On November 8, 2016, Alesha Lewis ’21 watched dejectedly as results from the presidential election poured in from all over the country. Her candidate didn’t win, but that wasn’t the most excruciating part. For Lewis, the exasperation was in her inability to have a role in a decision that will shape the future of her generation.

“It was frustrating I couldn’t vote because I didn’t turn 18 until two months after the election,” Lewis says. “I think that frustration was one of the reasons I became more involved in politics in college.”

Alesha Lewis '21 Alesha Lewis '21Lewis enrolled in Southwestern as a double major in political science and psychology with plans of pursuing a Ph.D. and becoming a professor at a liberal-arts college. She quickly joined the SU Votes organization, a group that encourages political education and participation through different events on campus, including debate watch parties and guest speakers.

Lewis joins a number of Southwestern students looking to make their voices heard for the first time in a presidential election. They’ll do so under what feels like unprecedented circumstances. 

The day-to-day impact of a national election

To walk the quiet streets surrounding the Southwestern campus, it would be hard to differentiate this moment from any other election. Political signs stand in perfectly manicured lawns in beautiful autumn weather. Some show support for President Trump, others for former Vice President Joe Biden, and some even humorously (or, perhaps, cynically) cry out for any functioning adult. 

Once at Southwestern, hints of the moment begin to emerge as a normally bustling campus sits eerily quiet, with students following social-distancing measures and wearing masks to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. From there, a student need only glance at their phone or laptop to see the West Coast on fire in what is becoming an annual event, civil unrest in the streets, hurricane relief efforts in the South, and a COVID-19 death toll at 212,000 and climbing. 

In short, first-time voters are being thrown into the deep end, being baptized by fire, and can be described by whatever other phrases one might use to depict inexperienced people in the middle of a mess. 

A system of checks and balances normally keeps the country from veering too far in any direction. Most elections can steer the country a few degrees one way or another. In the short term, the difference for many can seem imperceptible even as it swings wildly for those on the margins. Southwestern’s student body reflects a diverse range of political stances, and for many, this year represents the first opportunity to put their hands on the wheel and steer a little.

“For me, I don’t see [my life] being hugely impacted [if Biden or Trump wins],” Zane Warren ’21, vice president of the Southwestern College Republicans and financial economics major, says. “Obama was president, and I had things going on in my life and was fine. Then Trump was president, and I had things going on in my life and was fine. If Biden wins, I’m going to move on. I’m not going to go protest in the streets and stuff like that. If Trump wins, I suspect there will be unrest and upheaval because people think their life is going to come to an end,” Warren adds. “And that’s a difference between Democrats and Republicans: Republicans believe the government shouldn’t totally change your life no matter who the president is.” 

When asked about youth turnout being low historically, Lewis acknowledges that it’s hard for college students to see the impact of the government on their daily lives. “When a college student thinks about their life, they think about friends and family and how things go on a day-to-day basis,” Lewis says. “If the government doesn’t affect them daily, it doesn’t always matter to them.”

In the long term, however, those subtle changes make drastic transformations over the course of decades. “Over time, there are things that might be implemented where things can never go back to how they were—changes in a culture that don’t go back to how they were before,” Warren explains. 

“A landmark election”

And then there are some elections, like those of Abraham Lincoln leading into the Civil War Erica Burley '22 Erica Burley '22 or Franklin D. Roosevelt in the midst of The Great Depression, in which everything seems to come to a head in what becomes a transformational moment for the country. “I think this is going to be a landmark election for our country,” says Erica Burley ’22, a Mosaic ambassador and liaison for SU Votes, “especially with the ongoing pandemic and the racial reawakening right now. All of that is at stake for me, depending on who gets elected.” 

For some, the moment of urgency comes from the consequences of ignoring a nonpolitical issue, climate change, due to partisan politics. In 2019, the United Nations warned we had roughly a decade to begin drastically reducing carbon emissions or face even more painful decisions down the road. Whatever the cost, it will be a bill that comes due for the current generation of students at Southwestern. “My interest in the environment has been around longer than [my interest in] politics,” says Antonio Esparza ’22, an environmental studies and political science double major. “It was the Paris Climate Accords that made me realize the impact politics had in the world and the things I’m interested in. For me, this election is about voting out someone who doesn’t acknowledge climate change and voting in someone who will make it a priority.” 

Antonio Esparza '23 Antonio Esparza '23Esparza adds, “As a political science student, I recognize the importance of every election. But especially this year, I think there are a lot of issues that directly impact people in ways we haven’t seen in the past.” 

For some, the election’s importance is about the perceived gutting of institutions that have historically served as guardrails preventing the nation from veering one way or another too quickly. “There are so many things on the ballot, but I’d say the integrity of our institutions is really weighing on my mind,” Josh Tenorio ’24 shares, “especially with the death of [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] and the idea of a president without a mandate, who’s been impeached, turning the court into a 7–2 conservative majority. With everything that has happened over the past three years, it feels like a lot of our democratic institutions are at stake with this election.” 

Competing visions of the U.S.

In recent weeks, President Trump has floated statements questioning the very integrity of our elections, toyed with the notion of the Supreme Court deciding the election, and declined to promise a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. In the months leading up to the election, his administration had even taken steps to slow the U.S. Postal Service, which handles mail-in ballots. 

“I think it’s really concerning. If you’d asked me three years ago, I would’ve said it’s just noise,” Esparza comments. “But I think there’s been a kind of rallying around him at the federal level that has caused an erosion in our institutions and norms—specifically, the erosion between the apolitical justice department and the political executive branch. And the U.S. Postal Service is literally in our Constitution. This shouldn’t be an issue in politics.”

Across the board, there seem to be different versions of America that are finding it more difficult to coexist, and people are increasingly eyeing this election as a means to solidify their own views as the dominant narrative. The SU Votes organization works to bridge some of that divide by providing information on candidates and issues so college students can make informed decisions. 

“It’s just about educating students on the candidates: who’s running, what their political beliefs are, where they stand on certain issues, and also … the issues in general,” Lewis said. “I want to give arguments for and against issues like gun control and immigration reform so people can make informed decisions when they go to the polls.” 

That education is invaluable as first-time voters head to the polls in what is being described as a landmark election. 

“A lot of things are at stake. I’m not a single-issue voter, personally,” says Steven Brown ’24, president of the Southwestern College Republicans. “I think our country is going morally bankrupt, and I’d like to see more of the conservative values that have worked for as long as we’ve been around.” 

They’re values that have worked for some but left others lacking, according to Burley, who says our nation’s troubled past is what inspires her to try to shape its future. “I think it was learning about history and things like racial injustice and lack of equality between the genders that got me into politics,” Burley says. “These are problems we’ve experienced in our country for hundreds of years, and people are like, ‘It’s 2020; things are getting better.’ But obviously, as we can see, that may not necessarily be the case.” 

By contrast, Warren laments narratives that paint America too negatively, pointing to the New York Times 1619 Project, which catalogs some of the histories of slavery in our country. “I think there is some liberal indoctrination, and that’s just another thing to get people to hate America,” Warren opines. “So the Trump administration started the 1776 Project to put in schools and teach the history of America in a way that’s not so damning to it, calling us all bad and all racist.” 

Our country has achieved great things, and it has committed unspeakable cruelty, with the echoes of both still reverberating today. 

Still other Southwestern students would argue that these should not be competing visions of America: our country has achieved great things, and it has committed unspeakable cruelty, with the echoes of both still reverberating today. 

A generation like no other

Students from all over the political spectrum can agree that at least part of the division comes from the advent of social media. “I think people are overstimulated. I think they don’t know where to go or what to vote on or what candidate to vote on because there’s just too much information out there,” Brown says. “With the birth of social media, this is a generation like never before. We have so much contact with each other, it almost divides us more than it brings us together. When you have this person saying this guy is bad and another saying he’s not, it’s almost sensory overload. I think it’s destroying us as people, and I think that’s why people don’t vote as much.” 

Brown is correct in saying this is a generation like never before. This is the first generation raised entirely during the era of social media. It has had more access to information (and misinformation) than any other, and it is more integrated than any other generation. 

“When I’m standing in line to vote, it’s definitely going to feel like I’m part of a historic moment,” Tenorio says. “I wish I could frame the ballot and frame it as a piece of history—[evidence] that, despite all that’s going on, our democratic process continued, that people still showed up. I’m really proud to cast a ballot this year.” 

“I’m excited to vote and also a little nervous over what’s going to happen,” Lewis agrees. “Since 2016, there are more people like me who have become civically engaged, and voting rates have gone up, so hopefully that stays true to our current election.” 

Four years after Lewis spent election night frustrated, the future remains as much a question mark as ever. This year, however, she and other Southwestern voters will finally have a say in it.