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At the Institute of Politics’ election watch party last November, miniature American flags and campaign signs lined the JFK Jr. Forum. Harvard students piled in until it was standing room only, all eyes fastened to the monitor at the front showing CNN’s live coverage.
Roars, cheers, hugs and high-fives around the room met each Wolf Blitzer-announced Democratic victory—as with Republican wins to a lesser degree. Students who had canvassed for the same Elizabeth Warren precinct or phone-banked at the same Charlie Baker office alternated between the same reactions.
When one of your party’s candidates won, you smiled ear-to-ear and pumped your fists in the year. After a loss, you hunched your shoulders and dipped your chin until others noticed, then said something mockingly analytical like, “At least Pennsylvania will swing our way.”
It was a festive evening.
But there was something quite ironic about the event.
Harvard students are part of the youth demographic (18-29 year olds), of which just 37 percent trust the President, 25 percent trust the overall federal government, and 17 percent trust Congress.
Years of fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns, and failures to progress on seminal issues like immigration have caused the majority of America’s youth to disdain the idea of a career politician who’s served for 20 years en route to another 20, and to reject the partisanship and gridlock that mire the country’s politics.
At the same time, these youth—especially at Harvard, where students are always being crowned the “future leaders”— are seen and see themselves as the ones to one day change something and usher in better government.
But here at this IOP party, Harvard students were dividing themselves along the same partisan lines that bog down the government. For a generation whose political mantra it is to criticize America’s establishment politics, this group of students looked an awful lot like the establishment.
Fast-forward nearly a year to today. Students are now prepping for the 2016 presidential election—some coordinating campus teams, others going up to New Hampshire for the early primary—and the question of establishment, status-quo politics is taking an unprecedented spotlight.
On one hand, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are the mainstream frontrunners with Windsor-esque political royalty and are leading their second-to-none resumes into voters’ hearts.
But on the other hand, the field is shaping up to be the least conventional in modern American history. Neither of the two leading Republican pollers, real estate mogul Donald Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, has served a day in elected office. And in the smaller Democratic field, Bernie Sanders—the senator whose far-left views have marked him as more of an outsider—is continuing to gain momentum.
Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has even thrown his hat into the ring, running on the lone platform of campaign finance reform. Should he win, he says he would pass a series of major reforms as President and then immediately resign.
With this dynamic, it will be telling to see how Harvard students respond.
Not in terms of liberal vs. conservative, or Democratic vs. Republican. If the past is any sign, Harvard will lean heavily left.
The question is: Will the Republicans support the padded resumes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio or the outsider messages of Trump and Carson? Will the Democrats align with the experience of Clinton or the dose of freshness surrounding Sanders?
Perhaps the next year will show Harvard students aligning with the former, evidently content with America’s establishment politics. Or perhaps we will see a demographic fed up with the current state of politics and ready for a new approach. Either way, it will be telling about what type of “future leaders” Harvard students will turn out to be.
At the next IOP election watch party, it will be the same scene. American flags and red-white-and-blue balloons will surround a room of students cheering on their respective candidates.
But there will be a lot more at stake—because the end of the night will show not just America’s leaders after 2016, but also something about America’s leaders for years to come.
Aaron J. Miller ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.
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