By Jordan Javelet
Turn on the television to a political debate nowadays and you’re likely to hear as many personal jabs and attacks as you hear actual discussion of policy. This is particularly true with controversial candidate Donald Trump in the mix during the Republican debates, but it is certainly not a problem contained to the Republican Party. For many viewers, however, the goal of watching a political debate is not to see candidates take each other down with spars and insults—it is to learn about the issues and to become familiar with the political platform of each candidate represented.
This is the philosophy that Goucher’s Roosevelt Institute brought to its student debate in the Hyman Forum on September 17th. The idea for the event came from Co-President Marissa Charlemagne ’16, and it was moderated by Charlemagne herself along with Jonny Davies ’18, Andrea Sosa ’16, and Tony To ’18. To said that “[Charlemagne] was pretty upset at how the presidential campaign is now going…We wanted Goucher students from different backgrounds to express their opinions and have a discussion about what this nation needs to address.”
Perhaps one of the most successful features of the event was the inclusion of students with diverse political beliefs. Despite the common belief that the Goucher community is overwhelmingly liberal in its political ideology, the panel contained several members who identify themselves as moderate and right-leaning voters. George El-Khoury ’17, a panelist who calls himself a “moderate who leans slightly to the right,” admired the fair representation of various political beliefs. He said, “The moderators were great. I personally know them to be Democrats, but you would have never guessed it from only watching their moderation. They did a great job staying non-partisan.”
Another conservative participant, Mark McDonald ’16, said that he was able to express his political beliefs “to an extent.” According to McDonald, it was difficult to fully flesh out his ideas because the “issues are very complex. It was hard to go in-depth given the amount of time we had.” McDonald also said that “the majority of questions were vague.”
Questions from the moderators fell mainly into two categories: what presidential candidates should be valuing and discussing in their debates and how students feel about those particular issues. After the student debaters introduced themselves, they were each given the chance to explain what political issue they find most important and why. Answers ranged from concerns about the economy, unemployment and national debt to the future of racial equity and socioeconomic policy-making.
The next questions included discussion of climate change, reproductive justice and student debt; however, perhaps the most revealing question regarded policy-making for racial and socioeconomic equity. The question, particularly poignant in the wake of events like the murders of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown along with the current focus on racial discourse in American politics and society, drew responses that were at first perhaps slightly evasive.
Jordan Leonard ’18, however, was quick to call out the tentativeness of his fellow debaters, stating in a moment of blunt honesty, “This is going to get messy, but it’s important. I’m personally off-put by use of coded language like ‘in the city’ and even ‘African American.’ We’re talking about black people. I think that tip-toeing around this is not helping us in this discussion.”
Isaiah Zukowski ’17 responded candidly, expressing his belief that policy must be aimed towards and written by the group that will be affected by the policy. He said, “Black folks know what’s going on in their communities, not white folks. Of course you need to gear policies towards specific groups because specific things work for specific folks, and those folks know what works and what doesn’t.”
McDonald echoed the sentiment: “I completely agree. Let the people choose what is best suited for them.”
The debate then turned to discussion of police brutality, an issue that did not warrant as much disagreement as other topics. Kevin Guzman ’16 expressed his belief that police brutality is not just about shootings and violence—even the process of getting arrested, strip-searched and otherwise subjected to police authority can be “dehumanizing,” he said.
The overwhelming sentiment regarding the topic among both liberal and conservative students was summed up well by a statement from Jane Srebro ’17: “Something needs to be done.”
When asked if the Roosevelt Institute achieved its goal of creating a productive but respectful debate for discussion of politics, leaders in the organization said yes. Jonny Davies ’18 said that “the concept of being able to voice opinions on the issues that really matter is crucial, especially since we are the future.” For Davies and To, the most important improvement they envision for potential future debates would be better attendance; Davies stated, “We both hope in the future to better the turnout, and [even though] it was a success we still feel there is always room for improvement.”
Perhaps the most successful aspect of the debate was its ability to reveal the ways that liberal and conservative political beliefs do not always have to be in opposition. Although there was no clear winner and no prevailing ideology that swept the stage, the real achievement of the debate was its bringing together of diverse perspectives. As liberal Zukowski said to conservative El-Khoury during the debate regarding their beliefs on the issue of immigration, “I don’t think we’re disagreeing.” And even if they were, they did it respectfully, with the positive intention of encouraging democracy using a variety of voices and points of view.