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Tired of Party Politics, Florida 4-H Youth Ditch ‘Liberal,’ ‘Conservative’ Labels

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As we head toward the midterm elections, the political landscape seems more polarized each day. But one Florida youth program is showing teens an alternative to this “us versus them” mindset.

At the Florida 4-H mock legislature event last June, the two political parties — Gold and Green — decided to forego “liberal” and “conservative” labels in favor of focusing on how the two sides could work together.

Florida 4-H is the youth development organization of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, and serves more than 200,000 youth in the state.

4-H Legislature functions just like a real state or federal legislature, complete with committees, lobbying and parliamentary procedure. Participants write, debate and pass bills that deal with real world issues, such as gun control, taxation, abortion and public education. To add to the realism, the whole program takes place in the Florida State Capitol, and 4-H members work from the chairs normally occupied by state representatives and senators.

And like any real lawmaking body, the nearly 200 members of the house and senate are not immune to political polarization.

Jeremy Rosauer was this year’s Gold Party leader for the House of Representatives, and he was part of the decision not to attach liberal and conservative labels to the Gold and Green parties, respectively.

During previous years, Rosauer had the task of meeting with representatives before they picked which party to join, and he saw how people quickly fell into one party or the other. “I noticed that people decided based on the labels of each party without knowing the parties’ platforms or goals,” Rosauer said.

But this year, without labels, the atmosphere change, Rosauer said.

“Throwing out the labels helped people be more open to ideas and less adversarial. It also made the parties work more efficiently with each other and have better communication,” he said.

Joe Ducanis noticed that participants were more likely to weigh arguments rather than vote along party lines.

“I learned that sometimes people just do what they think they’re supposed to do when it comes to party affiliations, but removing labels forces them to make a decision not based on their perception of what they think they should do, but based on actual research into bills, ideas and underlying beliefs associated with each party,” Ducanis said.

For Maddie Read, the lack of labels meant the two sides could focus on what could help people most.

“When we stopped voting for or against bills for the good of the party, we were actually doing what is better for the good of the people, which is the ethical thing to do in a position of power,” Read said.

Though 4-H Legislature is an exercise in civil engagement, it has real impacts on how young people plan to participate in the political process as adults.

Will Ansley, this year’s Green Party leader in the House, said that participating in 4-H Legislature has motivated him to double major in political science and biology while attending Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. “4-H Legislature sparked my interest in politics. I like looking at all the facts and figuring out my position. One day I’d like to work for the U.S. Patent Office or run for Senate,” he said.

Though she doesn’t have plans to run for office at the moment, Hannah Nistler, who played the role of Speaker of the House, said participating in 4-H Legislature motivated her to be more politically active.

“Others might have different opinions from mine, but Legislature was a place for me to have a civil debate with them,” she said. “The experience has made me more involved in the democratic process. I am registered to vote, and I’m involved in grassroots organizations in my community.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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