US Identity Crisis Divides Students

US Identity Crisis Divides Students

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A few students who sympathise with the Democrats are trying to improve the low turnouts to elections in the USA. Photo: Virve Ivarsson.

A leftist turn, a massively restricted immigration policy, or status quo – but with a woman in office. No matter what the outcome will be, it seems that the presidential election of 2016 will be the start of something new for the USA. At Columbia University, New York, republican as well as democrat students are worried about the outcome.

“I hope Bobby will get here, because he owes me 20 dollars,” says one of the students in the row in front of me.

“He owes me one hundred if Hillary wins,” shouts a man sitting in the row further on.

“The only way Hillary won’t win is 1) if everyone who says they are not voting Trump are lying, or 2) if a third candidate manages to collect enough electors’ votes,” says a third man in the middle row confidently.

It’s Wednesday at Columbia University, New York, and in a classroom in Hamilton, Columbia University College Republicans have invited people for pizza. Soon, it is time for a debate between the republican presidential candidates. Lacking the real candidates, three students playact as John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, answering questions from the moderator and the audience.

This year is election year in the US. On 8 November, the super power will elect its new president, and in June, it will be decided which candidates will face off from the republicans and democrats.

No matter which one of the three most acknowledged candidates wins, something new is brewing in the USA. If Hillary Clinton wins, the country will have its first female president ever. If Bernie Sanders wins, the country will take a leftist turn of a proportion never before seen in the USA. If Donald Trump wins, the country will have a right-wing populist president with a highly immigration-critical agenda.

The atmosphere in the room, as well as the feeling of the republican students prior to the election bears the mark of pessimism. After the debate, when I ask the students about their thoughts on the chance to get students to vote for a republican candidate, they tell me that they’d rather the students do not vote at all, since a majority of them tend to vote left.

“Many people in academia are drawn to the left, making a lot of the teaching leans in the same direction. Additionally, students are in a phase in their life where they cannot influence taxes or company regulations that much. They simply do not know about many of the good reasons to vote republican,” Peter Luning Prak thinks.

The fact that Donald Trump is likely to become their presidential candidate does not inspire to optimism either.

“Sure, he attracts new voters to the party, but he scares many away as well. He is unpredictable, has been married three times, and has earned his money on developing strip clubs and casinos. He is not a good face to represent America,” according to Kyle Lewin.

If the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Kyle Lewin might abstain from voting, or even possibly vote for Hillary Clinton. But since she wants to raise tax levels, which Kyle Lewin thinks will grant her some financial support from China, he is uncertain about what to do. Peter Luning Prak, on the other hand, thinks that if he were to make such a choice, he would choose Donald Trump.

“In my thinking, there are greater chances of positive outcomes with Trump in office. One positive thing about his wanting to build walls is that some polls show that migrants tend to vote for democrats. If we would have less migrants, we would probably have less democrats as well,” he says.

Is that not a very egoistic way of reasoning?
“Perhaps, but it’s true,” Peter Luning Prak says.

Columbia University College Republicans invited to pizza and debate. Photo: Virve Ivarsson.
Columbia University College Republicans invited to pizza and debate. Photo: Virve Ivarsson.

A few days later, Hope (who does not want to give her surname but is a student at Columbia University as well) stands shouting across campus to someone who has gone about 50 meters away. She’s standing by a plastic table where she, along with a few others, is trying to get students at Columbia University to register to vote in the coming election.

When I ask her why she prefers the democrats, she tells me to look up a very good article which likened the republican candidate Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. The comparison is not that much of the two as persons, but about different situations resulting in xenophobia, she explains. Hope defines herself as socialist; consequently, she is more in favour of Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton (the latter is, according to Hope, mostly backed by people with money).

“What about the everyman? For me as an American and Asian, it is important to have a presidential candidate who has an awareness, and who stands for policies that are inclusive towards people with different backgrounds,” she says.

Hope remarks that even though she appreciates the proposal from Bernie Sanders to make it cheaper to study at universities, both she and most of the people studying at the university today will have finished a long time ago when such a proposal might be implemented. Instead, she thinks it is thanks to bigger questions about including all that so many young people find a good candidate in Bernie Sanders.

But how great an effect the support of the young for Bernie Sanders will have in practice remains to be seen.

“We can see that Bernie Sanders wins by a landslide in several election polls, but that Hillary Clinton still receives more actual votes. So what’s that about? Well, many young people do not vote in the real elections,” Hope says.

Election day turnout in the USA was at 59% in the last election, and among the young, the poor and the minorities, the number tends to be even lower. If more young people vote in this election, it could have a great impact on the result – something those at Columbia University sympathising with the democrats have understood since they shout to laughing passers-by:

“If you don’t register, I don’t want to hear you moan afterwards if Trump is elected!”

Mikael Sundström is senior lecturer and an educator in International Politics at Lund University. He thinks that the outcome of the American election is very significant even for Swedish society, since the USA plays such a central role in global politics.

According to him, it would generate huge problems in politics concerning security were Donald Trump to be elected since he has promised to do things that are practically impossible, but that his voters expect him to perform. For example, building a wall to close the Mexican border that is to be paid for by Mexicans, and making China compensate for all the workers they “steal” from the USA.

“His proposals are a sign of huge incompetence. Donald Trump is very unpredictable and he has a deep-rooted ignorance concerning how international cooperation works.”

If Hillary Clinton should win, nobody is really expecting any unwanted side-effects. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has much bigger plans concerning policies about redistribution of means, and would result in a clear leftist turn for the country.

Additionally, he is the candidate that seems to have captured the hearts of the students most clearly; something Mikael Sundström believes hinges much upon the fact that he wants to make studying at a university cheaper.

“But as long as there is no parliamentary revolution, Donald Trump will probably become the candidate for the republicans and Hillary Clinton will be that of the democrats. Then, Donald Trump will probably have a hard time collecting enough votes to be able to influence the outcome.”

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump entice people who usually do not even vote. At the same time, they are each other’s absolute opposites. If they continue to engage people at this rate, Mikael Sundström believes the turnout for the election will increase compared with previous elections.

“Partly thanks to the new voters intrigued by Donald Trump, but also thanks to those who are drawn to his opponent, since they (e.g. women and immigrants) feel threatened by Donald Trump,” he explains.

Columbia University and the USA in general approach an election where opinions are unusually polarised. 

Translation: Richard Helander

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