I was not old enough to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960, though I was all in for him, so I cast my first presidential vote for Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election. That was a wild and crazy election, with Barry Goldwater campaigning far to the right. And I’ve seen some very strange elections since—think George Wallace in the 1968 election and the uproar of the Democratic convention that year. And of course the extremely odd election in 2000, when the eventual president (George Bush) didn’t win the popular vote and the Florida recount was a debacle (to say the least).
But I’ve never been through an election like this one, and as researchers are reporting, I (and millions of fellow Americans) are suffering stress-related effects from the anxiety over it. A friend even has nightmares in which he is attacked by a huge Trump-like figure.
I’m retired from full-time teaching now, but I’ve never wanted more to be in the classroom with young people to hear their thinking about this election and the precedents it is setting. I don’t wear my politics on my sleeve in my classes, but I am honest with students about my reasoning: I encourage them to think carefully through the issues and to make decisions based on the evidence they can gather, which is much easier said than done. So I don’t proselytize, but I don’t hide my decisions if I’m asked, and I spend time in my classes analyzing the rhetorical moves and strategies evident in presidential stump speeches, policy statements, and so on.
This election seems to me particularly important in that regard: I see voters on both the left and the right swayed completely by media representations and misrepresentations and parroting “facts” that have been proven over and over to be anything but. This is dangerous, so dangerous in fact that I think it’s worth devoting time in this next week to the kind of intense rhetorical analysis that can help students cut through some of the noise and get not only to the gist of candidates’ statements but to the underlying assumptions that are often passed over. It’s these assumptions, about gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, and economic responsibility, that are so appalling to many following the Trump campaign.
I’ve already cast my vote—enthusiastically—for Hillary Clinton. And I hope students everywhere are giving her candidacy close and careful scrutiny. But most of all I hope they are going to vote. In writing about early America, de Toqueville said he thought the people of this young country were ingenious and imaginative and capable of great things, but that the focus on radical individualism (a word he coined) might make us sometime in the future susceptible to the arguments of an autocrat or dictator, and that our democracy would depend on resisting those appeals. So whatever else you do today, urge your students to VOTE.
When future generations ask what you did in the election of 2016, what will you say?