By Ashley J. Blazina '09
Walking onto campus on April 22, 2008, visitors to Knox were bombarded with a series of politically-charged banners, vibrant chalk drawings, and silent student protestors dressed in penitentiary orange. All were in response to former Attorney General John Ashcroft's visit to campus. Other national political personalities, including such powerhouses as former President Bill Clinton, Chinese Ambassador His Excellency Zhou Wenzhong, and Senator Barack Obama, have also visited Knox's campus in the last three years, prompting varying student reactions.
While seeing these famed figures on the Knox campus is a novel experience, many students find that the reactions and conversations that follow are more important than the visits themselves. "The [visitors and speakers] give the most basic 45-minute schpeal, nothing controversial that hasn't been talked about before," says Rachael Goodman-Williams '09, political science and gender and women's studies double major and president of Students Against Sexism in Society (SASS). "It's the students' reactions that will make us think and possibly change our minds."
As the 2008 presidential election quickly approaches, these conversations, no matter what form they come in, have become increasingly important. "This election is one of the most wide open we have had in years," says Robert W. Murphy Professor of Political Science Robert Seibert '63. "I think it's very important who wins. This election calls for thoughtful, serious electorates. Students are among the group of citizens that are the most attentive."
And Knox's student groups are working to keep the campus informed and active. Several clubs have created forums to encourage further discussion on election issues. SASS put together an on- campus showing of the 2004 film Iron-Jawed Angels, which is about the American Women's Suffrage movement in the early 20th century, a week before Super Tuesday.
"I also printed out pamphlets on all of the candidates' stances on women's rights," Goodman-Williams remarked. The main aim of this event was to show other students that their right to vote is a privilege.
The Knox Republicans and Knox Democrats have also worked to encourage student participation in the election. During the Illinois primary in February, the Knox Democrats provided free shuttles to and from the polling locations in Galesburg, while the Knox Republicans helped the local Knox County party at polling stations.
And while the majority of Knox students identify themselves as Democrats, the Knox Republicans are a small but active group. "I can't help but relate the Knox atmosphere to the famous scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [where Jimmy Stewart passionately asks the other senators where democracy has gone]," says political science major Kelly Walsh '10. "The Republicans and Conservatives are so out numbered that people joke that it's a lost cause at Knox."
Despite their small numbers, Walsh remains optimistic: "The lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for!"
Although the 2008 election's heightened media coverage and seemingly never-ending primary season provided new challenges to the electoral process, this year's presidential race shares several similarities with those of years past. In talking with Knox students, several compared this year to the tumultuous election of 1968.
"I feel as though it has come around full circle from 1968. Students were quite active then due to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the women's liberation movement," says Alex Enyart '08, active member of Student Senate, as well as past president of Knox Democrats. "We are fighting for similar causes: civil rights, illegal imperialist wars, corrupt politicians in bed with corrupt corporations, and environmental degradation. The times may change but critical issues such as these still remain in America and the world."
While the standout issues in this election may sound familiar, the lengths to which students are able to participate in the election have grown by leaps and bounds. This year's college voters are among the first generation to have lived most of their life connected to computers and the internet. From the World Wide Web to TiVo and YouTube, people are able to cut and cater news articles and televised broadcasts to their individual preferences.
Thanks to 24-hour access to information, it's cheaper and easier than ever before for a student to be an educated voter. And travel options from destinations as close as Iowa to as far as our nation's capitol have found their way into students' political agendas. As a result, students become more deeply invested in certain candidates much earlier on.
"I know a number of students who went to Iowa for Obama. I bet a lot of students went to Ohio for Clinton. I even know a number of students who went somewhere for Kucinich," says Professor Seibert.
After a lot of thought, Goodman-Williams decided to support Obama and has "already made a few trips to Rock Island, Illinois, to help with Obama's campaign," in addition to volunteering for the Obama phone bank.
A wholehearted supporter of Mitt Romney, Kelly Walsh is still trying to get herself as excited about McCain. "I signed up to volunteer in Minneapolis for the convention, and I'm really looking forward to that experience."
For the last two years, Knox Republicans have been able to send students to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., where they have heard some of our nation's top political figures. "This year, we were able to see President Bush speak on the second day of CPAC. That was an incredible experience," says Mike Burt '08, vice president of Knox Republicans. "It didn't necessarily influence my own opinion about the upcoming election, but President Bush made some good points regarding the need for unity in the Republican Party."
No matter where you get your news or whom you support, the biggest need in this election, however, as it always has been, is to be an active, knowledgeable participant. "I haven't really seen any clubs push a certain candidate," Goodman-Williams says. "Mostly, it's just trying to get people out there and to vote!"