I’ve been thinking a lot about young voters during this election cycle. As a high school teacher with many of my students turning 18, or already 18, I often talk politics these days with the youngest part of the electorate. What have I found? The short answer is this: most (though certainly not all) think Trump is crazy. But I haven’t found a single one of them who is excited about Hillary Clinton. None of my male students, none of my female students. The majority of them wanted Bernie.
While this is hardly surprising at a Vermont high school, my students’ opinions echo a broader trend: young voters — the so-called “Millennials” who helped sweep Barack Obama into office — are not excited about either major candidate. Trump is nuts, but Hillary is the old guard. She’s out of touch. A lot of them have “trust issues.”
As David Brooks points out in the New York Times this week, they’re not inspired.
“There is no uplift in this race,” writes Brooks. “That poetic, aspirational quality is entirely absent from what has become the Clinton campaign.” Clinton, says Brooks, not only fails to connect with voters, but fails to inspire them.
I get it: Hillary Clinton is about as inspiring as your high school principal. She’s a policy wonk. She’s not a “natural” politician, and admits as much herself. She’s more comfortable ticking off programs and agencies. Her speech is stilted, her interactions robotic. Ronald Reagan she is not. Barack Obama she is not. Her husband, the famously gregarious rope line-worker, she is also not.
And I understand that all voters — not just the young, but the young in particular — look to our leaders for inspiration. We want to feel hopeful about our lives. We want to believe that our country will improve. We want to feel part of something — a movement, a revolution, a march toward progress. Something. All of us want to look at the candidate on the screen and get that warm feeling inside and say to ourselves, “That’s who we need.” We want to pull the level for a woman who excites us, not for the lesser of two evils.
I’m a “young” voter too. In fact, I’m a Millennial — albeit an old one. The first time I could have voted, I didn’t. It was November of 2004 and I’d just graduated from college and was living in Washington, D.C. “What are you doing?” my African American coworker asked me when I told her I didn’t vote. “You don’t want Bush to win, do you?” What could I say? I’d watched the debates. John Kerry didn’t move me. He didn’t connect. George Bush won the election.
Four years later, I stood with tears in my eyes beneath the Washington Monument with more than a million of my countrymen watching as our first black president was sworn to office. That morning I’d biked the ten miles into the city, and all the bridges over the Potomac River — Key Bridge, Chain Bridge — were closed to cars, but full of pedestrians. They’d come from across America to make the last mile of their journey, this journey that our country had made together since its founding, on foot. Months before, my students celebrated the outcome down at the White House, chanting at George Bush inside: “Yes we did! Yes we did!” Never before or since have I felt so distinctly like I was part of something.
I was lucky. I had my guy. At 26 years old I got to pull the lever for a once-a-generation politician: not only our first black president, but a gifted orator, a public-minded man of immense dignity whose entire life embodied the American Dream. I got my inspiring candidate.
Now I’m 34 and I no longer require politicians be inspiring. I want them to get the job done. Give me a worker bee. Give me a policy wonk. I want someone competent, someone qualified. I look for stability. I’m not an ideologue. I’m not even a Democrat. I’ll cross the aisle for someone reasonable, capable. If inspiration’s not part of the package, fine. I like some who can lift our spirits, but I like someone who can govern a whole lot more.
It’s not that I’ve been disillusioned with Mr. Obama. Instead it’s that I know I’ve been spoiled. You don’t get someone truly inspiring and capable and visionary and practical (sorry, I wasn’t “feeling the Bern”) like Barack Obama — every four years. You don’t even get one every twenty. My parents’ generation had one Kennedy, and almost had a second one. I had Obama. You don’t get a chance to vote for a historic candidate every election.
Except that we do.
I liked Hillary a lot from the get-go precisely because she wasn’t inspiring. But over the past six months of watching what she’s had to go through, and watching the incredible double standards and the incredible criticism she’s gotten that no man would ever face, I’ve come to one conclusion: she’s incredibly inspiring.
The Onion summed it up well in an article called “Female Presidential Candidate Who Was United States Senator, Secretary Of State Told To Be More Inspiring.“ Wait a second, the article says. Isn’t Hillary Clinton’s life story — a story about breaking every conceivable glass ceiling — professor, lawyer, senator, Secretary of State — pretty darn inspiring? The woman was the first female senator from New York. What does it say about us that we’re not inspired by that?
Up until a few months ago, I wasn’t either. Then I started watching her closely.
You know what my favorite Hillary Clinton moment has been so far? That ludicrous “Commander in Chief” forum on TV a few weeks ago. The idea was: Hillary and Trump each come out on stage, separately, to be interviewed by the loathsome Matt Lauer and to take questions from voters on national security. Sounds fair, right? Except it wasn’t. In fact, that forum was the epitome of everything the first female candidate has had to fight through. Let’s take a closer look. First of all, the audience was small and packed with military vets, most of them white males — hardly surprising given that the event was taking place on an aircraft carrier. Not exactly Democratic territory!
But more importantly: definitely not woman territory. That evening was the glass ceiling: the mostly-male audience, the aircraft carrier, the military-industrial trappings. And of course the fact that the male host, Matt Lauer, basically treated Clinton like she was some 24 year-old self-help guru hawking a new all-hemp weight loss diet on The Today Show. “Secretary Clinton,” he’d say in a soothing, patronizing voice, “we really have to move on.”
But you know what was great? Hillary gave it back to him! From the moment she walked out, she had a look on her face that could’ve cut steel. A look that said, “I know you’ve got all lawn signs — those of you who own lawns — saying I should be in prison. But I’m Hillary Rodham Clinton and I was Secretary of State and don’t you talk down to me.” She knew that Lauer is a daytime TV lightweight. Not only did she bull through his interruptions, but — this was my favorite part — whenever an audience member asked a question, she pulled the same alpha-dog power move that she used on Obama back in 2008: she stood up to answer. It’s a way of asserting power because it makes the person sitting look small. And I swear she purposely stood right in front of Lauer, blocking him from the cameras and making him feel like a little kid while the adults are talking. I loved it.
What struck me most about this night was the optics: here was a woman in a man’s world. The first to do this, the first to get this far, the first woman to have to make her case to the whole country on aircraft carriers. It reminded me a lot of Barack Obama back in 2008. You’d see him — a black man going into those all-white diners in Ohio, in Iowa, and you’d think to yourself: that can’t be easy. In those places, you’re The Other. It goes beyond political party for him and for Clinton, of course. It’s about race, it’s about gender. Clinton was, in that moment, a woman in a place where women don’t usually go. And while she was criticized for not smiling once during the evening, she didn’t take one bit of crap from any of them either.
That, to me, is inspiring.
Now I realize that everyone views all of this differently, and I’m not seeking to influence anyone into voting for Clinton. Goodness knows everyone’s mind is probably made up already. And David Brooks does have a point: Hillary Clinton is no Barack Obama. Her vision, her oratory — is not inspiring. But now I’m thinking about that young Millennial voter — me twelve years ago — who loathes Trump, but still might not vote because he does not feel either candidate connects with him. To that young man, I say this: grow up and take a look at the big picture. History is going to look back on this election as a much bigger moment than most of us can even realize. Hillary Clinton is a historic candidate. Say that she’s the wrong candidate, that she’s not trustworthy, that she’s not right for the job, or that her vision is not inspiring — that’s fine. Heck, say that you’re not voting for anyone. But don’t say that you’re not voting for her because Hillary Clinton isn’t inspiring enough. Because when you really step back and look at it, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.