a wider impact than expected
Earlier this week, I lectured at two public high school classes in the San Fernando Valley. While I prefer to attempt to have discussions or conversations with these classes, I use the term "lecture" on purpose. Each of the classes I met with had over 40 students packed somewhat like sardines into a portable classroom on the edge of the school grounds. And while the drastic underfunding of our public education system isn't the focal point here, I got treated firsthand to the consequences of the drastic budget cuts facing our state: in each case, our one hour of government class had expired long before every student who desired to was able to ask a question, much less engage in any substantial in-depth discussion about any particular issue.
Right-wingers are alarmed and desperate about the political ramifications of the reports that non-Hispanics whites now account for fewer than half of all births in the United States. If the groups of high-schoolers I talked to were indicative, their concern is rightly founded. The group of students I talked to in both classes were mostly of Latino or Asian descent. Most of them were not politically motivated in a significant way, but when it came time to actually discuss where each party stood on the issues, there was very little love in those classrooms for the positions of the Republican Party.
If anyone was wondering about how President Obama's announcement supporting marriage equality would impact things beyond the extra money and enthusiasm he may draw from a more motivated base, they need look no further than our nation's high schools. Whenever I started off asking what the main differences were between the Democrats and Republicans, marriage equality was always the first issue discussed: Democrats and President Obama supported it, they said—accompanied by spontaneous applause from a handful of the students—while Republicans and Mitt Romney oppose it. It goes without saying that one day of lecturing in a suburban high school in Los Angeles constitutes anecdotal evidence from an infinitesimal sample, but it still constitutes an interesting lesson: would these same students have claimed that the Democratic Party supported marriage equality even the previous week, before President Obama had made his historic announcement? Therein lies a key consequence: for better or for worse, depending on the region and demographic, Obama's stance has put the entire Democratic Party on record, and formed a definitive contrast between the parties, instead of uncertainty and half-measures.
The second most popular issue? Immigration reform. If the high school students I observed were in any way indicative of the population at large, the Republican Party needs to seriously rethink its approach to immigration if it wants to have a chance at earning any support from the ever-increasing Latino population in this country. These students were not only aware of what was happening across the nation in terms of new immigration enforcement policies, but were also aware of which political party was leading the drive to enact them. In my drive to avoid proselytizing and simply present the facts as best as I could, I concurred; I explained that it was the consensus opinion among Democrats to support a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants, while Republicans generally opposed it. In a moment of repartee that was at the same time shocking but not surprising, one of the students responded to my explanation of the Republican position by muttering only somewhat under her breath, "because they're racists." That's a message to Joe Arpaio, the authors of SB1070, and anti-immigrant legislators everywhere: when that young lady is old enough to vote, she and millions like her will simply never vote for your team. Ever. Congratulations.
In the end, it didn't matter what issues we discussed: whether it was access to contraceptives and abortion, the cost of education, marijuana legalization, or ending foreign occupations, these students were much more likely to take the progressive point of view. But here, there lies a valuable lesson for the Democratic Party: these students understood that the Republicans were against all of these things they cared about. But they did not feel that Democrats were necessarily for them. When these students become voters, they may never choose to align with Republicans; but whether they choose to align with Democrats as anything more than out of opposition to Republicanism could depend on how good a job we do on taking a definitive stand on some of these issues and educating people about those positions.
But by far the highlight of my experience? The precocious youngster who responded to my question about the differences between Democrats and Republicans by claiming that Republicans wanted to impose austerity as an economic policy, which isn't the correct response in a recession. It was all the proof I needed that even in the darkest of times, there is still hope in the world.