People my age (I graduated with the Class of ’68, so do the grim math!) learned an important lesson from presidential primary that took place a few weeks ago in New Hampshire, the state in which I live. What we learned was this: Don’t lecture college-age kids about politics, especially ones from excellent institutions. Even more especially, don’t lecture female students from said places. Respected feminist icons like Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem learned that message the hard way, receiving rejection and outrage from the young, highly educated women from whom they had expected gratitude for the sacrifices they and others had made before them. The results of the primary were a sign that maybe we, the older generation, shouldn’t assume how you, the younger one, should think.
Albright and Steinem meant well. Given their immensely impressive careers and contributions to both feminist causes and American society as a whole, how could they not have? However, they made an assumption about intelligent young people – and intelligent young women in particular – that they probably should not have. They were not alone. I made the same assumption, as did my wife, a member of the first four-year class of women to graduate from the College in 1975. We assumed that by virtue of our experience, we knew better than you. Women like Albright, Steinem and my wife felt that young, educated women no longer understood how difficult it was – and continues to be – to achieve equal status, respect and opportunity for advancement in almost every aspect of American society.
Hillary Clinton’s thrashing by Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary proved such assumptions to be shockingly wrong to all of us sage and experienced observers, male and female alike. So maybe we should start all over. Let’s say we’re all even on the Clinton vs. Sanders issue. Sanders, who is older than I am, is clearly more popular with college students (especially women) than Clinton, who is exactly my age. Yes, I support Clinton, but I have respected Sanders for most of my adult life. I still do. Sanders is inspirational and speaks directly – and disparagingly – about Wall Street fat cats and economic inequality. Clinton speaks in more measured terms and tones, but she knows how to win the war by winning the small battles first – she’s had to deal with hostile partisan forces for half a lifetime. Some of us wish she’d take off the gloves (as she has before) and start whaling – not against Sanders, but her Republican opponents! But although I may believe that Sanders’s ideas are idealistically wonderful yet completely unrealizable and that he has less than a snowball’s chance of winning the election than said snowball has of surviving on a warm afternoon on Greylock Quad in late May, I can’t tell YOU that that’s the incontrovertible truth and expect you to just accept it.
And I know why: because I was YOU many years ago, probably before some of your parents were even born (ouch!). The issues in 1968 – instead of Wall Street greed, economic inequality, climate-change denial and the influence of government insiders – were the war in Vietnam and civil rights (the latter is still very much with us today). Eugene McCarthy was OUR Bernie Sanders, and we desperately wanted him to win the 1968 Democratic nomination. Amazingly, he took the most delegates in the New Hampshire primary and was on his way; he would end the awful war. But “Clean Gene” didn’t win the nomination. The established party candidate, Hubert Humphrey, did. Like many college seniors that year, I was heartbroken and chose not to vote for anyone in the election. What difference was there between the Republican and the Democratic candidate? None, I concluded.
I was wrong. The difference was enormous. Humphrey was trounced and Richard Nixon was elected, ushering in one of the darkest, most shameful eras in modern American history. I was wrong again four years later, when I backed a wildly inspirational anti-war candidate named George McGovern. This time, we won the nomination, but lost the electoral vote by 520-17, the greatest landslide victory – or humiliating defeat, depending on your point of view – in American history. We had Nixon once again, and the legacy of Southeast Asia and Watergate to follow.
My personal opinion is that a Sanders vs. “Republican Candidate” election would surpass the 1972 result. It would be 535 to 3 (Bernie would win his home state of Vermont but nothing else). I keep a large index card taped over my desk where I work and write that reads, “NOT 535-3!” But if Sanders does not win the nomination of his party, please do not retreat into a despondency that removes you from caring. Whatever your persuasion, whichever your party, whomever you favor, don’t relinquish your privilege and your obligation to participate in our electoral process. As many of you know, there are some horrific possibilities awaiting us out there if you do.
Daniel Sullivan ’68 was an English major. He lives in Bennington, N.H.