Balancing Ideals with Realities

The political landscape of the U.S. can look very different depending on where you’re standing. Here at Amherst, our perspectives create a skewed perception of the American political scene. And in the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, how we view the political scene is especially relevant.

It shouldn’t take too much convincing to believe the fact that the political median of the Amherst College student body lands pretty far to the left. This is a steady trend among colleges nationwide. Though college administrations themselves should and do remain nonpartisan, the student and faculty bodies that compose schools often lean more left than the national average — with exceptions, needless to say. In 2017, the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute’s annual survey found that 36 percent of college and graduate students identified as either liberal or far-left while only 22 percent identified as conservative or far-right. College campuses, especially liberal arts college campuses, serve as ample breeding grounds for those views to intensify.

Of course, the official college brochure will always advertise open-minded and tolerant political cultures, as these qualities are necessary ingredients for intellectual exploration. Still, in many ways, political bubbles have become a standard truth of the college experience. However, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, it will become more necessary to make an active effort in understanding the national political landscape from a widened outlook.

Last week, The Student published an overview of the various student campaigns at the college. It named Amherst for Warren, Amherst for Bernie, Amherst for Pete and Amherst for Biden as the four current active political campaign groups. It mentioned that of the four, the more active groups were Amherst for Warren and Amherst for Bernie (the two groups have about 60 and 30 members respectively, while the other two have about five). As the article mentioned, the imbalance in membership numbers among the campaigns reflects “the left-leaning nature of Amherst students.”

Regardless of your political opinion, it must be acknowledged that outside of Amherst, on a national level, a large part of the Democratic voting base favors moderate candidates right now. The Pew Research Center reported that in 2019, 46 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents identify as liberal, while 53 percent deem themselves moderate or conservative. Pew also notes that “Democrats are nearly unanimous in their disapproval of [President Donald] Trump’s job as president.” In tandem, those two facts make an important statement: Democrats might be more risk-averse at the voting booths this election year. So although the more radical visions of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders may resonate with the college-age demographic, when it comes to the reality of the political landscape, the electorate may not end up wanting to take a chance on the more extreme progressive contenders. Despite the recent victory of Sanders in New Hampshire, the success of more moderate candidates like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg — the close victor in the Iowa caucuses and second place in New Hampshire — and Senator Amy Klobuchar — who defied expectations in New Hampshire by clinching third place ahead of Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden — serve as proof of this trend.

All of this is not to undermine the potential of Warren and Sanders, nor minimize the extraordinary work of the student campaigns. Instead, it is meant to remind us that the strongest campaigns at a college like Amherst may not reflect the world beyond. The winner of the Democratic primary must still contend with President Trump. Despite his relative lack of support on campus — when compared to that of candidates like Sanders and Warren — his potential re-election or loss is still very much a toss-up, regardless of the Democrat’s choice. And staying realistic within this election is essential not just for voters, but for the candidates themselves, as the 2016 election proved. In her book “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton offers an autobiographical look at how her 2016 presidential campaign failed despite feeling confident about it throughout the race. She explains that she didn’t grasp the true character of the 2016 electorate, which led to problems in how she presented herself as a candidate. This is a warning for the current presidential candidates — and us voters.

The United States political scenery might look one way from certain standpoints. At Amherst, it might look like Warren and Sanders are the top contenders. The Editorial Board commends the political advocacy of students, across the political spectrum, and recognizes the fact that political activism is essential in a world where we face an unprecedented number of crises — from the climate crisis we all face to the humanitarian one right on our southern border. However, it is imperative to acknowledge the limitations that our echochamber places on our perspective and keep a panoramic view throughout this election year. If not, we risk losing sight of the true dynamics operating within this country — we risk becoming blind to the character of our democratic systems.

Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 8; dissenting: 2; abstaining: 4)