I will empathize with Drake (see Instagram screenshot below), though I am guessing he may have more of a stake in capitalism than I do. My (non-existent) version of “Hotline Bling” has yet to sell (any) records.
I had the best time speaking with dozens of high school students this past week about the forthcoming presidential elections. In a way, I feel like we have been discussing the probable candidates, analyzing the necessary strategies to win, and projecting the ultimate outcome since November 2012 after the last race. It is a never-ending cycle of elections but for someone who studies and teaches it, I absolutely love it. I consider the year out before the race (for a mid-level race, like a congressional or gubernatorial seat) the game and the time before that the “off-season.” Like in football, if you aren’t playing, you sure better be training, because undoubtedly your competition is.
Though political analysts, professors, and junkies have been watching the race closely since the first crop of candidates officially declared late last winter, most high school students, even those interested in government and public affairs, probably have not. To be fair, when I was in junior high school, the Supreme Court was sorting out the Bush v. Gore race and the complexity of the issues involved confused me up for longer than I would like to admit. Alongside an esteemed colleague in history, we discussed the big takeaways from the candidates thus far, hitting on relevant issues likely to play a role in voting and the organization and funding of the campaigns themselves. The students were bright, engaged, and inquisitive and their interest fed into my own energy. They were younger versions of my college students with one small but important exception. They were incredibly, almost unbelievably optimistic.
Optimism seems virtually incompatible with politics, reality, and life. It is difficult, neigh sometimes impossible, to be cheery when the system seems so corrupt and unfortunate things continue to happen unfairly to people. Younger people don’t have the burden of experience, of knowing all the time something positive could have happened but failed, of realizing that while they wish the outcome were different, there is essentially no changing the undesirable results. They see sunshine peaking through the clouds rather than the heavy masses blocking the rays of sunlight.
Then somewhere along the way, it changes. Something, or a series of somethings happens to make us challenge why we believe good is not only possible but should also prevail. I was a kid during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and though the gritty details of the affair escaped me (all I knew is the president did something very bad) I sensed the disappointment my parents had in the system. They were products of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War followed shortly by Watergate, so there has been no shortness of disappointment in their lifetime for government.
As I was speaking with the students, though, it made me wish there was a way to be both optimistic and simultaneously resilient to the frequent failures that invariably occur when the optimistic projection fails to succeed. I love the hope, the possibility that younger students seem to exude. No, they aren’t all so excited about the future and yes, there are older people who exhibit similar positive outlooks, but the youthful sense of promise and drive for substanative action is exactly what is missing in politics.
Too many unfulfilled campaign promises, too many scandals to remember yet so many one can’t just forget, too many grim headlines all serve as unavoidable reminders that politics isn’t pretty. It isn’t clean and it isn’t easy. It is rough and it messy and not for the faint of heart. I am not complaining here—to borrow from a phrase I both proclaim to loathe yet frequently integrate into my own language—"it is what it is." I am not complaining about what it is. I am wondering though about what it could be.
What if the system encouraged more optimism? Hell, even “allowed” it? The persistent rhetoric that “young people don’t know” and “young people don’t care” and “young people don’t vote” isn’t without merit, but such blatant disregards for the potential growth and input of newer generations stomps out the fire before it has barely had time to kindle. Politics isn’t for the faint of heart to say the least. However, just because it is complex and challenging doesn’t mean it can’t also inspire greatness and positivity. I want my students to feel empowered to tackle public problems and emboldened with a little of the crazy optimism and hope that is necessary to do just that. I don’t think we should simplify it or make it all “sunshine-and-rainbows” for them either, but if knowledge is power, I would rather they use it in a way that gives them hope for the future and not just bitterness in fixing the past.
When I remember those sweet smiling faces and their own powerful descriptions of what they wish to accomplish in the world, I keep connecting their optimism and hope to their interest and knowledge. I found it so moving. It took me back from my own position as someone who loves and lives for the dirtiness that can make others uncomfortable and want to change the topic to weather-related subjects (which, if involving warm temps and sunshine, I will happily engage in as well). It took me back to my pre-campaigning days, before I learned the tricks and practices the trades and thought much more highly of the whole process. It even took me back to when I was in a position much like these students, excited for college and eager to learn more about the disciplines that fascinated me. If I could find such hope and promise to be as invigorating, it made me wonder about the larger impact today’s students could have on tomorrow’s world.