Meet Vince: a college student, entrepreneur and house painter, who makes a rational case for radical politics

Standing in my kitchen yesterday, Vince explained why he agreed with so much of what both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump say. To his fellow voters, America is feeling like a place where “if you lose the game here you lose big, but if you win, you win big. It’s just so polarizing.” During our conversation about the state of the country, Vince had a paintbrush in his hand. He just turned twenty-one years old and puts in long hours running his own painting company. He also attends community college full time where he maintains a high grade point average. Occasionally he disappears to take a calculus final or finish a paper. His skill at balancing school with work is a juggling act shared by almost two-thirds of all college students. To say he is hardworking, like so many of his student peers, is an understatement.

Vince is not one of the worst off of his generation, with few options or resources to move ahead. He was lucky enough to attend a top high school that equipped him well to aspire to a higher degree. Yet Vince is also certainly not one of the more privileged students, whose families are able to guide and finance their process to and through college.

Vince completed his freshman year at American University in Washington D.C., where he put together the $53,000 price tag with a $24,000 scholarship, and three different student loans, both government and private. (The cost of attending American University today is estimated at $59,888.) On top of the full course load his scholarship required, he also worked twenty hours a week as a waiter for a catering company.

Then American University informed him his scholarship would be reduced by $8,000 the following year. Called “bait-and-switch” pricing, this practice of frontloading aid is becoming an increasingly common one. Freshmen are encouraged to enroll with generous financial assistance, only to find this amount reduced the following year. By then, they’ve spent one year accruing debt and earning credits that might or might not transfer elsewhere. This happened to Vince. He scrambled to find more loans, but still fell $2,000 short. He had to drop out.

Vince returned to California and enrolled in community college the following fall. Like almost half of all young adults today, due to student debt, high housing costs and low wages, he moved back home to save money. The summer between he worked 60-hour weeks for a painting company, appropriately called “College Works Painting.” By the end of his first year of community college, Vince recognized that he could run his own company more profitably, and provide fellow workers with a better salary and conditions. He needed a second year of credits to make up for the ones he couldn’t transfer, and spent the second fall building up his company while writing essays and applying again to colleges. This time, his plan is to save enough to transfer to a University of California or state college campus next year, and major in business. In the meantime, he is accruing interest on those student loans he took out for an American University degree that he will never receive.

To be clear, Vince is not a complainer regarding his own experience. But when it comes to the country, there is so much that feels wrong to him. He goes down the list. An expensive foreign policy that fails to make us feel safer. A dysfunctional health care system. Higher education that is unaffordable for far too many, offering only risky pay-offs in an uncertain job market. Money’s role in politics. Congress. The sense that disproportionate rewards are going to those who don’t work that hard. The feeling that the many who do, can’t get ahead. Stress among friends leading to heartbreaking outcomes, including opiate addictions. These are hardly extremist observations. Many wouldn’t argue with them.

The center is not delivering any answers, Vince told me. I start to understand why this election feels so different, so mesmerizing, unlike any many of us can remember. Typically you would expect the radical extremes to only appeal to fringe voters, but that’s not what’s happening. Radical is no longer as easily discarded as irrational. This is partly because of the strange symmetry of anger echoed by both ends of the electorate spectrum. While the commonalities of outrage don’t unify these voters on the right and left, it does serve to reinforce their legitimacy. So maybe this is the first election where the center doesn’t hold. Vince’s views suggest that maybe rather than the fringes being crazy, they are the ones speaking the truth. Not the racists, of course, and not the ones fearing change, but the ones fearing no change.

It’s clear this country’s changing demographics, and a debate around immigration, where fact and reason struggle to surface, are certainly a big part of the election story. Vince is not minimizing these issues when he discusses the campaign. They are just not as central to his concerns. He disparages the “media hype” around the dominating narratives about walls and bans on Muslims. This is an important point when trying to understand the younger voter.

Yes, Vince is one of those oft-cited millennials, the generation that the rest of us both pity and yet love to disparage. But this is only partly why I think his views represent the future. In fact, in some ways I hope they do. Surveys tells us millennials tend to view many of the sorting social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, in a more pragmatic, less dramatic light. This younger generation also generally does not understand the fear of an increasingly racially-diverse future. This is their present.

So most millennials don’t respond to the racist elements of what Trump has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again. Or even fully understand what he means. (And they are not alone there). They just know it pretty much sucks now, and can only get better. Some are taking Trump’s word for it that there was a “better” in the past, and that he will take us forward to it again. (And if that was a ridiculous sentence, it’s because it’s an equally ridiculous promise.)

Vince rejects the racism, and the uninformed and simplistic bases of many of Trump’s positions. But he does not dismiss the validity underlying the desperation, fear and rage driving Trump’s support. So many within the “establishment” admit to being taken off guard by these forces, which explain the successes of Trump and Bernie. Many were ready to write both candidates off long ago. This fact adds insult to injury, as far as Vince is concerned. No one in positions of privilege and power was paying attention. Stagnant wages for decades, rapidly increasing rent, health care and education costs, disappearing manufacturing jobs and middle class private sector training programs, banking practices that take advantage of the poor, and rising mortality rates partly due to suicides and opiate addictions. Like voters across the spectrum, he’s wondering, what does it take to get Washington’s attention?

Yet despite all the problems, Vince remains invariably upbeat. He still believes that hard work in combination with a college degree will deliver a better future. Unlike the right’s favorite caricature of the left, Vince is not looking for handouts, nor defends an “us-against-them” resentment. A wish for fairness still leaves room for optimism. It is this kind of optimism which allows him to believe that our system is still one that doesn’t rule out a President Sanders. Vince admits though, that he wishes we had better choices.

Why don’t you run? He smiled. “I’m twenty-one. Give me fifteen years.” Shifting gears, he then explained that he wouldn’t be able to come to oversee his workers the next day, and would be missing school as well. He had to attend a funeral for a high school friend. The young man overdosed on heroin. One more tragic example of so much of the stress his generation feels, he told me. Yet another story that needs to be told. To be continued…..