Campus politics range from listless to polarized

An oversized banner headline stretched across the top of The Chronicle’s Nov. 8, 1972 front page, yelling: 1,535 more days. America’s voters had just re-elected President Richard Nixon by a landslide margin of 61 percent of the popular vote against Democratic rival Sen. George McGovern. Although Nixon’s victory was predicted by most pundits at the time, The Chronicle and many students attending Duke in 1972 were far from enthused by the election outcome.

The political climate on campus in 1972 largely reflected the words that famed author Hunter S. Thompson wrote in a column printed in The Chronicle Nov. 7, 1972: “On Tuesday, November 7th, I will get out of bed long enough to go down to the polling place and vote for George McGovern. Afterwards, I will drive back to the house, lock the front door, get back in bed, and watch television as long as necessary.”

Many claim the ’72 election marked the beginning of the nation’s downward slide toward political apathy and distrust of the presidential candidates. That year political campaigning on campus was practically unheard of. Sarah Holzsweig reported for The Chronicle that “except for an occasional poster or two, there was little indication yesterday on campus that it was Election Day.” A lone sign hung on a tree at a local voting site with Alice-in-Wonderland instructions to “Vote here,” but nobody was around.

The election following the 1974 Watergate scandal was a low point in voters’ engagement in the national issues of the time. “Americans vote Tuesday to choose lawmakers and executives in a generally distrustful election mood that seems more concerned with judgments about candidates’ honesty and sincerity than about what they say on national issues or how they promise to solve problems,” The New York Times wrote in an article Nov. 7, 1978.

Two years later when Ronald Reagan was elected president, The Chronicle reflected its discontent with the choice of presidential candidates in an editorial Oct. 30, 1980. “We tried, but we just couldn’t do it…. Someone is going to be elected president Nov. 4 and most likely it will be either the Democrat or Republican nominee,” the editorial read. “We are irritated that this most crucial test of the democratic system has turned so sour in light of the slate from which we are now asked to choose. We are disillusioned if these men are really the best our country has to offer. And we do not envy voters who feel that they must make a choice and find that choice as distasteful as we did.”

Despite the dour tenor of The Chronicle’s attitude toward the presidential election, the 1980 campaign and the four years of Reagan’s first term in office began a growing trend of young Republicans and conservative Americans becoming increasingly more active in the political realm. An Oct. 28, 1980 article in the Times that ran in The Chronicle pointed for the first time toward the importance of evangelical Christians as voters. “Evangelical Christians, growing swiftly in numbers, influence and determination to affect the results of the 1980 election, are working together to remedy what they see as a sharp moral decline imperiling the well-being of American society,” the article said.

Campaign efforts in 1984 were strikingly robust on Duke’s campus, thanks to the efforts of the College Republicans and Duke Democrats. Mock elections and student political debates sponsored by the two groups enlivened political dialogue on campus. On Election Day, the groups sponsored buses to shuttle students to local polling sites.

Student reactions to Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale, the ’84 candidates, were divisive. “I think [the people] are voting for Reagan and not against Mondale,” then-senior Ed Ruiz said. “Mondale’s foreign policies are ridiculous. I think American support in Central America is needed.”

Then-sophomore and Duke Democrat Chris Stanley was less confident about Republicans once again in power. “If [Jesse] Helms wins, I’m moving to El Salvador, because I think it will be a safer place to live,” he said.

The Chronicle remained less convinced about the increasingly politically-oriented atmosphere on campus throughout the Reagan era and into the 1988 presidential elections, when George Bush triumphed over Democrat Michael Dukakis. In another editorial Nov. 8, 1988, The Chronicle once again refused to endorse a presidential candidate, instead opting to bemoan the lack of an inspiring option. “As the presidential campaign drones to its conclusion, the echoing chorus of the American people is ‘Thank God it’s almost over!’ It seems that all the highest office in the land can inspire is ammunition for sitcoms and Saturday Night Live skits,” the editorial said. “Ultimately Americans cannot blame others for the campaign they helped create…. If the American citizens want to avoid another campaign like this one, they must say no to the candidates and their pundits and packages.”

When Bill Clinton challenged Bush for the presidency in 1992, The Chronicle reported a more diversified range of political opinions on campus. On Election Day Nov. 4, 1992, the talk on the lips of students across campus ranged from some publicly declaring “I voted Libertarian” amid their friends and others candidly wondering “Will Clinton win?”

Results from a 1992 student poll by Pi Sigma Alpha, the political science national honor society, found that 56 percent of students on campus were voting for Clinton and 32 percent chose Bush. “I think that the results point to general discontent with the Bush administration, rather than proving the claim that Duke is a liberal campus,” said then-senior Steve Hess, president of the honor society. The discontent, however, was also reflected in some of the write-in votes during the mock election, including one for the Bird-Estrada ticket—that is, Big Bird and Eric Estrada.

The Al Gore versus George W. Bush race in 2000 was another hot year for student involvement in politics. Prior to the election, The Chronicle wrote an editorial endorsing Gore, the Democratic nominee and then-vice president, for president. “Gore shines brighter than his competitors. Green party candidate Ralph Nader is running a campaign based on a narrow set of viewpoints…. Bush may have started as a compassionate conservative, but as his policies emerged, he turned out to be another old-hat Republican on economic issues, and his stances on most social issues—like abortion and gay rights—are appalling,” the editorial said. “Furthermore, Bush’s lackadaisical leadership would result in a passing of the buck on many issues and would leave a vacuum of leadership in the Oval Office. We need a commander in chief, not a delegator in chief. We need Al Gore.”

A day after Election Day and the United States still without a declared leader, students at Duke began to showcase their frustration with election problems and other political issues by burning an American flag in front of the Duke Chapel. “Democracy is a joke,” then-junior Arman Rashid-Farakhi told The Chronicle Nov. 9, 2000. An untitled flyer circulated that day, saying: “In particular we believe that yesterday’s election was a complete farce of democracy—a choice between two centrists, straight, white, rich men backed financially by many of the same corporations and ultimately chosen for us by an undemocratic Electoral College system.”

Some professors at Duke that commented on the 2000 election, however, believed that the ultimate outcome of the presidential election would be inconsequential. “Whoever is elected will be caught in the historical blur of the post-Reagan era,” Professor of History Alex Keyssar said in 2000.

Experts said America’s economic prosperity would not give either leader the opportunity to become a truly great or memorable president. “Some unexpected crisis could possibly allow one of these figure to come forth and earn their place in history,” said Associate Professor of Political Science Paul Gronke in 2000. “But whoever comes in as the winner is likely to be just a place-keeper.”


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