Looking Beyond the Election: An Anthropological Report

There is a troubling condition that is widespread in America: campaign burnout. We have been witness to much high-brow ado about sleazy low-brow stuff: e-mail servers, sexual groping, allegations of corruption, fraud, and theft--not to forget a plethora of racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that explain how the system is "rigged." These narratives may be well suited for The Jerry Springer Show but should they constitute the discourse of the 2016 election? The political climate is so overwhelmingly depressing that perhaps the only way to cope with it is to avoid the endless series of factually compromised political ads that either appear on our television screens or pop up in the digital universe of the Internet.

If we don't pay attention to this "deplorable" state of affairs, maybe it will go away.

Sadly, my friends, that is not likely to be the case. We can expect much more of it between now and an election day that promises to be a multi-ring circus of intimidating poll watchers, long lines at polling centers, vote challenges, and far-fetched claims of voter fraud and election "rigging." We may well have a candidate, Donald J Trump, who will not accept the likely results of the election and refuse to concede.

Such is the state of our society on the eve of the 2016 election. That more than 50 million Americans are likely vote for an ill-informed, thin-skinned, narcissistic, racist, sexual predator who will soon go on trial for racketeering (November) and child rape (December) is beyond comprehension. If we focus exclusively on the here and now, which is the penchant of the media, there is understandably much doom and gloom in the America.

Amid the doom and gloom, however, I see glimmers of light. As an anthropologist I can hardly ignore the "deplorable" state of contemporary American politics, or, for that matter, the depressing conditions of social life in the United States. Anthropologists are trained to listen to what people say about their lives, but we pay particular attention to what people do--especially if what they do contradicts what they say. We are also trained to tune into the ground pulse of social life, which enables us discover potentially important events and/or movements that are on the margins of our social attention.

One such movement, if activity at my university is indicative, appears to be an emerging groundswell of university student engagement. My university is neither an elite institution nor a center of student radicalism. It is a public university in Pennsylvania that attracts a diverse student body. Many of our students are the first members of their family to attend college. Many of them have to work one or two jobs to pay for their studies. Put another way, many of our students, who have a lot on their plates, must confront serious challenges each and every day.

You would expect them to be too busy or preoccupied to be socially or politically engaged. And yet, two weeks ago they enthusiastically supported our faculty strike for quality public education in Pennsylvania. At all the 14 state-owned universities, students not only voiced their support, but stood with us on the picket lines. They made and displayed banners:

"Students Stand with the Faculty."

"We Support Quality Education in Pennsylvania."

"The University is Not a Corporation."

"Teacher's Lives Matter."

Students drove by the picket lines and honked their support. Other students brought us water, juice, power bars and pizza. They organized a march and rally in support of the faculty and against the increasingly dehumanizing corporatization of public higher education.

Three days of overwhelming student support spurred the resolution of a contract impasse that had dragged on for more than a year and a half. The new contract ensures the continuation of quality public higher education in Pennsylvania.

Our students not only voiced their support, but demonstrated it as well. Such student engagement, of saying, "enough is enough" suggests a brighter future in which contemporary students, soon to be citizens of the world, are will and able to demonstrate their support for social justice.

Looking beyond the election, those students are an inspiration to us all.