Politics at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire is, like some kind of god, both always present and invisible at the same time. All around campus, even when there is not a debate going on, there is a higher-than-usual chance that some national figure or other – TV journalists, think-tank pundits and of course the omnipresent politicians – will be on campus. It is not at all hard to find acquaintances who have been interviewed by the national media, who have taken selfies with candidates, who have been in the same room with some of the most well-known media personalities in the country.
The campus’s close connection with national politics is never more evident than when the campus hosts a debate. During massive events like Saturday’s Republican debate, the campus is totally transformed. From Twitter’s own “#GOPDebates” sign in the middle of Alumni Quad, to the Fox News truck parked right in front of my dorm, to half of the cafeteria being reserved for the visiting dignitaries and journalists, to the gigantic TV truck sprawling across the entire commuter lot, it’s quite obvious to even the most apolitical student that the national media circus has descended upon us.
One would think, then, that a person with strong political views (such as myself) would be in heaven. Three years ago, as a freshman considering politics or international relations, I was in political heaven.
Since then I have found that the campus is a great place for “politics” only if certain things are left unsaid. From Saint Anselm President DiSalvo on down, “politics” means mediagenic rows of besuited dignitaries, as if the campus were some kind of UN banquet: the discourse is bland and nonthreatening, the area is full of security personnel, and there’s no place to park.
But to me, being “into politics” doesn’t always mean obsessively following the latest poll numbers at the Common Grounds Café at the Institute of Politics (which, like an airport, plays CNN nonstop), or collecting as many wooden eggs signed by all the candidates as you can (a popular hobby among a certain set here). Being interested in politics doesn’t have to mean diving into a quasi-corporate world of business suits and ties, or worshipping the huge collection of campaign pins on permanent display like a sacred altar, or obsessively posting an endless series of Facebook selfies with Jeb! or Christie or even Bernie.
My kind of politics means ordinary people standing in the freezing cold in the far-flung “free speech zone,” shouting into the bitter wind, mostly ignored by everyone (including the throngs of journalists) but persisting despite it all. My kind of politics means advocacy work, heroic volunteers trying as hard as they can to get apathetic students to care about climate or refugees or racial justice on a campus that veers between apathy and staunch conservatism. My kind of politics means holding a die-in for Black Lives Matter on a campus that is majority white – the first protest in five years.
Since I first arrived in 2013, I’ve found that my politics cannot be the politics of media spectacle, of CNN and Fox News, of the Washington think-tank pundits who show up every few weeks. My politics means struggle, not spectacle; protest, not punditry; advocacy, not affability.
Perhaps one day the college community will understand politics as I understand it. Maybe the TV crews will someday consider the brave individuals in the “free speech zone” a main event, not a sideshow. In the meantime, between a hypothetical future and the frustrating present, the struggle continues.
Paul Goodspeed is a junior majoring in history at Saint Anselm College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at A Guy Named Rourke.