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On Campus, a Divisive Election Sparks Conversation

At the first football game tailgate, a crowd of students surrounded Mod 33A, fixated on something—a large Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” sign, firmly planted in the patchy ground. A few days later, the mod next door had put up Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders signs. The senior housing, usually home to tailgates and wandering freshmen, had come to represent campus discourse on the upcoming presidential election.

The 2016 election has been one of the most polarized and vitriolic in history. Based on approval ratings, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two of the least popular major party nominees in history. At Boston College, students, faculty, and staff all eagerly await the Nov. 8 decision.

The Heights received 617 responses to a political climate survey posted in class Facebook groups and sent out to students via email lists of majors. The results showed that 56.2 percent of respondents identified with the Democratic party, 15.4 percent with the Republican party, 23.9 percent with the Independent party, and about 4 percent with “other” parties.

While 15.4 percent of respondents indicated they were Republicans, only 8.4 percent of respondents indicated they were planning to vote for Republican nominee Donald Trump. On the other hand, while 56.2 percent of respondents identified as democrats, 75 percent of respondents indicated they were planning to vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“The political atmosphere on campus has a level of awareness that I haven’t seen in many years,” said Susan Michalczyk, the assistant director of the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program and an associate professor. “What I am seeing today are students who are more aware of all the issuesthe Supreme Court, civil rights, women’s rights, and climate change—but also a very strong awareness of student debt and the inequalities that are coming out of our society.”

The faceoff between Senator Bernie Sanders and Clinton for the Democratic nomination inspired millennials, ages 19 to 36, a historically unengaged population, to participate. Sanders’s campaign in particular resonated with young voters, inspiring memes of the 75-year-old man gesticulating as he speaks. He also retains the unwavering support of a small but vocal “Bernie or Bust” movement that refuses to settle for anything less than the “Bern.”

This election cycle, Trump’s tweets, Clinton’s scandals, and the apparent tension between the two candidates have turned this election into a pseudo-reality show. This time, however, the spotlight is on the future leader of the free world.  

Trump’s divisive, simplified rhetoric and the political mishaps in Clinton’s past have led to a divide in the nation that is also apparent on BC’s campus. The debates between feeling, fact, and falsehood dominate the nation as campus approach the final two weeks of the election.

“You can’t deny that both candidates are extensively characterized by scandal, personal character flaws on both sides,” said Patrick Doyle, a Trump supporter and MCAS ’19. “I think that’s [what is] kind of unique and sad about this election.”

On campus, student organizations like the College Democrats of Boston College (CDBC) and the Boston College Republicans (BCCR) are designed to facilitate discussion and create a friendly environment for students to explore their opinions. The two groups hosted a debate surrounding key topics on Oct. 6 to create a forum for open discussion surrounding issues. But there is a distinct difference between how the two groups operate on campus.

CDBC is actively involved in Clinton’s campaign, organizing canvassing events, phone banking, volunteering at events, and even traveling up to New Hampshire to help Clinton’s campaign. In a phone interview, the group confirmed that it has officially endorsed the candidate.

“We have been on the Clinton train for a long time,” said Tyler Shelepak, co-president of CDBC and MCAS ’17.

The College Republicans have a different approach. In past elections, the group has not endorsed a presidential candidate, College Republicans of Boston College president Mariella Rutigliano said. This year is no exception.

“No, we have not endorsed a candidate,” said Eric Sporel, BCCR’s political director and MCAS ’18. “We will support the Republican nominee, but we do not consider that endorsing. We have a diverse array of ideas in College Republicans, and I think that’s a really good thing, and I think it helps us in terms of thoughts of who’s the best candidate, who has the best policy.”

The BCCR’s hesitation to outright endorse Trump’s candidacy is not unique in this election—many prominent Republicans are vocal opponents of or have unendorsed their party’s nominee, and even Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ highest elected official in the country, has clashed with Trump, wavering publicly on whether to endorse him this past summer.

This phenomenon is also seen on BC’s campus. In The Heights’ survey, the distinction between Trump supporter and Trump voter is clear. Only 26.9 percent of Trump voters responded that they are voting for Trump because they support him. Rather, 69.2 percent of Trump voters responded that they are voting for him because they do not want to see Clinton as president (respondents were able to check multiple answers to the question, so there may be some overlap between these groups).  

There is a similar but less pronounced trend among students voting for Clinton. Just 57.2 percent of Clinton voters responded that they are voting for her because they support her, while 81.2 percent responded that they are voting for Clinton to avoid a Trump presidency.

This phenomenon of voting for the “lesser of two evils,” or voting for one candidate for fear of the other’s being elected, has become prominent in this election.

Michalczyk has also noticed that students are concerned about the disconnect between politicians and the electorate.

“This is a sad statement of our traditional political system, that Bernie brought to the forefrontthe need to address the problems in the existing political structure,” Michalczyk said. “How do we get our politicians to connect closer to us?”

This disconnect between the government and the needs of the citizens that Michalczyk brought up is a major concern for many Trump and Sanders supporters. Shelepak has noticed it, too.

“There is a genuine disinterest and distaste in establishment politics,” he said.

Doyle, who supports Trump, agrees. He characterized this elections as a choice between establishment and anti-establishment, rather than between left and right politics.

This characterization is telling, as it explains how the Republican presidential nominee can have so many views that are historically out of line with his party. Sociology professor Charles Derber explained that Trump’s actual policy proposals on certain economic issues, such as public investment in infrastructure or diminishing U.S. and foreign wars, are not reflective of what the Republican Party has pushed for in the past.

“I mean, he only recently became a conservative,” Derber said. “He doesn’t reflect traditional conservatism.”

While the Republican nominee is deviating from its traditional party lines, the same radicalism was reflected in the popular democratic candidate Sanders, who identified himself as a democratic socialist.

“Millennials are very energized by Bernie Sanders and his message,” Shelepak said. “Hillary Clinton is doing a very poor job reaching our generation.”

Sanders’ message was overwhelmingly supported by a millennial base. He focused on what young Americans care about most—climate change, free public education, political reform, and social justice.

“Now that [Sanders] is not in the race anymore, people do not feel that their opinions are represented in either of the two candidates remaining,” said Matt Sanborn, co-president of CDBC and MCAS ’17. “We need to change that.”

Sanders endorsed Clinton shortly after dropping out of the race in July, but many Sanders supporters did not follow in his footsteps. Even after Clinton had publicly announced policies that were in line with the Sanders’ campaign, the “Bernie or Bust” movement emerged.

“Hillary is putting forth a moderated version of a progressive domestic economic agenda,” Derber said. “There are many things that Senator Sanders spoke about that your generation has shown they are devoted to which she represents. Even though she has her own serious character flaws, she is presenting a clear policy proposal. She behaves like a politician that people recognize.”

Clinton’s past—using her private email server to send government emails, her role in the Benghazi attacks, and Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual assaults—have caused many to question the quality of her political career and her moral character. While many criticize Trump for his lack of specific policies and controversial rhetoric, they are more concerned with Clinton’s existing track record.

“Right now the evil I don’t know in Donald Trump, I personally think is better than the evil I do know in Hillary Clinton,” Sporel said.

Individual students have also found ways to express their political beliefs outside of organized group discussions. One particularly noteworthy instance of student political expression is the political signage faceoff between Mods 35A/B, 33A/B, 22A/B, and 20A/B, a “Mod quad.”

The battle of the political signage began in early September, when the men living in Mod 33A planted a large “Make America Great Again” sign behind their Mod. The women in Mod 35B, namely Megan Keenan, MCAS ’17, were not happy about it.

“Immediately everyone was talking about it and freaking out about it,” she said.

Students would constantly stop to take pictures of the sign while walking through the Mods, and the sign attracted crowds at tailgates.

Keenan and her roommates responded to their neighbors’ Trump sign by ordering Clinton and Sanders signs. They displayed these signs in their window in protest. The battle spread. A Mod across the way displayed a Gary Johnson sign soon after, and then another Mod put up another Clinton sign.

“I didn’t want this Mod quad to just have a Trump sign,” Keenan said. “Having that sign there misrepresented everyone else in the quad and what we stand for.”

Caroline Ripetti, MCAS ’17, called the Clinton campaign, explained the Trump signage, and asked to be sent a Clinton sign. The campaign replied with an email that gave Ripetti information about its merchandise store. Ripetti ended up receiving a sign from College Democrats of Boston College and displayed it prominently in her window at Mod 22A.

There has been some communication between the students who displayed the Trump sign and the students who live in the other Mods in the Mod quad. Keenan said that one of the men in Mod 33A described the displaying of different signs as “healthy competition.” The students who put up the Trump sign declined to comment.

Millennials can be hard to engage when it comes to politics. But there are many things that inspire young adults to take action. According to Derber, the best way that students can get involved in the realm of politics is to join social movements.

There are certain issues that seem to matter most to students, including climate change and  racial injustice. There have been several protests recently regarding these issues, including one by Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC) and one by the GLBTQ Leadership Council (GLC) and the AHANA Leadership Council (ALC).

CJBC held a silent protest on Oct. 11 in solidarity with those protesting against the North Dakota Access Pipeline. Its members also held signs that read “BC: Whose Side Are You On?” calling for the University to divest from fossil fuels. The lack of discussion about climate change during the 2016 election has fostered a sense of urgency for CJBC to continue to speak out against climate injustice, according to Xinyan Liu, a member of CJBC and MCAS ’17.

[It] is honestly very disheartening and frustrating that the U.S., as arguably the most important voice in the matter, has not prioritized this issue enough that it’s not brought up during a presidential election,” Liu said.

According to The Heights’s political survey, 81.8 percent of respondents believe climate change is a national security threat, and 86.9 percent believe that the government should increase environmental regulations to prevent climate change.

Michalczyk, like Derber, believes that protesting is a great way for millennials to voice their opinions and create change.

“It’s OK to protest, it’s OK to question, it’s OK to enter into serious criticism … and disagree,” Michalczyk said.

The disagreement throughout this election, however, has led to an undeniably polarized political atmosphere across the nation and on campus. Besides the obvious divide along party lines, the battle between Clinton and Sanders supporters during the primaries split the Democratic Party, while Trump’s candidacy led to controversy among the Republicans. While there still remains a small divide within the Democrats with the rise of the “Bernie or Bust” movement, Clinton has been mending the gap.

She’s bridging two worlds, the establishment centrist world that she has represented, and she has another foot in a fairly progressive world where she has many programs that are in line with parts of the Sanders agenda,” Derber said.

Trump, however, has seen major backlash from his party for his crude, candid, and divisive rhetoric. Scandals surrounding his tweets and audio tapes have led to even more tweets, as well as Republican elites’ speaking out in disapproval. While to some supporters his rhetoric may be refreshing, honest, and reflective of a greater America, other Trump supporters grudgingly tolerate his often offensive remarks in light of other factors.

“I don’t think he’s a perfect person,” Doyle said. “I don’t think he’s a particularly tactful or graceful person at all, I don’t think he really has an idea on how to conduct himself or be an effective speaker.”

But Doyle believes that Trump’s policy ideas, whether or not he actually has specific plans for them, are preferable to raising taxes, which some argue could continue stagnation and stymie innovation.

Trump’s aggressive style of rhetoric has often turned headlines away from the policies he is proposing to focus on how he is speaking and tweeting. According to Doyle, this has created the stereotype that all Trump supporters are racist, sexist, uneducated, and hates immigrants—“a basket of deplorables,” as Clinton referred to them. He continued to explain how being a Trump supporter on BC’s campus is difficult.

There aren’t a lot of people who share the views, and a lot of people make stereotypes about what a Trump supporter might be instead of actually getting to know what each individual would believe,” Doyle said. “Do us the favor of getting to know us before you make blanket judgements, as you request we do of you.”

Trump’s language has made it difficult to openly support Trump and also seems to undermine the more pressing question of how he will execute all of the huge plans he has for America. This election has become more about selling feelings and less about explaining policy proposals, according to Michalczyk.

“As someone who is an economics and political science double major I know that’s the one thing I wanted to hear more of from Donald Trump—more of the specifics,” Sporel said.

Michalczyk believes millennials are key to the outcome of this election. She has noticed an increase in student awareness on political issues during this election, which she thinks shows a level of maturity and understanding among millennials.

“I think you are finding your voice, you have a strong voice, and you are learning that coming together in a group is more productive,” she said.

Fortunately, it seems that many students at BC plan to vote in this election—90.6 percent of students who responded to The Heights’ survey indicated that they are registered to vote, and 90.3 percent plan to vote.

“If you stand together in solidarity, there’s less chance of being divided and conquered,” Michalczyk said. “That’s what I find admirable in the younger atmosphere.”

And although the Trump sign in the Mods has been removed, the political tension remains as the nation awaits the Nov. 8 election decision.

Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Editor

October 27, 2016