Any Democratic presidential hopeful who wants a shot at winning the party’s nomination in the 2020 primaries should listen to Aahil Rajpari.
The 18-year-old from Hoover, Alabama studies political science, international affairs and Arabic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He’s also a member of the university’s student government, a tour guide on campus, a youth volunteer team lead at his local Jamatkhana (a place of worship for Ismaili Muslims) and a Montessori educator.
And as if that weren’t enough, he somehow finds time to even be part of the university’s dance team.
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“I don’t know how I do it — I just stay organized,” the freshman says while laughing.
Though his first year in college is certainly providing a full schedule, Rajpari says he is focused on the 2020 elections and interested in a number of candidates. But he also sees ways in which each politician vying for a shot at unseating Donald Trump could better take advantage of opportunities on the campaign trail. In his view, such opportunities are what allowed the president to capture broad swaths of the Republican Party’s support in 2016.
“One thing I feel like Donald Trump has gotten right is he has the Republican side united, and that’s something that should be seen and something to be used on the Democratic side,” Rajpari says in a recent interview with The Independent.
Rajpari is calling on Democrats running for the White House to take note of the youth vote before Election Day, along with other often-overlooked voting blocs that will prove crucial in deciding a victor in the Democratic primaries.
“I feel like it’s time we focus more on the next generation, because it is our future that we’re inheriting from our parents and people who are much older,” he says. “Everyone needs to come — Warren, Buttigieg, Yang, Sanders — they need to come talk to communities as a whole … while also not ignoring huge swaths of the community who decide elections.”
“The Asian American population is skyrocketing,” he adds, while noting that he has “never been contacted for a poll, for anything.”
While Rajpari gets the majority of his news from reputable outlets and verified news sources online — “I try to get an objective view of what’s going on because I don’t want to be partisan or biased” — he says he also uses social media like Twitter and Instagram to see how the candidates are reaching out to certain communities and the conversations they are attempting to have with voters nationwide.
“I try to gauge and see whose policies are the best for my family, my community and my country as a whole,” he says. “Of course, there are some things I agree with on the Democratic side, but there are also things I agree with on the Republican side.”
For example, Rajpari favors the Democratic Party’s view on net neutrality policies, and would like for there to be significant broadband expansion in order to provide equitable internet access across the country. But he also says he’s opposed to Common Core, a set of academic standards that some reports indicate has actually caused a decline in reading and math scores.
When it comes to understanding the candidates’ viewpoints on these hot button issues, Rajpari says he looks to millennial-focused television shows like HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Netflix’s The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. Both shows spend a single episode diving into sometimes underreported issues, like net neutrality and Common Core, neither of which have been the major focus of any Democratic debate this campaign season.
“I’m really liking what Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang and Elizabeth Warren are saying,” he says. “Obviously I’m still looking at the field itself and I try not to go into identity politics, but I’m trying to see both sides of the argument — Republican, Democrat, extreme liberal, moderate, extreme conservative.”
Whereas he likes Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for being a “uniter rather than a divider,” Rajpari says he appreciates Yang’s long list of executive plans he hopes to accomplish immediately after assuming the Oval Office if he wins in 2020.
If the election were held today, Rajpari says he’d have a difficult time choosing between Yang and Buttigieg, adding: “They’re really the ones who stood out to me the most.”
He also notes millennial leaders who have been elected in recent years around the world, from Norway to New Zealand, saying it’s clear to him “how the youth and the millennial generation is becoming more and more involved in politics.”
Rajpari thinks there’s an opportunity under Trump for a Democratic nominee like Buttigieg or Yang to win the election. Buttigieg would become the first openly gay president if elected, while Yang would become the first Asian American president.
Both are at least somewhat appealing to Republicans, he says, which fits with his desire for the candidates to be uniting forces rather than dividers. That will likely come in handy after Trump’s presidency, during which the US has seen a rise in hate crimes and violence against minorities.
When I asked whether Rajpari himself has faced negative reactions in the US about his religious beliefs, the teen replied: “I want to answer that by first saying I am a proud American Muslim.”
“I was kind of shocked to listen to [Trump] say we’re going to ban all the Muslims. As a Muslim, it hurts to see my community targeted or scapegoated because of the actions of one or a few,” he says, noting how there are 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide. “I commend him for having a good economy; however, I’m still worried about him alienating huge blocs of the population.”
Rajpari says he’s grateful to live in a place like Hoover, which he considers “a lot safer than other communities in Alabama and the southern United States for Muslims to live in.”
“I’m not representative of my community but i can say for sure my sisters experience a lot more backlash,” he adds. “I feel like it’s especially ironic since the First Lady’s campaign was to go anti-bullying, anti-cyber bullying in general, and so, I feel like it’s ironic having a bully as the president.”