If you want to hear firebrand political ideas, what better place to start than at the local college? As this year’s election season kicks into gear, the students of Willamette University have thrown themselves into the national political conversation. There is a diversity of political opinion at the school that makes itself known in nearly every political conversation. Salem Weekly sat down with students to hear more about their political thoughts and engagement.
The majority of students appear to support Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, while supporters of former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton number slightly fewer but are just as vocal. While the reasons students support each candidate are diverse, many students’ opinions reflect broader conversations being had around the Clinton and Sanders campaigns.
For Sanders supporters, one of the main issues students consistently raised was a wariness of establishment politics. To Sam Hilburn, class of 2016, Clinton represents a deepening of existing problems seen in the status quo, particularly income inequality.
Senior Shamir Cervantes, the recently-resigned student body president, elaborates on the belief that Sander is more likely to listen to outsider perspectives, pointing to issues like foreign policy. Although Cervantes cannot vote due to his status as a non-citizen legal resident, he articulates an ardent support of Senator Sanders. When asked why he believes Sanders espouses a better position on foreign policy than the experienced Sec. Clinton, Cervantes excitedly brings up the example of Israel. He explains that Sanders is able to acknowledge the importance of supporting Israel’s right to exist while also condemning the aggressive tactics the Israeli state uses against Palestinians. He is troubled by the fact that candidates like Clinton tend to lack nuance in their views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While Sanders supporters nearly all list income inequality as their primary concern, Clinton supporters tend to point to foreign policy as their biggest concern this election cycle. Sophomore Jessica Weiss says that foreign relations are her biggest concern this election. She believes Clinton can help the United States become a positive influence in the world. She points out that foreign policy is important to all Americans because it can influence “little things,” such as the oil market, that impact Americans’ daily lives.
Weiss also highlights Clinton’s pragmatism, noting that while ideals like those of Sen. Sanders are valuable, for the average American daily life is about “getting from point A to point B,” not speculating about how to create a perfect world. She thinks Clinton is the right candidate to help Americans accomplish their goals quickly. This sentiment is echoed by Luther Caulkins, ‘16, who caucused for Clinton in his home state of Washington. He says although supporting Clinton was “not a vote out of lots of enthusiasm,” he believes that Clinton will be able to most effectively protect measures like the Affordable Care Act from potential dismantlement by a Republican legislature.
Conspicuously absent from many political conversations are the voices of the university’s conservative population. Because WU’s student body is known for its progressive-liberal bent, conservative and right-leaning students often express frustration with the backlash they feel against their opinions, and many prefer not to voice conservative views publicly at all.
One student, who agreed to speak to Salem Weekly under condition of anonymity, is a staunch Republican who describes himself as “appalled” by candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, but a long-time fan of Governor John Kasich. This student points to Kasich’s success in economic revival in Ohio. On this, the student says, “Kasich showed the entire US that cutting taxes and a little bit of reform goes a long way for economic revival. This doesn’t mean that other plans aren’t as good; Bernie has a good plan, but requires a lot of tax increases.”
Jarrett Oseran, ‘17, is another conservative who is disgruntled with the state of the Republican party. He says that he plans to vote “for whoever has the best chance of beating Trump,” but says he also supports Gov. Kasich. Oseran explains that he believes that candidates like Trump, Cruz, and others are not “real” Republicans: the emphasis of the GOP used to be on protecting the Constitution and limiting government oversight, and sees many of the GOP candidates as advocating instead for a bigger government that attacks civil liberties. His support of Kasich, he says, stems from the fact that Kasich acknowledges the basic humanity of LGBT, immigrant, and other marginalized communities in the United States.
Other conservatives have chosen to jump ship from their party entirely. Senior and self-identified conservative Nate Balk expresses disappointment in the GOP’s candidates and policy: “If I had to vote for someone tomorrow, it would be Hillary Clinton. As someone who considers himself to be a conservative, I am embarrassed by the national GOP pool and ashamed that certain figures are representing our party.”
One thing upon which almost all students seem to agree is the importance of voting and democratic engagement. All students interviewed expressed excitement at the prospect of voting. As one student put it, “I make sure I vote in every election. It’s an absolute blessing to have a government that gives us the privilege to do so.”
So, while the politics of Willamette University students may not always see eye to eye, one thing is certain: students hope to make an impact on their world, and many plan to start at the voting booth.