Over the last three weeks, I have spent a significant amount of time traveling the country. I have been visiting early caucus and primary states, while studying the democratic engagement process in the 2016 election, through a program at Wake Forest University, called Wake the Vote. The Wake the Vote cohort is made up of 23 students at Wake Forest, from freshman to senior, ranging the ideological spectrum, all with the goal of increasing democratic engagement among millennial voters. Every student in the cohort is randomly assigned to work for a candidate, with no regard for their personal ideological preference. In Iowa, I was assigned to work for Ted Cruz; in New Hampshire, I worked with Hillary Clinton; and this past weekend, in South Carolina, I volunteered for Marco Rubio.
Those who know me well (or even do not know me at all) know that I am a fervent liberal, progressive, socialist, etc. Whatever term you have for left-leaning individuals, that's probably me. I have embraced many liberal pejoratives that many others have shied away from. I am proud to be serving as the President of the Wake Forest University College Democrats and Political Director of the College Democrats of North Carolina. But it may come as a shock to people that the experiences I have had working with, and talking to, conservatives and Republicans on these trips have been much more meaningful than the interactions I have had with liberals and Democrats.
Before you ask, no, I am not considering voting Republican in 2016, and in fact, I am probably more liberal than I have been in my life. Side note: in Iowa, after posting a picture on Facebook and Instagram of me at Ted Cruz headquarters in Iowa holding a "Choose Cruz" sign with the caption, "I'm excited to be GOTVing [getting out the vote] for @sentedcruz today! Fun to be at the Iowa Caucuses with #wakethevote. True Courageous Conservatism.", I was faced with a firestorm of messages from people who were concerned that I had gone over to the "dark side" and joined the enemy, and even faced criticism from those who I have worked with on the College Democrats of North Carolina Board. Despite my strong desires to stick with my Democratic roots, I have learned a lot from these experiences, which should help me in both my current leadership roles, and in any future roles.
When entering both the Cruz campaign and the Rubio campaign, I put on a Republican persona. I realized quickly, in order to get the most of this experience, I had to pretend to be one of them. As someone who enjoys a bit of acting, I embraced the challenge, as a piece of method acting. Done were the stories of my experiences with the College Democrats, and beginning were faux anecdotes about the College Republicans and working for principled conservative candidates in North Carolina. This was especially interesting since I was working with some of my fellow College Democrats. Only once was my cover close to blown [while I was at Rubio headquarters in South Carolina], after I remarked about "how much stronger the College Republicans chapter was at Wake Forest [than the College Democrats], and how much of a dope the president of the Wake Forest College Democrats is." After that remark, one of my friends commented about how I was like that president who I was criticizing, before catching herself, realizing what I was doing.
Reflecting on what I have learned across all three campaigns (but focusing on the two Republican ones), I have learned how similar both parties' grassroots supporters are. When I was at Rubio headquarters, the median age couldn't have been much over 25; it was not the affluent whitewashed room that some Democrats may have expected (in fact, the diversity in the Rubio campaign office may have rivaled the diversity in one of our College Democrats meetings at Wake Forest); and the people were shockingly friendly. Most of the conservatives I talked to did not necessarily have misguided opinions, but they just held different priorities and different worldviews than I personally hold. Personally, as a progressive I hold a high degree of trust in institutions such as the government and schools as vehicles for social mobility, many conservatives are likely to credit churches (especially apparent when working in the Cruz headquarters) and businesses (especially apparent when working in the Rubio office) as the best mechanisms for economic mobility. Neither view is necessarily correct or incorrect, but based on a certain perception of the world, you are likely to lean in one way or the other.
When I talk to some of my counterparts who are College Democrats presidents, or leaders, at other universities, it frustrates me when I hear how adversarial their relationships are with their universities' College Republican chapters. My belief is that these feelings are likely reciprocated. I feel fortunate that at Wake Forest, the College Republicans and College Democrats have a peaceful, if not friendly, relationship. This bifurcation is unhealthy for the future of our American democracy. Today, you can look at the College Republican chapters and College Democrats chapters as the future voices of the parties, and people should be concerned that many of these leaders choose to ostracize all those who do not agree with their points of view. Looking forward, my goal is to not place everyone who disagrees with me in a one size fits all box. Now, more than ever, I believe that having diverse points of view at the table is incredibly important.
These trips have been challenges, but they have prepared me well for the future. I cannot wait to see what the future has in store, but I know I am ready to face these challenges head on. I am ready to fight for progressive principles in 2016, but I also realize that sometimes I need to slow down and listen to what conservatives have to say. When you need a fresh look at something, take a look at the other side; you never know how much you may learn. Stay tuned.
Sebastian Ivory is a junior Politics and International Affairs and Sociology double-major at Wake Forest University, who is President of the Wake Forest University College Democrats and a member of the #WaketheVote democratic engagement cohort.