I never said whom I was voting for when I was your professor. I wanted our seminar room to be a safe, neutral space where we engaged with the art of persuasive essayists—E.B. White, James Baldwin, George Orwell, Rachel Carson, Henry David Thoreau—without judging one another’s credos. Meanwhile, we were living through history together: from the first Gulf War to Anita Hill’s testimony about Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment to Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings to September 11, when we suspended our discussion to watch the towers cascade down, not knowing yet how many lives were lost. Eight years ago, I joined your celebrations on the quad when America elected its first African-American president. And just last winter, 10 of you—all accomplished, dazzlingly intelligent women and self-declared feminists—cooked up an international feast in my kitchen and admitted that not one of you was with her, the first female presidential nominee of a major party in the history of our nation.
All this time I kept my politics to myself, unless you asked me my views in private. But now I can’t hold back, and I hope you’ll forgive me for saying why what seems like a personal decision—to step inside a poll booth, or not—feels no longer like a matter of individual choice to me but like a civic duty the dereliction of which will have devastating consequences for us all.
You have every reason to distrust our current political system. An unregulated Wall Street was permitted to gamble with your future, and those of you who graduated during the 2008 financial crisis are still feeling the sting of high college debt, rising rents, and uncertain job prospects. When you occupied Wall Street, the mainstream press did not take you seriously enough, probably because you were offering the world another paradigm instead of the tired one they knew. Your mode of self-governance wasn’t hierarchical; it didn’t mimic the system you knew to be broken.
Your liberal arts education has given you a far more nuanced, complex understanding of the climate crisis, stratified inequality, systemic racism, rape culture, the needs of the LGBTQ community, and the harm our foreign policy inflicts on innocent people across the globe than that of most in Congress making decisions on your behalf. Now, more than ever, we need people who think like you to take the mantle as leaders. It starts at the grassroots level, on school boards, village boards, the state legislature, and so on. You need to make yourselves heard.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how the world works outside our utopian seminar room: The march of history is one long, shambling shuffle, a spasmodic hokey pokey of one step forward, and two, sometimes three or four giant steps back. History is Jimmy Carter donning a cardigan, turning down the thermostat to 65 degrees, and putting up solar panels on the White House. History is his successor, Ronald Reagan, taking those panels down and appointing James G. Watt to head the Department of Interior, a man who promised to “mine more, drill more, cut more timber” on America’s public lands “until Jesus returns.”
History is members of the National Women’s Party getting arrested for picketing the White House and going on a hunger strike in prison to give women the vote. History is a presidential candidate saying that a powerful, privileged man can grab a woman by her genitals and do whatever he wants to her body, and history is his supporters who joke that the 19th Amendment should be repealed. History is Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus, and history is also Freddie Gray dying in the back of a police van.