active in their efforts this semester. Adam Morys, president of College Republicans, said the group has hosted some virtual speakers, watched debates together and done phonebanking through the Indiana Republican Party.
Overall, both partisan clubs cited growing engagement, particularly among underclassmen.
“The club is more active. This freshman class is surprisingly active,” Morys said, “more active than I thought it would be.”
College Democrats also saw a pique in interest, before the semester had even started.
“We had a couple of freshmen reach out to us in the summer with bold plans of what we could do with our club,” Holland explained.
“The fact that a 17 year old is coming to college and one of the biggest things on their minds is how can I make this CDems chapter better — it’s a testament to the people that Notre Dame has as students.”
Although there are multiple ways for students to get involved with organizations that represent their political beliefs, there are also groups that promote civic duty in general, such as NDVotes, a nonpartisan campaign of the Center for Social Concerns, the Rooney Center for American Democracy and the constitutional studies minor.
NDVotes has three main goals: voter registration, education and mobilization. The group tries to provide resources to make voting easier for students. This year, for instance, NDVotes created a general election guide which explained what students needed to do in order to vote in every state.
They also try to engage students in conversations about politics, which, while difficult due to polarization, is made slightly easier by their nonpartisan identity.
“I think it actually works to our advantage to be a nonpartisan group, especially in the current political climate, just because people are more willing to engage with us because they're not worried about being challenged, or ostracized for their beliefs,” senior co-chair Rachel Sabnani said.
The other co-chair, Marotta, added that their goal is to make sure that everyones’ voices are heard because “voting isn't something that's always been a given.”
“Your every vote is so important because the decisions that elected leaders make greatly impact the most vulnerable groups in our society,” he said. “Your vote can change the world.”
BridgeND serves as another nonpartisan organization that aims to promote civil discourse on campus. Many of their plans for this semester were derailed by the restrictions caused by the coronavirus.
“We had so many plans going in,” said BridgeND co-president Greg Miller, “and 10% of the plans we had going in really came into fruition.”
While the group has tabled many of their ideas for spring semester, they have found different ways to engage with the campus community.
They helped arrange the political debate between the College Republicans and College Democrats, and have hosted events to discuss pertinent political topics, such as the role of the Supreme Court.
Their biggest project, however, has been Converge, a program which matches up two students with differing political ideologies to have a conversation with one another.
“It's not about debating policy ideas,” explained Miller. Rather, “it's about talking about life perspectives.” In doing so, Miller argues, one can “really get an understanding of where disagreement stems from.”
Bridge strives to promote this kind of positive civil discourse above all else, and is optimistic that, while “Our campus is not immune to ideological haste,” Miller said, but “that ideological haste does not transcend into the belief that civil dialogue is not needed” on campus.
Shah, of Student Government, also spoke to the importance of civil discourse, citing herself and her roommate as a model of sorts.
“My roommate, for example, is vice president of right to life, and she is really involved in political politics on the right,” Shah said. “Meanwhile, I'm really involved in politics on the left, and we disagree on probably a lot of things politically speaking, but we live together and we love each other so much.”
Her roommate, sophomore Maura Brennan, echoed the sentiment: “Being able to be such close friends with someone that may have different opinions, and not just kind of sweep it under the rug, but actively live it out and discuss it — I think that's so important.”
Brennan added that she finds their conversations to be beneficial.
“I know how much I can learn from her so I'm grateful for every discussion we can have in that even though I know there are certain things that I hold strong with, she can help me sharpen my views in terms of oh, here's a good defense that I was able to make against an argument she had on the other side.”
Though Shah is an advocate for civil discourse, she also said she understood how difficult certain conversations can be and had some advice.
“Listen, and also empathize, because the person you're talking to is a human,” she said. “They have a favorite kind of ice cream, they have certain things that make them sad during their days. Just humanizing the person that is behind that position on their issue is, I think, really crucial.”
Sabnani said that there is no qualitative data on whether political activity on campus this year has increased, but feels “like there’s a ton of good energy, especially on a personal level.” She added that “in terms of NDVotes, we’ve grown exponentially in the past year. Our board is bigger, like twice as big as it usually is, and our task force is twice as big.”
Students are also working outside of institutionally sanctioned groups in order to make political statements, particularly to challenge ways in which the university is aligning itself with the Trump administration.
Some of these actions are spontaneous, for instance, the demonstration against Barrett. Word spread about this movement through an Instagram account, @NDAgainstACB.
Sophomore Matt Heilman and junior Emma Dudrick, who helped organize the event explained the demonstration had two goals: to acknowledge that President Jenkins’ congratulations for Amy Coney Barret does not speak for the whole student body and to stand in solidarity with marginalized groups whose civil liberties are threatened.
Other groups which position themselves in opposition to certain aspects of the university have existed for awhile, such as Irish 4 Reproductive Health (I4RH), which is a nonprofit reproductive rights group launched by students in 2018 in response to Notre Dame’s attempt to restrict access to insurance coverage for birth control, according to the group’s website.
I4RH specifically chose not to have an official relationship with the university “because they don’t want to operate within the university’s principles necessarily,” according to graduate student and group leader Chissa Rivaldi.
The organization advocates for increased access to sexual health education and resources, such as contraceptives, on campus, which is interpreted as some as a form of protest to the university’s Du Lac policies.
Because they are not a university-registered group, however, I4RH is not permitted to organize any protests on campus, which Rivalid said she finds strange.
“I did my undergrad at University of Texas at Austin where there are protests about all sorts of things every day.”
To explain the difference in protest culture, she pointed to the fact that the university “is almost like this mother figure to a lot of students” in that they all respect the traditions associated with its legacy so “protesting is sort of antithetical to all that.”
Campbell, drawing from his academic research and firsthand campus experiences, concurred.
“I think it's fair to say that Notre Dame has never been on the cutting edge of protest,” he said. “That's driven partly by the student body, partly by just that culture that develops on campus.”
Moment of Truth
While some might see university administration as aligning themselves with the Trump administration, students themselves do not overwhelmingly favor the president, as demonstrated by the results of a Nov. 2 mock election conducted by Student Government.
The mock election, which was conducted over Google forms indicated that out of 3,499 student respondents, 66.5% favored the Joe Biden ticket while 29.3% selected Donald Trump.
Political science professor Darren Davis, who specializes in public opinion research, said that such “polling is extremely important because we want to know what happens before it happens.”
The data collected by Student Government after the mock election is actually only a fraction of the data available on Notre Dame students’ voting behavior.
The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), an initiative run by Tufts University researchers, tracks voter registration and voting rates on college campuses nationwide. Since 2012, NSLVE has followed political participation among Notre Dame students, revealing an increasingly engaged student body.
In the 2014 midterms, only 66.4% of students were registered to vote. But in just a few years, that portion of registered students rose significantly — growing to 73.2% in 2016 and 79.6% in 2018. And it wasn’t just registration. Students’ voting patterns changed too. In 2016, 54% of students voted, compared to only 50.1% in the previous presidential election in 2012. That translates to about 411 more students exercising their right to vote.
In both 2012 and 2016 Notre Dame students voted at a rate higher than the average for other institutions, according to NSLVE, but whether this pattern will persist remains to be seen.
Fewer students are paying attention to this year’s election due to the pandemic, said Davis. “Students are burned out, frustrated, tired. Following the election creates a greater expense in their energy.”
Much surrounding the election this year was uncertain, including its results. Though many anticipated a delay in the announcement of a definitive winner, some, like Shah, hoped “that we get real results that night,” or “at least a projected winner.”
But the election dragged on. It took four days before the final tally allowed Biden to claim victory after races in key states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada were too close to call on Election Night.
Such a tight race — COVID-19 anomalies aside — speaks to the larger climate of political polarization in the United States. This division manifests itself in multiple spheres of university life, including in the classroom, and its impacts are not always positive.
“I understand that people get their information from a variety of different sources, but in the classroom I have to counter non-factual political information that students think is factual,” Davis said.
This problem is “something new, and I worry about that,” he continued.
Others are more optimistic about the ways in which students with differing political views might interact.
Compared to other universities, co-president of BridgeND Patrick Aimone thinks Notre Dame is uniquely suited to productive discourse.
Notre Dame has “the most balanced student body of any prestigious university out there, and you can tell because both conservative and liberal students think they're outnumbered,” Aimone said. “So if that's the case, it's probably pretty balanced.”
Though he’s also an officer for Notre Dame’s College Democrats chapter, Aimone is dating someone across the political aisle. It’s, in his words, a “cross-partisan relationship.” Part of what makes that relationship possible, he said, is also what makes civil discourse possible on Notre Dame’s campus.
“Any time you're having conversations with people about politics, you need to ground them in some level of mutual respect. And when you're dating someone, you have to ground all your interactions in mutual respect,” Aimone said.
That mutual respect, he said, is easier to find on a campus infused with an established faith.
“The Catholic identity of the institution gives us a sort of framework that says, ‘We’re working in the bounds of the same values,’” Aimone said.
“And people still make the argument here that what a certain side is saying or doing is beyond the pale,” he added, “but people know how to talk to each other, because often they can talk to each other in the language of shared faith and shared values.”
But what happens when Notre Dame students try to reconcile their Catholic faith — which doesn’t map neatly onto American political divides — with our increasingly partisan politics?
“Their heads explode,” answered Campbell.
Senior Peter Brown struggles to fit his values into a partisan box. As the Vice President of Communications for Notre Dame’s Right to Life club, Brown is staunchly pro-life, and his Catholic faith shapes his values and political decision-making. He cares deeply about preventing abortion, but his concern for life extends beyond that single issue. He’s also worried about the prison system, hospitals and nursing homes, immigration and maternity care.
It makes it hard on Brown, in this political moment, to decide. Even as the partisan drumbeat reached a crescendo this fall, Brown remained an undecided voter. It wasn’t until early October that he finally made his decision and mailed in his ballot.
“It was a long time to be in limbo land,” he said.
And although many associate pro-life voters with the Republican Party, Brown said pro-life students’ votes aren’t that simple. As a nonpartisan club, Notre Dame Right to Life doesn’t make political endorsements, and its members are encouraged to vote according to their personal conscience.
“Personally, I feel lost with any vote I cast because it doesn't accurately reflect the sum total of my beliefs,” Brown said. “It's a difficult line to walk. And it's part of that reason that we have respect for the diversity of opinion within the pro-life family. And that's why we're not partisan.”
A Campus Grappling
But the week after the reflection pool standoff only unleashed more partisanship across the country. Swing-state election officials labored to count ballots as the nation watched with bated breath. Misinformation and mistrust swirled. The president declared an unfounded victory. Compromise and dialogue were put on hold, at least for the moment.
And from Notre Dame’s campus, students watched the ideological splintering of the country, while still marching onward toward final exams and the end of the semester.
Aimone, normally a believer in dialogue, watched Tuesday night election returns in the like-minded company of a College Democrats watch party.
“I think election nights, like presidential debates, are one of those few occasions where it's nice and healthier to watch with people with whom you are ideologically aligned,” he said.
In the wake of hardened national divides and growing mistrust, how were Notre Dame community members understanding themselves and their own beliefs? In characteristic fashion, the individuals of Notre Dame offered answers that ran the gamut.
Davis said he’s observed “a growing trend toward conservatism among college students” — something he believes is a byproduct of students’ anxiety in the increasingly competitive job market. Tempering that conservative trend, he believes, is “the Catholic identity, and how it is articulated at Notre Dame,” which, he said, “actually has a liberalizing effect.”
But Marotta, based on his work at NDVotes and his experiences as a student, doesn’t see Notre Dame’s Catholicism as strictly liberalizing. He thinks it makes students torn between different priorities.
Marotta sees the student body as “50-50 on the political divide,” which he thinks “has a lot to do with our being a Catholic institution and a lot of voters being swayed heavily on the one issue of pro-choice versus pro-life.”
Some might be surprised to find such a diversity of opinions in a school that’s, on its surface, relatively homogenous. And many community members, like those who gathered to protest Barrett’s nomination, have challenged the university to grow more inclusive and more diverse than it stands now.
But many students find hope in those everyday conversations with classmates, acquaintances and friends.
“I have respect for individuals who seriously wrestle with these issues and earnestly pursue the truth, and who do what they can to promote the dignity of human life across all domains,” Brown said.
“That's a statement of faith,” he added. “Faith in my peers. And I do have that faith. And Notre Dame has taught me that. Notre Dame has taught me to have faith in my peers.”