The start of the election was hours away, and 20 young people gathered around a table in a small classroom, their eyes full of cynicism, exhaustion, fear.
Maybe even a little hope.
They are the future of the not-very-United States of America, and many of the students in my Cal State L.A. communications class were about to vote for president for the first time in their lives.
“Are any of you optimistic?” I asked.
Or is it all gloom and doom?
We talked, they wrote, and the answers to my questions came from here and there and everywhere.
Ignore the perspectives of these young folks at your own peril because not only will they be in charge one day, but the country is becoming more like them.
Of the 20 students, 19 are minorities — predominantly Latino. The lone white student is gay.
The Republican Party, in its current splintered form, might not exist much longer because of them. Nor do millennials line up neatly with the Democratic Party, which has its own cracks.
Despite the presidential candidates’ many claims to the contrary, the students don’t believe Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton have answers for the needs of middle-class and low-income people like themselves. And millennials, said Sebastian, “are fed up with the B.S.”
“Hopefully, someone will come out of the shadows” four years from now, said Selena. A candidate who won’t “feed [people] fear and desperation in the hopes that they fall in line with the desires of the corporate leaders.”
One student said he wants to leave the United States after living through this carnival.
“I’ve been on my own since I was 14,” said Alfredo. “I’ve never had a home physically … and I have trouble calling this place home now.”
He said he wasn’t going to vote.
“I’m looking at how bigotry became much more public and normal, and it makes me question why I want to make a difference here when I don’t feel welcome.”
Others were equally horrified but not quite as jaded.
“Aside from the fact that I think this election is complete garbage, I would like to remain optimistic,” wrote Cazandra, a Bernie Sanders supporter who settled for Clinton.
Put to a classroom vote, Sanders won. Except that his name isn’t on the real ballot.
Michelle Obama did pretty well, too, except that she isn’t on the ballot, either.
“What was that quote she said?” Selena asked. “ ‘When they go low, we go high.’ She is the embodiment of that quote. There’s something about her you just trust.”
When they talk about Clinton or Trump, “trust” is not the first word out of the mouths of these students.
They are too old to have held onto their innocence, too young to have let go of their idealism.
“So do I go for the woman who called black men predators?” asked Jene, who is African American. “Or Trump [despite] all the sexist, racist and pompous things he has said? I think I am with her — not because she is the ideal candidate, but because she is not Donald Trump.”
They live by social media, getting their news feeds through Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and yet they recognize that social media can perpetuate distortion and division. Trump himself sent out 282 offensive tweets, by a New York Times tally.
“Politics has always been played dirty,” wrote Sofia, and the mud flies faster on the wings of social media.
Maria’s take on Trump’s treatment of women: “He is always talking dirty and filthy, as if we were dogs.”
A student named Arely was terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Her parents, who worked for her to have a chance to do better than they, have no papers.
“If he deports them,” she said, “that terrifies me more than anything else.”
Whichever candidate prevails, a student named Jackson will lament the fact that so many Americans rabidly supported Trump, a candidate he finds so divisive.
“If anything, this election has just pitted people against one another,” said the unabashed Clinton supporter.
For Jackson, those divisions have been personal. He said he has been on his mother’s “naughty list” since coming out to her as gay during Christmas break in 2014.
“Last week,” Jackson wrote, he checked his mother’s Facebook page and saw a post she’d written “condemning Hillary Clinton, calling her a liar and a murderer while praising Trump for his ability to say what’s on his mind.”
“It is at this moment that I realize I can not love myself and love my mom at the same time. I’m not sad. I’m not bitter. I accept the decision and rise to the challenge of loving me. All of me, and the political candidate who supports me, regardless of who doesn’t.”
To Luis, maybe there’s a silver lining in Trump’s having reminded us that racism and sexism are still pervasive.
“He’s united our struggles,” Luis wrote. “Black, Latino, disabled, female, Muslim, overweight. Trump will continue to be the catalyst for change as he spews out his ridiculous opinions on social media. Thank you, Mr. Trump.”
As Daisy wrote, “Our society is witnessing the system blowing up right in front of our eyes. Political parties are crumbling down piece by piece.”
That’s true, and we don’t know what will follow. But as ossified institutions are forced to evolve, and answer to a more diverse electorate, we can dream, can’t we, that good things are possible?
Another student, Santiago, wasn’t predicting a Clinton win so much as hoping for one.
“I believe electing a woman president for the first time in our nation’s history will be monumental,” he wrote.
He had no illusions that if elected, Clinton would be able to bring the country together. But if she were to win, it would mean that one more barrier had been lifted, and to him, that’s something to be excited about.
Santiago ended his report with this:
“What a time to be alive.”