Posted November 16, 2016
College students have been protesting across the country in the days following the election of Republican candidate Donald Trump as the next president of the United States.
Although the protests have not reached UW-River Falls, news of them has raised emotions for some students, while triggering memories for others, including alumni.
“It’s time to come together and move forward,” said UW-River Falls student James W. Vandenbergh. “Protesting is a good thing. People have a right to exercise their freedom of speech, but when it turns violent it crosses the line.”
Vandenbergh is a member the College Republicans. He was very active in helping his fellow students get to the polls on Nov. 8 and started Democracy Day, when he and others helped students register to vote.
The 2016 presidential election is not the first time in recent American history that controversial candidates have caused concern among university students.
“I and many other students were worried when Ronald Reagan was running for president,” said Jeff Holmquist, a former editor of the Student Voice who attended UW-River Falls from 1979-1983. He was editor for two years. He now resides in Colorado and is the senior editor for the U.S. Air Force Academy Association of Graduates.
Reagan, the Republican candidate, in 1980 ran against incumbent President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.
“Times were tough and pretty vitriolic in terms of conflict with the Soviet Union back then, but our fears turned out to be false,” Holmquist said in a telephone interview. Eventually, the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany came about and it turned out fine, he added.
“Reagan surprised me and many others. He was what the country and the world needed at that time. I was certain at the time that Reagan would be a disaster. That’s not how it played out,” said Holmquist.
According to Holmquist, over the years, both before he attended and after, the two major political groups on campus were the Young Republicans, who were very active and passionate at that time, and the Young Democrats, who were larger in number but less active. Now both of those student groups have limited involvement or others have replaced them.
“The majority of UWRF students have voted for the Democratic candidate in past years and were more active — even four years ago. Nowadays, I feel that the students are in tune to what’s going on in the country,” said UW-Milwaukee graduate student Michael Peterson, who works in the University Archives and Area Research Center at UWRF. Students on campus are concerned about certain issues that are important to them, he added.
Peterson has been working in the archives for the past couple years while pursuing a master’s degree in library information.
In the archives, political memorabilia from the university date back to 1896. Students have been active in many different political groups. For example, student political group pictures can be found in both old copies of the Student Voice and in the Meletean, the university yearbook that was published from 1912-1969.
“Over time the student senates wanted students to get involved during the Vietnam War era, Reagan and other wars,” said Peterson, who searched the collection for documents to be used in a display.
“It is a big deal (when) students are protesting and leaving class. That really sticks out in my mind,” Peterson said. He recalled that a number of students who had more Democratic views protested during the unsuccessful 2012 recall vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “We are in a different era.”
Earlier this month, one student at UWRF decorated their car with large signs calling for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to be jailed. While other students may be more modest in displaying their choice of presidential candidate, many students are more than willing to share their thoughts — if given the right platform.
Today social media are the main way students voice their opinion, but before the internet, newspapers were students’ main source of election information from their campus.
“Social media makes it easier to whip up dissent and emotions. It can escalate very quickly,” Holmquist said.
“I do think our media landscape has changed, which contributes to our general unrest,” Holmquist added in an email. “Now, we can immediately express our opinions for our friends and the greater community to see and react to. That’s part of the reason Mr. Trump got into so much trouble early in his campaign. Back in the day, we had the advantage of more time. If we wanted to express a public opinion, we could write a letter or a column. But it took some time. And we could better develop our thoughts and couldn’t react in a knee-jerk fashion. Often, we’d decide to take a chill-pill and wait to see how it all played out. That, it turns out, is often the best path forward. In the end, the protesters have every right to voice their frustrations. But they need to ask themselves, ‘Now what?’ What do they hope to accomplish as the country moves into 2017?”
The student-run Student Voice has served campus since 1916. But several underground newspapers also have appeared, like the Stifled Vice, which began to appear on campus during the 1960s when students felt their views were not being heard.
“The underlining theme in 1968 and 1980 was exercise your right to vote,” said Peterson.
According to old newspapers, signs, buttons and election memorabilia found in the archives, many students didn’t think the candidates were always the best, but they were encouraged to vote or they really don’t have a voice.
Despite the internet and new media platforms, many college students still don’t vote.
For more than 50 years, young adult voters between the ages of 18-29 have voted at rates lower than all other age groups in presidential elections, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wisconsin saw even lower millennial voter turnout in 2016 than in 2012.
“The state is no longer in the stratosphere of the highest turnouts in this country,” according to UW-Madison political science Professor Barry Burden, who recently was interviwed by Capital Times newspaper.
If students want change, they need to vote, Holmquist said.
“Looking back over my voting history, I have voted for many presidential candidates who have not won,” Holmquist said. “I still showed the proper respect for the office of president. The position deserves my respect and my support.” He encourages students to get out and vote if they really want to make a difference.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimates 23.7 million young voters aged 18-29 participated in the 2016 presidential election. That number represents close to 50 percent of U.S. citizens aged 18-29. National polls estimate that 13 million youth voted for Clinton and almost 9 million youth voted for Donald Trump. An additional 2 million young people voted for third party candidates
According to many national and local news media outlets, if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would have won the Democratic nomination, the election might have turned out differently.
“In my organic chemistry class we took a mock vote for president last semester. There were over 40 students. Sanders won by over 50 percent. Clinton was a close second, and Trump only had a few votes,” Vandenbergh said.
A similar situation developed in 1980, Holmquist recalled.
“And, like Bernie Sanders this year — who got a lot of support from young people — we had a third party candidate, John Anderson, to get behind in the 1980 election. He actually came and spoke at UWRF during the 1980 campaign. So it was a politically charged time as well, even though Reagan went on to win by a landslide,” said Holmquist.
Sanders was the front runner for college students. In the Wisconsin primary, he led Clinton 57 to 43 percentage points.
“I love Bernie Sanders,” said UWRF journalism major Matt Clark. Students would have liked to have seen Sanders get the nomination. They supported his ideas and goals, added Clark.
The Facebook page “College Students for Bernie Sanders” is still up and running. The site is a progressive grassroots movement aiming to mobilize college students in support of Sanders and all that he stands for.
Sanders, in response to Trump winning, tweeted on Nov. 10: “If Donald Trump takes people’s anger and turns it against Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans and women, we will be his worst nightmare.”
While many people are still reeling from this month’s presidential election results, other are looking toward the future.
“I may not agree, but we need to move forward and when we move forward we need to do so together. We can accomplish a lot more together than apart. Being open to possibility is a good thing,” said Holmquist.
“I’m very satisfied with the election results,” Vandenberg said. “I’m excited about Trump. He has a lot of energy and good intentions. Sanders was a good guy and I would like free tuition, but let’s be realistic, there is no way he could have got that done.”
“Four years is a long time from now,” Sanders recently told the Associated Press, referring to the possibility of running for president in 2020. He acknowledged that he faces re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2018, but added: “We’ll take one thing at a time, but I’m not ruling out anything.”
Clark, for one, has his doubts: “Bernie is going to be too old in 2020, and I wouldn’t vote for him, but I know that there will be others like him in the future. I am going to look forward and move on.”