What's at Stake in the 2016 Presidential Election?
The Multicultural Alumni Action Group welcomed five political insiders, all Bi-Co alumni, back to campus to discuss the upcoming election and its implications.
According to recent polling, the majority of Americans say they’ve lost faith in their elected leaders. A U.S. Supreme Court seat has sat empty for months. Obstructionism has replaced compromise and civility seems lost.
During a spirited on-campus political forum Oct. 1, one panelist took note at the variety of opinions being expressed and the careful listening that followed, concluding elected leaders could learn a lot from Haverford College.
“It’s the cross talk that is so emblematic of this place and its Quaker roots and its work towards consensus building, just imagine if that’s how Congress could operate,” said Stephen Spaulding ’05, an attorney and legal strategist who was the 2015 recipient of the Haverford Young Alumni Award. “As I recall it’s not about agreeing with your colleagues or friends. It’s, at least, about fully understanding their point of view and where they’re coming from and where they come to the table.”
“Election 2016: What’s at Stake?” featured four Haverford alumni and one Bryn Mawr alumna, all political insiders of different ages, backgrounds, and political beliefs, sharing their insights from the stage in Marshall Auditorium. Sponsored by the Multicultural Alumni Action Group (MAAG), the discussion was moderated by Samantha Phillips Beers, ’84, director of the Office of Enforcement, Compliance, and Environmental Justice in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mid-Atlantic office.
“One of the things that I’m most grateful for going to Haverford College is the opportunity to have intellectual, respectful conversations on difficult topics. I never felt there [were] difficult people. There was never maligning,” Beers said, explaining why MAAG decided to host the panel. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we go back to this campus and look at our graduates and pull together a panel of our people who can talk about difficult topics for difficult times?’”
Speaking about Congress’s seeming inability to get anything done, panelist Elaine Kamarck, BMC ’72, said she found it ironic that since 1994, advocates of smaller government have often held a majority in Congress and, at times, the presidency and yet the size of government has only increased since then. Obstructionism, she said, is a self-defeating strategy.
“They have this attitude of ‘Just go to Washington and obstruct things,’ and that means they can’t get their agenda done,” said Kamarck, who is currently the director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Effective Public Management and who worked in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“These guys have this bizarre notion that they’re going to achieve their policy objectives without making any friends, without making any coalitions, having this obstructionist view. It is really weird, guys.”
In response, Zachary Werrell, ’13, a political strategist who managed the 2014 upset primary win of Tea Party candidate Dave Brat over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, suggested the obstructionists don’t want government to get anything done “because the only time Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on anything… is when it’s something that takes away liberty, it moves into our freedom and our sphere of sovereignty.”
“Instead of addressing a severe fiscal problem, we continue to kick the can down the road. If you want progress, I’m the last person you want” on your team, said Werrell, noting he is currently working with “two of the biggest obstructionists in D.C. The reason we’re doing this is because the government is a Leviathan. It’s a locomotive barreling down the tracks, out of control. One party is standing there itching its head as its going faster and the other is shoving more coal into the locomotive and it’s picking up steam.”
Ron Christie, ’91, a media and political strategist who worked as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and on Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff, said he believed “politics as usual is broken.” The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump demonstrates the public’s dissatisfaction with the Washington establishment, he said.
Christie said he has spoken to many elected officials who say they only engage with members of their own party inside and outside of Washington. That’s a big change from two decades ago, when Democrats and Republicans, he said, “could agree to disagree, but always did what was in the best interest of the country."
“If we have a government who can’t speak to each other in a chamber of Congress,” Christie asked, “how can we expect our leaders to absolutely govern with the view to what is best for the American people?”
Juan Williams, ’76, a former White House correspondent for The Washington Post who later worked at National Public Radio and is now a regular political analyst and co-host for Fox News, noted that it’s not only politicians from opposing parties who don’t communicate. The disdain for difference has trickled into society, he said, to the point that parents don’t want their children to marry someone with different political beliefs.
“It’s not just that politicians don’t talk to each other," he said. "It’s that people don’t talk to each other across these lines."
Spaulding believes participation is the solution. He encouraged “going to town councils, county meetings, voting for a member of Congress … the solution is to participate, to make your voice heard, especially this November.”
In conclusion, the conversation circled back to the Marian Wright Edelman quote Haverford President Kim Benston shared at the opening of the event: “People who don’t vote have no line of credit with people who are elected, and, thus, pose no threat to those who act against their interests.” After an audience survey revealed that about half of those attending the discussion would be voting in their first presidential race this year, Benston urged the audience —specifically the young voters ages 18 to 29 who make up the nation’s largest voting block — to remember that as they absorbed the different panelists' opinions, they should go forth to cast a vote based on their own conclusions.
“Go get that line of credit and show officials you are to be reckoned with,” Benston said, “that you will write the future of democratic accountability as fully engaged participants in the great drama of electoral decision making.”