I weep for the children of America.

In this historical moment, the two main political parties in America appear more divided than ever. Not only are we unable to engage in the sublime pleasure of bipartisan government, but the quality of our discourse itself has declined. Far from the ideal of dissent and free expression typified by Norman Rockwell’s classic “Freedom of Speech,” we now resemble a different, lesser known Rockwell painting where people are yelling at each other. In search of experiential knowledge of this divide, I attended the April 10 “College Democrats and Republicans Debate,” hosted by both student organizations.

On the day before the debate, I first interviewed senior Matthew Carrier, the long-serving president of the College Republicans. He was dressed in a standard-issue collared shirt and slacks and was quite comfortable when chatting with me.

“It’s a marketing and recruitment tool, honestly. It’s like any other event organizations host,” Carrier said. 

The interview overall went pleasantly, but I had a continual nagging feeling that I was spinning my wheels. Carrier was happy to talk shop with me about his experiences with the Republican party and his job prospects, but it was like pulling teeth to try to figure out a single thing this guy believed. Either he was shielding his true positions, or, as I began to fear, he was acutely aware of the fact that — if he didn’t rock the boat by believing in anything too hard — there might be a number in a spreadsheet somewhere waiting for him, and his future was secure. 

Then, I met with junior Gautam Bajaj, the leader of the College Democrats. His reasons for participating in the political system mirrored those of a lot of other Zoomers I know; a combination of shock about 2016 and disgust for Jan. 6. When asked about potential topics for the debates, he mentioned that the Republicans had vetoed both abortion and LGBTQ rights. Said Bajaj, “At the end of the day, I don’t think he has the wrong intentions, you know. He does have different values and different beliefs than I do, but I do think that generally the things he believes in, he believes in them because he supports those things… and he actually cares about making a difference.” The ability to see the sincerity in cynical political moves and avoid gloatingly focusing on issues you have clear majority support for does seem important for Democratic Party leaders.

The next day, although I reached the debate hall before the event began, I had a distinct feeling that I was entering a situation that had been developing for some time. Before I had even taken my seat, a member of one of the clubs approached me to tell me that the business manager of the College Republicans, shortly taking the stage for them, was actually the former secretary of the College Democrats.

Not too long after I arrived, a small crowd began to fill in. There were probably some 30 people in the audience that night, although it was difficult to determine how many non-combatants were joining me in experiencing their first College Dems/Repubs event and how many were repeat offenders. I got the feeling that for many in attendance, this function was probably budgeted into their weekly schedule in a place where others might prioritize personal enrichment or fun.

Professor Brady Fletcher, the advisor to the debate union, was moderating the discussion. Fletcher was near unsettling in his enthusiasm for what I felt was a grisly job. Brady informed us that audience participation in this debate would take the rather narrow form of snaps for agreement and questions sent via a Google form. The more rambunctious grade school graduates among us will of course remember, however, that “no heckling” typically means “no heckling more than once,” and so I made a note to myself to hold in any strong emotions until I felt an outburst was absolutely necessary.

The topic in the first half was student loan debt relief. The Democrats summoned first-year Brian Skully and junior Jason Vogel, and the Republicans offered their president and their business manager, junior Isabella Rocha. 

Carrier began by offering a fairly standard Republican line, arguing that student loan debt relief amounted to those who chose not to seek college subsidizing those who did, and maintaining instead that employers should avoid requiring a bachelor’s degree for jobs that don’t actually need it, although he didn’t elucidate what mechanism Republicans supported to enact this change. 

Scully then took the mic for the Democrats, opening defiantly by saying, “We actually agree with you on most points.” He stressed that the Democrats believed in bailouts only to prevent borrowers from defaulting while changes were made to reduce the cost of college. Following this, he launched into a discussion of the most beloved of topics: the budget deficit. 

This basically set the terms of the debate. Whatever both sides intended to say about the role of higher education in America, they were going to have to say it sounding like Bill Clinton. I attempted to lodge an audience question about the negative consequences of means-testing government programs, but unfortunately, it was lost in the ether. 

The way these people communicated with each other made me sick to my stomach. Far from a debate, it felt like I was witnessing a show trial. The degree of cross pollination between these two groups had long rendered any ideological differences between them completely moot. The whole debate didn’t make me want to vote either Democrat or Republican; it made me want to kill a congressman.

After the Democrats finished their final attempt at bipartisanship, Rocha took the stage to make what she viewed as a slam dunk point. Smugly, she opened a new tab on the presentations computer and googled “supply and demand curve” and opened up an image, then started pointing to it.

This I could not abide, and I started booing her. She then asked if someone was booing the supply and demand curve, which I happily confirmed. She began to retort by beginning to say “I haven’t learned much in economics class” when I again cut her off and said “that’s not surprising.” She then implied that my comments to her were sexist in nature.

I am sorry I gave her this impression. I would have booed the supply and demand curve no matter the gender of the person showing it. The truth is, I don’t respect the study of undergraduate economics; I think it’s worse than no education at all. It’s like learning phrenology. 

The second half of the debate played out in much the same way the first did. Far from providing meaningful contrast, the two parties continued to converge on a single generic position. On the topic of book bannings, Carrier and College Republicans Vice President Linda Nessmiller derided “smut” in school libraries, before clarifying that they were not in favor of banning books, just allowing outside groups to dictate what books students would have available to them. When Bajaj and College Democrats Secretary Alexandria Hegewald raised concerns about how young adults might familiarize themselves with topics related to their sexual development, Nessmiller offered that they could turn instead to public libraries or the internet. If students are able to find content that way, I have to wonder what Nessmiller hoped to accomplish by removing that content from schools.

Hegewald, for her part, was willing to connect the discussion to prior incidents of book banning in history and to mention how the proposed parental censorship of material the Republicans advocated would deepen inequalities present in public schools. She also reached what is, in my opinion, the crux of the issue, which is that reading level is almost always a proxy for age relevance. Still, compromise would end up winning the day. 

Later in her remarks, Hegewald stated, “I really liked your point during your [Nessmiller’s] opening statement that books should have ratings. I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all.” In my questions after the debate I pressed Hegewald on what pitfalls she envisioned for a books rating system. “Bipartisanship would be important,” she told me.

After the debate, I wandered around attempting to conduct more interviews. It was curious to me how so many people in this room could be excitedly waiting to work for elected officials or their respective national parties, ready to devote themselves to the machinery of ideology, yet be so friendly with those set to make opposition to these goals. I chatted with another member who told me about the frequent dinners both clubs enjoyed together at Carrier’s house on Fridays. I wondered if Rocha was intent on working for a Democrat or a Republican, then I doubled back and wondered if the distinction really mattered if the checks cashed.

In its own way, the debate represented the future of American governance. Unmoored by the tribulations of deeply held beliefs, these students were ready to keep the wheels of American government greased. I almost felt sad that any of them had to engage with the farcical and inefficient process of debate. I imagined them much happier working for a figure like Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, herding Irish immigrants to the polls and constructing innovative new systems of graft.

Oftentimes when writing for the Opinions section, I feel embarrassed by the mismatch between my byline and my subject; the hilarity of writing about American foreign policy in a student paper isn’t lost on me. In this instance, however, I felt this whole event was somehow below even me. I was the only one not in on the joke. In looking for sincere belief and tenacity I was missing the point entirely. I want my Student Activities Fee back.

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