More and more, the political environment of the United States has become concerned with symbols. In this environment, great questions of morality, justice, progress, and even philosophy are infused into national dialogue through symbology. Symbols appear on both sides of the political spectrum, emanating not only from the leaders in our democracy, but also the voices of the people. The symbols are not pictures or logos, nor insignias or crests; these symbols are the actions, the decisions, the conduct, and the ultimate successes and failures of our political system entirely. We are influenced by the symbols that vividly come to us through the actions and representations of our political system. Both for the good and the bad, we pay much attention to and place great importance on the symbolic nature of our leaders. But the true symbolic power actually lies with us – the people. 

On November 7, the first major elections since the 2016 presidential election were held in states and cities across the country. In this lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, the races that garnered the most national attention were the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. 

In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican candidate Ed Gillespie in an unexpectedly sweeping outcome, keeping Virginia under Democratic leadership with the outgoing administration of Governor Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy delivered a decisive victory over Republican Kim Guadagno, bringing new Democratic leadership to the state after eight years under Republican Governor Chris Christie. While Murphy was projected in polling to carry a significant win over Guadagno, Northam’s extensive victory over Gillespie surprised pundits and pollsters alike, with the Democrat winning 54% of the vote against Gillespie’s 45%. These wins — while only two individual races for the seat of governor in two individual states — demonstrate a tremendous and progressive symbol on the part of the people who participated, got involved, and voted. 

In the 16th Legislative District of New Jersey’s General Assembly, Democrats Andrew Zwicker and Roy Freiman defeated Republican candidates Donna Simon and Mark Caliguire in one of the most contested and competitive races within the state. The 16th district — the district in which Princeton is located — has been held by Republicans for 42 years, and as a result of this election, the two seats will both be controlled by Democrats for the first time in those 42 years. This decisive win for Democrats, however small and local, in Princeton’s legislative district in the state assembly demonstrates yet again a symbol on the part of the people of New Jersey, of the people of Princeton, and other towns in the district. It represents a stand against the Republican politicians who have not upheld the responsibilities or the significance of their positions to the greatest effect, and a defiant message from the people of New Jersey’s 16th district against the inefficiency and inaction of the status quo at the local and state level in the midst of national politics. 

In the new age of Trump, it seems as though our country’s political environment has been overrun by symbols of animosity, disregard, division, bigotry, and incivility. While these symbols, both on the part of the political leadership and citizenry of the country, are not entirely President Trump’s responsibility, it is fair to say that the actions and conduct of our president have made such bitter symbols more common, more visible, and more acceptable as societal norms. The events in Charlottesville, Va. this past August stand out to me as the most drastic, most disturbing, and most shockingly real reminder of the symbols of pure hate that still remain in our political and cultural climate. While the actions of the White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, and neo-Nazis in attendance demonstrated, on their own, such markers of antipathy, it was the reluctance and inaction of the president to properly and rightfully reprimand these groups that furthered the pain of such an abhorrent symbol. This is the most disturbing symbol of the climate that has somewhat dominated our discourse and politics recently. 

But the elections on Nov. 7 in New Jersey and Virginia broke this trend. The outcomes dealt a meaningful blow to this climate and environment of hate and negativity. The citizen response and voter turnout in these elections — especially in Virginia, the same state so shook and so overtaken by unparalleled images of hatred just months before — conveyed a symbol of hope, a symbol of progress, and a symbol of defiance in the age of Trump. The voice of the people extensively and ultimately boomed against the alienating rhetoric of our president, against the gross incivility of our leader, and against the outspoken and cacophonous demonstrations of hostility in our political system. 

Even Governor-elect Northam, in his victory speech on election night, recognized the symbolic nature of his overwhelming win. “Today, Virginians have answered and spoken,” he said, “Virginians have told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart.” His win and the win of Murphy in New Jersey are strong and forceful messages sent to the current White House from the voices of the people themselves. The citizens sent a message clearly and forcefully, and they were heard. The symbols that we convey are the most essential in the functioning of our democracy. Our voices, our symbols, can be heard without fail through the deliberate and powerful actions we take upon ourselves to the structures of power and institution above us. 

Kaveh Badrei is a sophomore from Houston, Tex. He can be reached at kbadrei@princeton.edu.

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