On campus, it can sometimes feel as if there isn’t even a presidential election happening. For some, this is a combination of Connecticut’s status as a consistently blue state along with Wesleyan’s political ethos being further to the left than most places in the country. Yet for a select few, including President Michael Roth, this election is of such historical importance that intervention is necessary.
“I think we’re facing one of the most consequential elections in American history,” Roth told The Argus in an interview on Oct. 18. “I think there are three or four [college] presidents in the country who have actually broken with the tradition—if not the law—and said so publicly. You’re talking to one of them.”
In August, Roth wrote an opinion piece that was published in Inside Higher Education where he applies the concept of bystander intervention to the presidential election, arguing that we have a societal obligation to intervene in the rise of fascism, which he defines in an historical and rhetorical sense rather than a hyperbolic one. Roth also urges other leaders in higher education to do the same, justifying the unprecedented intervention and acknowledging the problem of institutional biases.
“As the president of a nonprofit university, I am advised by legal counsel that I should not take public positions in elections. I know this makes a lot of sense, and over the 15 years or so that I’ve been a college president, I have encouraged electoral participation without being overt about where I stand in regard to any particular candidate,” Roth writes. “I do not believe that presidents or other university leaders should normally throw their institutional weight behind a specific public policy or a candidate. But despite my worries about institutional biases, this year I feel strongly that I need to intervene more directly, to join others in sounding an alarm about the grave danger to our political culture.”
More recently, a Black Lives Matter flag has been hung in a central window on the High Street-facing side of North College, which Roth also addressed in a recent blog post connecting the political statement to the 2016 election.
“Whatever one thinks of Black Lives Matter, I hope by raising the movement’s banner we are instigating more discussion, more engagement, more efforts to promote civil rights and to eradicate racism,” Roth writes. “We will fly the flag until Election Day.”
The University’s two mainstream political organizations, the Wesleyan Democrats and the Wesleyan College Republicans, have played a relatively small role in the election compared to years past. Both clubs had uncontested elections for executive positions earlier in the semester, and Wes Dems have not yet done any work for the Hillary Clinton campaign, though they will be making a trip to New Hampshire this weekend. The Wesleyan College Republicans, who were unable to be reached for comment in time for this article and who have not updated their leadership on their website, have neither endorsed Donald Trump nor denounced his candidacy like many other college Republican clubs have done across the country.
The Wesleyan Democratic Socialists, who were more active in the primaries when they endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is now stumping for the Clinton campaign, have chosen to endorse neither former Secretary of State Clinton nor former Town of Lexington Town Meeting Representative Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee who has attempted to win over former Sanders supporters. Spencer Brown ’18, former president of the group, acknowledged that the democratic socialists on campus have not done any election work this semester, but the group’s current leadership was unable to comment.
At a Wes Dems meeting on Sunday night, only two members were in attendance in addition to the five executive members. The group was planning on sending around a dozen students to New Hampshire this weekend, while other undergraduate political groups, such as the Yale College Democrats, have been able to repeatedly send up to 40 or more students up to New Hampshire throughout the semester. Alexandra Prendergast ’20, who was recently elected to the executive board after doing campaign consulting for the VINCI group, weighed in on why there is a lack of enthusiasm on and off campus surrounding the general election.
“People tend to view the two candidates as choosing between ‘the lesser of two evils,’” Prendergast said. “I think there is a clear choice, and that choice is Hillary Clinton. But unfortunately there are a number of people who believe that they are picking between two poisons. I think in some regards the enthusiasm towards Hillary Clinton, or even the enthusiasm towards this election cycle in general, is not great, simply because people feel like it’s been going on for too long and they’re exhausted by it, and that includes the students at Wesleyan.”
For co-chair Simon Korn ’17, who worked over the summer for the New Hampshire Democratic Party, the upcoming trip to New Hampshire is crucial for students to feel like they are making a difference in electing Hillary Clinton, or, more importantly for some, stopping Donald Trump.
“It’s very important for recruitment to get to say, ‘Yes, if you join us, you’ll get to stop Trump and help take back the Senate,’ as opposed to just working in local politics, which, as much as I hate to admit it, people aren’t as interested in,” Korn said.
Yet for students like Casey Smith ’17 and Mariel Brunman ’17, it was important to take the initiative themselves to get up to New Hampshire regardless of whenever the Wes Dems would finally make the trip up, which will end up being the weekend before the election. Smith, who is already busy enough writing a thesis for the College of Social Studies (CSS) and running the Wesleyan Refugee Project, felt a moral imperative to overstretch herself, at least for a few weekends.
“I figured if I had a few weekends that I could spend campaigning, then that would be something that would make me feel less anxious about the state of the world,” Smith said.
Brunman went several steps further by signing up to work as a fellow for the Clinton campaign in Keene, N.H. The experience, which has involved working nearly non-stop every weekend since the first week of September, has changed her as both a political operative and as a person. Having to change her approach to politics in the “Live Free or Die” state, Brunman has adapted from her background in the far more liberal circles of Wesleyan and Los Angeles, where she went to Harvard Westlake for high school and more recently interned for Senator Barbara Boxer.
“The people that I work with in the office are far more knowledgeable about all of this than I am,” Brunman said. “Going up to New Hampshire, talking to someone who doesn’t know how they feel about abortion or how they feel about gun rights, especially with the undecided folk, I kind of keep a little quiet when I have to, and it’s definitely balancing what I believe in and what I feel like I can share.”
Despite the overwhelmingly liberal, progressive, and leftist tendencies of this campus, there are a few Trump supporters, some of whom have chosen not to hide. Sophia Fox ’18 worked out of a makeshift Trump campaign headquarters in her hometown in Westchester County, N.Y. over the summer. She explained to The Argus why she’s supporting Trump, and shared a bold prediction for Nov. 8.
“I like Trump because he represents a suffocation of the political elite,” Fox said. “I predict a landslide victory [for Trump].”
For Brunman, the campaign experience will hopefully lead to something better long term than what most people perceive as the ugliest election in American history.
“It’s really empowering to be able to maintain your beliefs, maintain your opinions, and get them across, while also finding ways to respect people, even if they’re on your side or not,” she said. “We won’t all agree on everything, but hopefully we can be better for it in the end.”
Connecticut now offers same-day registration, and students can vote in Beckham Hall on Nov. 8.