The Society gathered in the Philodemic Room as usual this past Thursday to discuss Resolved: Political Campaigns Improve Public Discourse. The room was wonderfully packed but surprisingly cool as Ms. Tricia Correia (MSB ’15) of Minnesota affirmed the resolution and Mr. Alejandro Perez-Reyes (COL ’17) of Virginia negated.
Before beginning with the keynotes, I wanted to take a moment to mention the framing that both of the keynoters went over in their speeches. First of all, campaigns were defined as, from the moment a candidate announced his or her intention to run for election, until the moment that votes were being counted. Discourse was intended to mean only when individuals and society comes together to discuss the candidate and his or her campaign. Lastly, the focus of the debate should center around three facets of campaigns: campaign finance, the length of campaigns, and fact-checking bodies. Super PACs did not count.
Ms. Correia began the night by taking a moment to remember 9/11 and then the moment in 2000, when the United States elected President Bush, our elected official who embroiled the US in war. Ms. Correia declared that we must stop taking our election system for granted and examine three aspects where it could or could not improve. In regards to campaign finance, she said that any attempts to lower donation caps would be futile, simply rerouting money to Super PACs. As for campaign length, Ms. Correia mentioned that there is a psychological reason that campaigns should be so long—people learn and process things better over longer periods of time. Moreover, to limit campaign lengths would be disadvantageous to challengers who are already in difficulty when faced with incumbents who know how to immediately mobilize voters and advertise. Lastly, Ms. Correia denied that advertisements manipulate voters, saying that manipulation only functions if voters choose to believe it and if nobody challenges the lie. And, even if advertisements lie, lies still improve discourse by raising awareness and outrage. Lastly, Ms. Correia acutely pointed out that few facts (especially in politics!) are black and white; even a fact checking body would be biased.
Mr. Perez-Reyes then took up the resolution by mentioning the infamous Citizens United case, and agreeing that this resolution is incredibly relevant to us. He disagreed though, on everything. For campaign finance, Mr. Perez-Reyes asked the audience who needs more than $100,000 in order to express themselves; donation limits, he insisted, are a necessary part of the election system. Mr. Perez-Reyes called this blatant corruption, saying that “corruption is more than the quid pro quo I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” Even the Supreme Court admitted unlimited donations are opportunities for abuse are inherent. Next, Mr. Perez-Reyes brought up an interesting statistic from Gallup in which 75% of respondents saw corruption in the government. Tied with the fact that people who see the government as corrupt are less likely to participate in it, Mr. Perez-Reyes demonstrated that we have a problem. Switching then to the topic of perpetual campaigns, he said that long campaigns don’t educate voters, they fatigue them. Most voters will wait to inform themselves until October anyway! And finally, the absence of fact-checkers leaves such a duty to the media. Although we may want the media to sort truth and lies, the media usually presents both sides of an argument and legitimizes the lie.
After these packed keynotes, Ms. Huppman began the floor portion of the debate by problematizing fact-checking bodies. She questioned how they would be formed and if they would have split or swing votes, finally concluding that we should be the fact-checkers. Mr. Greco addressed a different issue in the keynotes though, saying that individuals should be able to give as much as Super PACs, but responded to Ms. Huppman by saying that people are self-selective fact-checkers and so we must have a body better than the media. Then the floor was told to “look through…a prism of reason” by Mr. Rosenberger, who said we should not stifle campaigns and that more speech yields better speech. Yet, as Mr. Schafer soon pointed out, a keynoter that takes 75 minutes is never appreciated; discourse is concentrated on finding out what the candidate can do for you.
Ms. Hernick gave the floor a unique perspective though, charging that the negation must prove net harm. And, discussing Resolved: “Beyoncé improves public discourse”, she said that the Founding Fathers “fought and died for you to spend your money as you see fit.” Mr. Musgrave took to the floor next though, and said that his hometown has lost the spirit of discourse because of political campaigns. These campaigns “have not improved discourse, they have preyed upon it.” Mr. Weiner then agreed that political society is decaying, but said the problem lies not in our campaigns, but in our very citizens. However, Mr. Eisen soon came to call the Society to find “capital ‘T’ Truth” and to stop trying to merely win; he also clarified for us that fact checking would be “the red-headed step child of this debate.”
But worry not, Mr. Fletcher came to ground the debate in some good old dependent variables, telling us that we can say campaigns are bad, but we must look at their impact on discourse for this resolution. Well, Ms. Coccia answered him, saying that when her grandparents, who live in a Republican retirement home, only watch Fox News, their discourse is not widened. She proclaimed that fact-checkers will lead to self-surveillance, improving discourse.
Then, we suddenly approached the top of the hour and began our non-member speaking time with Mr. Brendan Keenan (COL ’18), who said that longer campaigns give us more time to vet and filter candidates. Ms. Mattie Haag (COL ’18) turned his argument around though, casually mentioning that not everyone lives and breathes politics (sorry Georgetown!) and that the lies in campaigns distract from discourse. Mr. Armando Soto (SFS ’18) continued the discussion, pointing out that we assume two things: that politicians are inherently bad and that voters are stupid. To follow his comment, Ms. Emily Nicol (SFS ’16) blatantly said that voters are stupid, they’re just easily distracted and shallow. However, Mr. Kyle Rinaudo (SFS ’18) brought back the debate on campaign length, positing that 30 second attack advertisements have been determining our fates. If the Philodemic wouldn’t cut its speeches to 30 seconds, he asserted that “Brevity should not be determining the fate of the greatest nation on the Earth.” Ms. Rebecca Heller (SFS ’16) did not directly disagree with him, but emphasized that the problem is how discourse affects policy. Politicians who only look for good taglines then don’t want to address controversial issues.
With that last speech, the floor returned to members, starting with Ms. Christensen. In an encompassing speech, she quickly went over how candidates should fact-check each other, that the least informed voters are least likely to vote, and that the best way to change a voter’s mind is face-to-face, so forget about those attack ads. Yet, Mr. Willis astutely noted that people latch onto information regardless of whether it’s proven true, so there should be a review board to penalize liars. At this point, even President DiMisa wanted to chip in, and so he proclaimed that fining free speech isn’t just a slippery slope, it would cause legitimate terror to speak. Furthermore, people will regardless find a way to hear what they want. But Ms. Egan knew that there was a problem with unlimited speech, mostly because corporations practically stuff politicians’ ears with money and they don’t listen to their electorate.
Vice President Wilson also jumped in, motioning for the negation to remember that it is not idealist and must give realistic alternatives to the way campaigns work now. Ms. Grace, arguing for the other side, instead focused on how discourse must mean that everyone can speak his or her truth. Then Mr. Young reminded the room of how “nebulous” the starting point of improving campaigns is and declared that only paying attention during campaigns is worse than listening to poor news all through the year. Mr. Naft then came out of the blue with an impassioned speech that exposed organizations’ only goals as staying in power and winning—something money permits. Finally, Mr. Mouch closed the floor with two observations: first, “what we need, if we want to fix our system, is better voters” and second, that no policy maker would want to implement many of these changes—they’re unrealistic.
Our closing keynotes began with Mr. Perez-Reyes, who said that the realistic alternatives would not come from DC, but from voters themselves. Furthermore, he noted that money in politics pushes away voters, that incumbents do change their views because of their voters, and that campaigns that last for less than nine months are indeed possible! To end, he announced that fact-checkers are necessary because once misrepresentations go live, there’s no guarantee that someone will see the correction.
Ms. Correia ended the night by arguing that the campaign donation caps in place currently are completely fair and permit for expression without too much corruption. Moreover, “good people who run good campaigns” won’t post bad advertisements because the doing so is more reflects poorly on them. As for fact-checkers, Ms. Correia decreed that in America, “nobody is outside of the political process” and that people will, regardless, self-select what they hear.
After those fantastic last keynotes, the debate ended with a vote of 24-9-34, negating the resolution. Have a wonderful week everyone, and I will see many of you (hopefully) on Thursday!