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Election is teachable moment for Washington U. freshmen

Washington University Professor Peter Kastor teaches his freshman politics seminar on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

On Election Day, as he does every day, Washington University freshman Jordan Phillips called his grandma in Florida. His message was a definite one.

“I called her about an hour before the polls started closing,” Phillips said. “She jokingly said, ‘Jordan, who's going to win the election?’ I said I would bet everything I have that Hillary Clinton's going to win.

“Then I called her the next day, and she's like, ‘So you owe me everything you have.’”

Based on conversations in Phillips’ freshman politics seminar on Thursday, he wasn’t alone in expecting a victory by the Democratic candidate instead of a surprise triumph by President-elect Donald Trump. Professor Peter Kastor had surveyed the class, and most of them, but not all, favored Clinton.

“For some of you,” he told Thursday’s class, “this is a moment of celebration. For most of you, this is not.”

He spent much of the 90-minute class talking about factors that went into the unexpected election returns – projections, media, voter turnout, a silent majority and all the other variables that pundits are likely to be debating for months to come.

And the students had plenty of theories on their own.

“People are sick and tired of the establishment,” said Maggie Brown, “and Hillary Clinton is like trademark establishment.

“At first I thought, who better to run against Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. He's misogynist, he represents everything that she doesn't, and it would help her. But in the end I think it was the opposite. I think her running against someone so new and so different really hurt her.”

Jack Wasserman saw the results as a good example of how isolating college can be.

“A lot of people on campus live in a bubble,” he said, “and we either are unable to see what much of the country is seeing or understand. It's just hard for us to do, because we don't come from that background, we don't come from that position.” 

Still inspired

Kastor noted that no matter how an individual feels about the final results, the process of voting itself can be an inspirational example of democracy in action, and “there’s nothing wrong with being inspired.”

That feeling was no doubt inflated at Washington U. by the second presidential debate, which was held on campus last month. Kastor noted that student support was heavily in favor of Clinton, sometimes to an overly enthusiastic degree.

“I had a student proudly tell me that he snatched a 'Make America Great Again' hat off of another student’s head,” he said.

He tried to put the election into historical context, bringing up Adlai Stevenson – a name that none of the students recognized. Noting that the Democrat lost twice to Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s, Kastor said the lesson that could be drawn from those contests, and from this year’s as well, is that eggheads usually lose to candidates that can make more of a personal, visceral connection.

In such battles of the head versus the heart, Kastor added, “Adlai Stevenson always loses.”

But despite the results – or maybe because of them – the students appeared to be still excited by politics, not jaded.

'I think this will present a unique opportunity for us to show the faults in our system, so that in the future we can work to fix them.' -- Student Geordan Neinstein

Geordan Neinstein, who said he was shocked by Trump’s victory, put it this way:

“As much as I'm terrified at what happened, I think this will present a unique opportunity for us to show the faults in our system, so that in the future we can work to fix them, and I'm excited about the good change that I hope this terrible event will bring.”

He’s also started a petition to make Election Day a national holiday, so more people would have time off of work and be encouraged to vote.

The next four years

For students in their first year of college, their time on campus will coincide with Trump’s four years in office. How do they expect the world will change during that time, if at all? Robel Selassie, who comes from Washington, D.C., had this view:

“I want to see how he tries to still appeal to frankly the more extreme parts of his base, because he was an extreme candidate, and it will be interesting to see how he manages that with the more moderate parts of Congress, especially with the Republican base.

“It all depends on how much Congress lets him act. If they really let him act, we'll see some pretty extreme changes.”

Kristine Xu said she is disappointed at the outcome of the election, but she doesn’t expect that the strong message that voters sent can be ignored.

“I think at this point I really am rooting for him to succeed in his own way. Because it really will affect not just me but a lot of people who had no voice during this election and who are very vulnerable at this point in time.”

'I think it's important to not be scared and just kind of complain about the election, but for minority groups to stay strong and reach out and network with each other.' -- Student Ali Rayef

For his part, student Ali Rayef says as a Muslim-American, he is concerned about possible negative consequences.

“I think it's important to not be scared and just kind of complain about the election,” he said, “but for minority groups to stay strong and reach out and network with each other, and show that we're not what that section of society believes we are.”

And he was one of the few students in the class who said he saw the results coming

“I didn't want it to happen,” Rayef said, “but I thought Trump would win. And I thought it was because we have deep-seated problems in our politics. We have a lot of toxicity.”

And, he said, that hunch was reinforced by a cookie-buying portent.

“About a week before the election,” he said, “they started selling Democrat and Republican cookies in our dining hall, shaped like elephants and donkeys, so I bought one of each.

“As the woman was taking the cookies out of the display case, the donkey head broke off, and the elephant remained intact. I saw that as definitive proof that Trump would win.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.