Vanderbilt College Democrats-Republicans Discussion: A Refreshing Exercise of Civil Discourse


Kyle Heard, Contributor

Image courtesy of Shane Mumma

With the world of American politics as tumultuous as ever, the time seemed ripe for a discussion between Vanderbilt’s two largest political organizations: Vanderbilt College Republicans and Vanderbilt College Democrats. Nearly seventy students and moderators packed into the Community Event space in MPR 108 for what was sure to be an eventful night.

I felt a sense of fear permeate the room in the opening stages of the discussion, particularly the fear that the conversation could devolve into a series of personal attacks and incivility due to the contentious nature of previous interactions between the two groups. Seemingly for this reason, United Campuses for a Divided Nation, an organization that specializes in bridging the gap between young Republicans and Democrats, was chosen to moderate the debate. They introduced the discussion with a set of guidelines, including “no swearing,” “no personal attacks,” and “try to see the humanity in every person,” among others. Thankfully, UCDN’s moderators rarely had to step in, and even when they did, it was never because the discussion got out of control. On the contrary, this discussion, while filled with competing and occasionally diametrically opposed views, remained a free-flowing and calm affair. 

Structurally, the event first focused on small group discussion, where participants were evenly spread ideologically and where one person in each group acted as a moderator to help facilitate the conversation and to calm passions, if needed. I did not participate myself, but I sat with a small group and observed their conversations. My group chose to address the topic of trust in the media first. One member of VCD confessed that he believes conservatives do not get treated fairly in the media overall, although he acknowledged that conservatives have a sort of safe haven in Fox News. Another gentleman concurred but added that he does not think outlets like MSNBC and Fox News are as egregious as networks like CNN since the former two do not even pretend to be neutral; by contrast, CNN acts nonpartisan but still exhibits clear biases, in his view. Someone responded to this assertion by pointing out that hyper-partisan sources never concentrate on substantive issues or policies, contending that these outlets focus more on scandals, investigations, and trying to paint the other side as “criminals.” A representative of VCR acknowledged that a true neutral source is nearly impossible to find nowadays, making it easier than ever to become more extreme more rapidly, leading to a breakdown in genuine conversation about national issues—he later expressed his enthusiasm for the success of this discussion for this very reason. 

We then turned to a more controversial question: “Are you proud of the United States?” A member of VCR gave an intriguing response to open the topic. He said that he thinks of this question like it was talking about a person, as this is traditionally the context for when people say they are “proud” of something. People, he argued, are complicated, hypocritical, and they make mistakes, but we are nevertheless proud of those who have demonstrated a capacity for good, and he admired the United States for constantly pursuing higher ideals even if it has failed to match them some of the time. Another person agreed and remarked that he appreciated that the Constitution has been so stable and has ultimately acted as the vehicle for correcting many of the black marks on our nation’s history, adding that “what we stand for, we continue to stand for.” Others disagreed, however, pointing out that Scandinavian countries have more robust social safety nets and democracies than the U.S. Members of VCR fired back, noting that when one takes into account the cost of living and the homogeneity of those countries, Scandinavian countries are not as glamorous as the VCD members were implying they were. 

Though my small group was eager to continue its conversation , the moderators moved the discussion to a large group discussion, where two issues were posed. The first was “Agree or disagree: The Second Amendment should be limited,” and the participants raised many different points of view. The first, from a VCD member, was that with school shootings being a prevalent issue in our country, it only makes sense to limit the Second Amendment further. The next respondent, also from VCD, raised questions about whether the original purpose of the Second Amendment is applicable today; that amendment came from a time where it was conceivable that the American people could rise up and overpower an oppressive government. Such is not the case today, as if the government wanted to take citizens’ guns or harm them majorly, they would be more than able to do so. A College Republican quipped that “The last two wars we’ve lost have been to farmers with assault rifles” in response, and nobody ever addressed this particular issue again. Shane Mumma, the president of VCR, added that the Constitution guarantees the right to self-defense and that people will commit acts of violence with other weapons if guns are heavily regulated. A VCD member rebutted, claiming that “by that logic, we shouldn’t regulate anything” while not missing the opportunity to add that last time people took up arms to defend themselves on a large scale was during the Black Panther movement in California, and the Republican government retaliated by enacting harsh gun possession laws. 

After a brief exchange between a VCR and VCD member about mental health and the gun crisis, UCDN moderators shifted the discussion toward the second statement: “Agree or disagree: Immigration to the US should be limited.” The first answer came from a VCD member, who argued that immigration to the United States is already limited but still “held together by strings,” a characterization that all participants, regardless of party, seemed to think agreeable. He explained that in his opinion, more immigration would lead to a freer labor market which would in turn be a boon to the American economy and act as an example of successful immigration policy for the rest of the world. Another VCD member held that not enough Americans fundamentally understand how immigration impacts our society and economy, and we need to be better informed as a polity before making any calls on the issue whatsoever. A VCD member then argued that the Republican Party was clearly “not acting in good faith” on the immigration issue, which one participant argued was an unfair and unproductive characterization of the issue. Next, the conversation turned to the issue of DREAMers, a controversial legal status granted by the Obama administration which lets children of those who cross the border become immune from deportation which has come under fire in subsequent administrations. A VCD member believed that there should be “no argument” against DREAMers being legal citizens, as they did not make the conscious decision to cross the border; their parents made that decision for them. One VCR member pushed back on this point, calling the DREAMer policy “human trafficking” and maintaining that it “promotes family separation.” Another VCR member agreed, saying that “open border” and DREAMer-esque policies could open the door to child and sex trafficking. A representative from VCD stressed the importance of treating immigrants “like people, not aliens” and remembering that there are real, human lives impacted greatly by this topic—the solution is likely not cut-and-dry, as a result.

UCDN moderators let the presidents of VCR and VCD, Shane Mumma and Bella Randle, respectively, have the last word on the topic. Shane testified that from personal experience, he knows that “there is a meritocracy in America” and that it is indeed possible for people to “pull themselves by their bootstraps” in this country which is why he thinks so many immigrants want to come to the United States in the first place. Bella responded with the message that we need comprehensive immigration reform, not in the least because of the “harmful rhetoric” surrounding the debate. She used the example of the talking point that DREAMers were “brought here against their will” as an example of such discourse, asserting that this choice of words demonizes these individuals who are simply coming to our country for an opportunity for a better life. 

Joshua from UCDN concluded the discussion by praising the participants for their ability to engage in a frank, open, yet civil discourse over such controversial issues, and I could not agree more. This discussion serves as a model for what discussion between our elected officials should look like, but all too often, policy debates turn into personal and partisan attacks. Participants certainly had a great deal over which to ruminate after the debate but without the residual anger that typifies much of modern American political discourse. I can only hope that this type of truly civil discourse will persevere through more of our discussions, both on campus and beyond.