I imagine it like this. Our wasted votes are falling like confetti, like thousands of Hogwarts acceptance letters. Harry Potter still hasn’t caught one yet. All the Americans are standing still with stupid looks on their faces. And Donald Trump is the next president.
Politics are dead. I know. I watch the news and Hillary Clinton is reading off her internal teleprompter with some unspoken emotion and it’s supposed to inspire me, except all I feel is this candy-sweet stickiness glued to my teeth. I check Twitter and retweet a slew of Donald Trump memes while feeling vaguely hollow inside. Every morning I re-pin my Bernie Sanders button to my backpack because it keeps slipping off. I sit and listen to the Gary-Johnson-crowd boast about how they’re really something for throwing their vote down the kitchen sink disposal, for chopping our country up into little bite-size pieces. And then I sigh and pretend the non-voters don’t exist. They think they’re doing all of humanity a service by not voting. I don’t know how to tell them that the November election isn’t the Vietnam War.
It wouldn’t matter anyway, though, because they’d just sit there with ballots stuffed in their ears.
This descent into dystopia is especially discouraging for somebody whose favorite movie was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as child. Frank Capra’s masterpiece stars Jimmy Stewart ‘32 as idealistic senator Jefferson Smith. He loves America, gets weepy-eyed over the Lincoln Memorial, wears stars and stripes boxers, all that stuff. After stumbling upon a graft scheme during his first stint in Washington, he’s blamed by the political machine behind it all. They crucify his reputation in front of the entire country. The film culminates in a wonderful filibuster scene where Smith holds the floor for twenty-four hours in order to prove his innocence. He preaches and prays and panders until his voice goes hoarse for the sake of American politics—it’s beautiful and impassioned. It shook me as a kid and it shakes me now.
Maybe that’s why I re-pin my Bernie Sanders button to my backpack every morning—I found a Jefferson Smith in the real world and I’m clinging to him.
A couple weeks ago, I was told that the idealism of Bernie Sanders had no place in Washington. I was watching the first debate in my friend’s room, and I said something along the lines of that should be Bernie up there. My friend’s roommate immediately launched into a logical deconstruction of why Bernie wouldn’t have been any better, why which wasn’t a new situation for me. I’m from the South. I’m used to being told I’m wrong about politics. The problem began, however, when he told me Bernie was too idealistic to be president.
I realized, after being told repeatedly to stand down, that watching Mr. Smith now is like Wall-E watching Hello, Dolly! on a disintegrating Earth. The movie is obsolete. Outdated. Oldfangled—and as a Bernie supporter, this is what terrifies me. We don’t have the privilege of electing Jefferson Smiths into office. We just have the privilege of sitting and watching our country burn in the hands of cookie-cutter candidates.
This isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans, though. This is about the vacancy of human decency and hope in D.C. This is about the void of love thy neighbor in a profession built around people. Politics have become a synonym for pessimism, and maybe that’s why Bernie’s political revolution was so revolutionary. Whether or not you agree with his liberal policies, he mobilized millions of young hopefuls. He presented ideals as something we can have again, ideals that reach down through the classes, clasp hands with the poor, and pick them up off their feet. He believed every American deserved the right to higher education. He still feels as deeply for fellow human beings as he did when he marched with Reverend King, and when he was arrested for protesting segregation, and when he built his political career from the ground up with his own two hands.
I’m afraid he’s of a dying breed.
Jefferson Smith says that ideals aren’t lost, though. He says we’ve just got to see them again, and that’s what I’m trying to do every time I pin that button on my backpack. I’m trying to dig beneath the media and the slander and the hollowed-out citizens. I’m choosing to turn my face from Washington and seek elsewhere because I care less about political efficiency and more about genuine idealism. I wouldn’t care if Bernie only got halfway through one of his projects in Washington—I’d simply care that he had the idea in the first place. I care that he has enough human decency to recognize that the government shouldn’t have to be an emotionless structure of logic and efficiency. The government should be a moral system, and if we have a difference in opinions here, I pity you. I will always pity the people that choose logic over love.
And it’s the young people that are turning into political robots, the young people at places like Princeton. If you ask me, I’m tired of decently intelligent millennials who feel like they have a personal duty to cynicism—I should know, because for an extended period of time I was one. There’s this sense of entitlement that just because you’re educated you get to be bitter about the state of humanity. So to all of the smart kids who think they’re infinitely wiser just because they’ve read Nietzsche and maybe half of a Wall Street Journal article—I’ve seen your type before. You’re nothing new. You’re just a bunch of Holden Caulfields, except that you don’t have the time to be a bunch of Holden Caulfields. We need to grow up and get moving. This election could very well set the stage for the next era of American politics, and do we really want to be responsible for that? The imminent collapse of our country’s integrity? For God’s sake, we go to Princeton. Let’s put our privilege to good use for once.
Bernie Sanders doesn’t have to be the last of his kind.
It might be a bit of a lost cause to plead for politicians to start loving one another. I get that. There are still going to be glassy-eyed zombies that eat everything the candidates shovel into their mouths. And trust me, people are still going to set fire to their vote; people are still going to think with childish certainty that Donald Trump is a valid candidate. All these things will persist once I’ve said my share. But like Jefferson Smith said: “Either I’m dead right, or I’m crazy.”
So maybe somebody will listen. Somebody. I don’t care who. I just don’t ever want to hear another young person express that kind of pessimism when it comes to the running of our country. Because you know what? We’re next. All of us. The kids at Princeton, the kids up the road, the kids back home. We inherit this great big beautiful mess.
So, to the boy who told me idealism had no place in politics:
“I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.”