As 2020 Election Comes to a Close, Amherst Community Processes Biden Victory, Looks to the Work Ahead
Just before noon on Saturday, Nov. 7, multiple accredited news stations reported that former Vice President Joe Biden had won the vote in Pennsylvania, clinching him enough electoral college seats to secure the presidency. If nothing else, Biden’s victory signified the conclusion of a prolonged and tension-filled presidential race. At the college, Biden’s victory has been met with elation and relief, and distrust and apprehension, as the nation prepares to inaugurate a new president.
Projections indicate that over 160 million Americans voted, with many choosing to cast ballots through the mail to avoid crowds at the voting booths. By the night of Nov. 3, it was clear that several swing states including Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina would decide the winner of the election, as mail-in ballots, sent in primarily by voters registered with the Democratic party, continued to trickle in. Though President Donald Trump refused to concede, falsely tweeting that he won the election “by a lot” and demanding that states stop counting votes, the tally continued to favor Biden.
As the counting process for mail-in ballots extended into a multi-day process, apprehension and anxiety over the final results mounted for community members. Students, faculty and staff shared brief remarks and reactions over the course of the election week leading up to and following Biden’s victory, highlighting their hope for the nation’s future and a need to continue progress.
Hope and Relief
For Sharon B., a Val employee who asked to keep her last name anonymous, Biden’s victory immediately sparked a sense of ease. “I have only three words to say: thank goodness, harmony,” she said. For many students, Sharon’s sentiments resonate well. Many reflected on the relief of an immediate threat being eliminated.
“The republic is no longer in imminent danger of losing democracy right now, which is really nice,” said Skyler Sung ’23.
Harry Brussel ’23, president of AC Democrats, noted that “when the far right gains power we never really see them lose power. So to see Donald Trump voted out of office is a huge deal.”
“I feel so relieved knowing that Trump isn’t president anymore. I feel much more optimistic that bigger changes can happen now,” said Jeanyna Garcia ’23.
Cathay Quinlam, another Val employee, reflected, “I think people are celebrating big time, with Harris and Biden. Now that Trump is out of the picture I think we’ll be a lot happier. I mean it’s already happier … everyone is celebrating.”
Rose Mrozcka ’21, lead organizer of Amherst College for Biden, said, “It felt like a great day and a day that I think for a lot of people, the first time in a long time that we just felt hopeful.”
Some expressed their gratitude to fellow Americans for voting Biden in and Trump out. “I really wanted to vote too, but I can’t, even though I’ve lived here for nine years,” said Sofia Hernandez-Perilla ’23. “Seeing the results was so nice. People voted for this, and so it makes me feel welcome.”
A Starting Point
For many, Biden’s and Harris’ victory presented a complex landmark.
“The part that I’m most excited about is the fact that there’s a Black woman as the first female vice president,” said Jaden White ’23. “That being said, I definitely want to acknowledge that Kamala Harris has been extremely problematic, in terms of transgender legislation and incarceration.”
“I think that those things absolutely need to be acknowledged, but at the same time I think we can celebrate the victory of there being a Black woman in office,” she added.
Shoshanna Peifer ’23 said, “I’m giving myself this day to be happy before realizing that it’s Joe Biden, and he’s not perfect.”
The Association of Amherst Students (AAS) president Jeremy Thomas ’21 spoke on this complexity, as well. “There’s a push to … make things into this binary of ‘Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are good, and Donald Trump is bad.’ Maybe they’re all a mixture of these things,” he said. “Trump is definitely closer to the all-bad category, and it can be a good thing that Harris and Biden are in office, and it can be a good thing that Trump is gone, just as much as it can definitely have negative consequences that will have to be a part of the different fights that people pick up.”
A Need to Keep Working for Change
Many raised concerns about the danger of complacency and the need to continue organizing and taking action.
“It’s so important to remember that whoever’s in office, we can’t tune out and we can’t check out now that it’s a Democrat … it’s so important that we stay engaged and stay educated,” said Maya Foster ’23. “Yes, feel this sigh of relief that maybe you can stop being on your toes all the time and stop being on the defensive all the time, but we have to remember that at the end of the day, politicians are not perfect … but we can put pressure on them to act in ways that actually reflect what their constituents want.”
Meenakshi Jani ’23 similarly reflected, “Getting Trump out of office is a victory, and now we must turn our attention to thinking not just about replicating a pre-Trump past but about fighting for a different future,” she said. “For the sake of racial, gender and environmental justice, for the sake of the working people of not just this country but the world, the Biden presidency has to be an unprecedented one, and only mass grassroots movements with an intersectional understanding of oppression can make it so.” Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Michaela Brangan asked, “Will Biden use his power to push hard for new policies people badly need, like a livable minimum wage, student and medical debt relief, new unemployment protections, housing assistance? We shall see.”
Mollie Hartenstein ’23 commented on Amherst’s compliance with the status quo at an institutional level. “I feel like Amherst is complacency. That defines its existence, is no matter what, we’re going to be fine here in our little bubble in Western Mass, which is really nice when there’s coronavirus, or when you want to feel complacent, but it doesn’t actually do anything, right?” she said. “Amherst does not upset the status quo. And it definitely won’t, now that Joe Biden is president, and I wonder what organizations on campus will take advantage of the opportunity to say that.”
Zora Duncan ’23 similarly noted, “I’m interested in seeing if the activism I saw over the summer and in response to Trump’s more blatant problems will continue now that people have the option of settling into complacency,” she said. “I’m scared of being disappointed.”
Frustration with Electoral Politics
Some members of the Amherst community expressed their thoughts on the flaws inherent to Biden’s campaign and electoral politics, and the dangers this poses. “There’s not much of a difference between Joe Biden and Trump,” said Angel Musyimi ’23.
“No matter who holds the office, people will still be killed in the streets for their identity, whether that be their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their sexual orientation. People are still going to be harmed everyday, no matter who’s in office. Joe Biden as an individual is still someone who’s going to harm me, and people who are directly affected by his policy,” Musyimi added.
Others expressed frustration with the Democratic Party as a whole. “It’s just hard to get excited about Joe Biden,” said Foster.
Some attributed the Democratic Party’s endorsement of moderate candidates to the party’s losses on more local levels, and the large number of votes Trump still received.
“When all is said and done, the popular vote margin will be around 4-5 percent. Seventy-one million people will have voted for the loser in this record turnout election,” said Brangan. “Whatever ‘Trumpism’ is, it cannot be grasped by a single metric, regardless of how stabilizing it would be to assume that everyone voted for Trump, or Biden, for the same reasons. It would also be a mistake to think that getting rid of Trump himself will break some national spell. It won’t be that easy.”
Others spoke on the irrelevance of electoral politics in their own lives. “A Democratic or Republican president doesn’t change the reality of my day to day life and it will change very little the reality of the lives of people being oppressed or discriminated against under Trump’s presidency,” said Duncan.
Musyimi similarly added, “When [Biden is] someone who will harm you, he’s not a lesser of two evils but an actively bad choice. It’s not that one of them is the lesser of two evils, but just that they’re two evils.”
On the other hand, some students turned their focus to the possibility of immediate policy impacts.
“I think that because we now don’t have to fight rhetoric, I think we can fight policy,” said Foster. “What tax plans would we actually like to see implemented? Biden has plans for universal pre-k, and some education reform that is really substantial… holding people accountable for the plans that got them into office is so important.”
Thomas mentioned that “Biden and Harris have both said that they are unequivocally opposed to the death penalty and will try to abolish it,” and expressed his hope for this reform to the justice system. Mrozcka spoke on the implications of what she calls a race of character. “To hear … talk about uniting people and trying to forgive people and heal our nation, that’s one of the things that I’m most excited about, to have someone who’s going to see all Americans as Americans.”
Hernandez-Perilla thought about the implications for the global pandemic. “Maybe we’re going to go back to normal lives … imagine, if [Biden] puts more money into finding a vaccine, maybe we’re going to get there, maybe we’ll all be able to come back here next fall,” she said.
Others noted the positive impacts of voter turnout and key states flipping blue. “This is how it’s supposed to be … Georgia is turning blue,” said Jun Ho Yoon ’23, a student from Georgia who told The Student that his vote was suppressed this election. “My social security number doesn’t match the name on my driver’s license, so they said call the county, but they never picked up,” he explained.
Within the diversity of opinion even among students who identify with left-leaning political ideologies, there was not much comment from the other side of the political spectrum. Amherst College Republicans declined The Student’s request for an interview. “ACR will be issuing no comment about the election results,” said David Branson ’21, president of the organization. “In light of the GroupMe messages in the ‘Amherst on Campus’ we do not feel comfortable sharing our perspective.” On Saturday, a few hours after the election results were announced, a student accidentally sent a meme in the on-campus GroupMe chat that read “Kamala just offered me some funny pills then Jill ran in screaming NO NO NO… wonder what that was about,” which the chat’s members perceived as conservative-leaning. The student who sent the joke clarified he had meant to send it to a different group chat. Many students in the chat responded with comments and jokes about the sender’s unpopular conservative political leaning. “I would just like to emphasize that posting the meme was an honest mistake on my part. I take the values of inclusion and civility as seriously as anyone in our community,” the student said in an interview. “I do think that the way in which it all transpired is a pretty clear illustration of the social divides that run through our entire campus.”
Looking at this smaller-scale campus conflict on a broader scale, some left-leaning students appreciated Biden’s emphasis on unity and compromise, viewing these sentiments as a cure to the political polarization on campus and across the nation. “To really make progress and move forward, we’re going to have to be able to talk to each other and to work with each other and to put behind us this divisive period in our country,” said Mrozcka. “I think President-elect Biden is the perfect person to do that, he exudes empathy and decency and he sees people for people.”
Other students expressed discontent with the concept of compromise. “I feel like if you don’t have an extreme bias right now, you’re kind of being insensitive,” said Foster. Musyimi expressed similar sentiment, saying, “There’s a difference between matters of opinion and matters of human rights.” Thomas spoke on the idea of compromise: “we can disagree and be friends unless something that you’re disagreeing with is my humanity,” he said. “Compromise has always been a fraught proposition in the United States. When I think of the word compromise in the context of U.S. history, I almost immediately … think of the three-fifths compromise. There are some things that I’m just not compromising on.”
Meanwhile, other members of the Amherst community felt anxiety about a peaceful transfer of power.
“I’m a little scared until January … hopefully he can’t do anything crazy,” said Maya Sessions, an employee at Val.
Chair of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Lawrence Douglas’ recently-published book “Will He Go? Trump and the Looming Electoral Meltdown” examines this very question. “It’s shocking to have an incumbent in the White House engaging in such a fundamental rejection of a basic democratic process,” Douglas said. “At the same time that it’s shocking, it’s unsurprising, because it’s a piece of the other things we’ve seen about Donald Trump.” He also mentioned the potential situation in which there is not a peaceful transfer of power in the White House. “Our system is not well-designed to deal with that kind of situation, the system … presupposes the peaceful transfer of power, it doesn’t secure the peaceful transfer of power,” he said.
Whether or not that peaceful transition happens, students felt disappointed in president Trump’s current actions. “I’m disheartened by Trump’s reaction to losing. He’s undermining American trust in democracy to fulfill his own selfish agenda,” said Jorge Rodas ‘23.
Looking ahead to the future, Douglas said, “I don’t imagine Trump is ever going to concede defeat, but I think he ultimately will submit to defeat, because he’s going to realize that there’s no other recourse that’s open to him.” This makes his main concern the social unrest this may cause between Americans. “The main worry is that there will be some people who hear that message and act in a potentially violent way to defend their democracy from the coup of the radical Democrats. I think we’re going to avoid general social unrest, but there could certainly be some ugly scenes in the coming weeks,” he said.
All in all, almost every community member interviewed showed a sense of care for the well-being of the Amherst community and the nation, despite their differences in ideology about how to best achieve that. Many still found ways to keep up their hope.
“Because of this election, I am hopeful that we’ll have a president who might listen not just to the right or to mainstream liberals, but also to those doing the work to fight for goals such as prison and police abolition and alternatives to neoliberalism and capitalism,” said Jani.
“At Amherst, I hope that living through the Trump presidency and this election will push more students not only to discuss politics abstractly but to engage in grassroots political activism.” Thinking ahead to the future, Brussel said, “My hope is that everyone will stay really engaged. People have really put a lot of focus into making things happen, but not all of it was election-centered. I think people really put a lot of focus into reevaluating what racial justice in America means, so I really hope that continues in the near future under the Biden administration.”
Musyimi also emphasized the importance of grassroots organizing. “I think that what people can do is look past electoral politics and look into their communities and keep updated with things going on there,” she said. “That means looking locally, in your town, what movements are there to defund the police and support individual members of your community.” She cited Direct Action Coordinating Committee (DACC) and Amherst Mutual Aid as two on-campus organizations doing this work, and Pioneer Valley Housing Now, Decarcerate Western Mass, Massachusetts Against Solitary Confinement and Defund 413 as local grassroots organizers.
At the end of the day, said Thomas, the way to move forward is “bridging the gap between critique and consequence … what you really want to be doing is making sure that your critique has some sort of tangible effect on the lives of people,” he said. “I think that can be a different thing for a billion different people, but I think connecting those things is probably the most important thing you can do.”