Students see new perspectives through Mood of the Nation Poll

April 09, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Panini Pandya comes from a family of immigrants, but never thought much of it growing up in Pennsylvania’s culturally diverse Lehigh Valley.

Aidan Neigh grew up in a liberal family in Butler, Pennsylvania, where a “Make America Great Again” banner was part of high school football games.

Aidan Neigh, a sophomore political science and global and international studies major, says working on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's Mood of the Nation Poll, opened his eyes to political polarization and what can be done to address it.

Aidan Neigh, a sophomore political science and global and international studies major, says working on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's Mood of the Nation Poll, opened his eyes to political polarization and what can be done to address it.

IMAGE: Penn State

Both Pandya, a junior studying international politics, Spanish, and history, and Neigh, a sophomore in global and international studies and political science, have seen perspectives very different from their own this year while working on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Mood of the Nation Poll.

Panini Pandya, a junior studying international politics, history, and Spanish, gained a new understanding of feelings toward immigration working on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's Mood of the Nation Poll.

Panini Pandya, a junior studying international politics, history, and Spanish, gained a new understanding of feelings toward immigration working on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's Mood of the Nation Poll. 

IMAGE: Penn State

The poll allows citizens to respond to questions about politics and related topics in their own words. Pandya and Neigh are part of a team of students who read those responses and code them according to what respondents write.

Along the way, they read raw, unfiltered comments from people across the country and across the political spectrum and see perspectives they might not otherwise experience.

“As a political science student, you’re told there’s a lot of opinions out there, but I see the genuine sense of agitation and other emotions come through in the responses,” Pandya said.

Neigh said working on the poll helped him break out of what he described as the “Penn State echo chamber” and get a better sense of what’s happening in other parts of the country — for better or worse.

“You see all the time that there’s a divide and it’s easy to write it off, but after reading some of the responses, I really get a sense that people are upset and the partisan divide among citizens is growing,” he said. ”The inherent fear of one another that exists on both sides is really shocking and really sad.”

For Pandya, the most shocking responses were related to immigration. She is the first person in her family to be born in the U.S. and always knew it was always a hot-button issue, but never knew how strongly people felt about it until she started reading poll responses.

She credits anti-immigration sentiment to misinformation, rather than a feeling of hate.

“They’re not trying to attack you, it stems from a genuine reaction,” she said. “I don’t think that people are genuinely hateful, but it is alarming how much misinformation is out there.”

Neigh said he was surprised to see just how far beyond his hometown support for Donald Trump extended.

“In doing the poll, I realized what a vast number of people subscribe to Trump ideology, he said. “I really thought that it was less popular, and that Butler was an enclave, but it’s not.”

Despite reading responses about anger and fear among citizens, working on the Mood of the Nation Poll has provided opportunities for Neigh and Pandya to think about reforms that are needed to mend the country’s partisan divides.

“One of the things that’s most dangerous to our democracy is the dehumanization of political rivals,” Neigh said. “I’ve seen a lot that people are fed up with name calling. If we can get away from the interpersonal attacks and see each other as humans instead of someone on another team, I think people will be a lot happier.”

Last Updated April 15, 2019