It’s amazing to me how much this presidential election reflects ideas and conversations that have been percolating around college campuses for the past several years. I often tell students that their movements have an uncanny way of being on the right side of history (OK, I see that I’m begging the question, sue me) and I think that this is being borne out in all caps this year.
Surely I’m reading the election in the context of what I see around me at work, but this is not something buried in subtext. Black Lives Matter, mansplaining, the “right” to offend; all of these have been prominent discussions on campuses—and all are out there in the open in this election for us all to confront. These are certainly not exclusive to college campuses, but it’s fair to say that they have been significant there.
It’s not exactly news that older people vote more and are more conservative. But the “kids these days” flavor is augmented here with a stark divide by skin color and education level that fits neatly into the relationship between campus conversations and the skeptical eye cast on them by the “outside world”.
How many indignant column-filling faux-arguments have we seen on political correctness, safe spaces, and trigger warnings on campus whose fault lines broadly match those of the electorate? To a large extent, they pit privileged white “commentators” against the young and the marginalized.
And each side has their champion. Trump is the very embodiment of the crotchety, overprivileged white guy “telling it like it is” and defending not just the status quo, but a mythical proto-status quo where there was no risk, pain, or poverty and no-one would call you racist for saying racist things.
Trump has been described, repeatedly, ludicrously, infuriatingly, as an “alpha male” by too many publications to count. This is apparently the conventional wisdom (you can tell because it’s gone through the necessary reinforcement of a backlash and backlash to the backlash). Could you think of a more ideal case in point for the concept of toxic masculinity than that? The idea that insults, ignorance, and anger make the man?
Clinton, cast helplessly opposite this disastrous co-star, becomes then the embodiment of the disruptive forces to the status quo, for better and for worse. In last night’s first debate, Clinton gave an extended answer on race and criminal justice reform that could pretty much serve as a cheat sheet for The New Jim Crow. Today’s news is littered with analysis of the way she was talked over by a boorish, underqualified adversary. The DNC was a parade of representatives of groups and interests that the status quo either consciously or unconsciously considers irrelevant or unworthy.
And so Clinton inevitably must weather the same backlash that these so-called “special interest groups” endure on campuses, whose arguments are talked over in, ironically, an on-the-nose validation of them.
There are of course many, many dimensions to this contest, but this is the one that sticks out to me right now. But it gives me hope and excitement. Over the years I have come to shed my own snarky skepticism about what—it pains me to admit—I once might have dismissed as a campus protest-of-the-week. Student activism is a leading indicator, and only one side in this election gets anywhere near capturing it.