On Thursday, three student-led groups at James Madison University held a debate to discuss a multitude of important political topics. The groups involved were the College Democrats, the College Republicans, and Madison Liberty. For the format of the event, each organization submitted two questions regarding a specific political issue that all of the groups then answered.
It was quite interesting to hear the differing positions of the students and their groups, to hear where they overlapped and where they disagreed. All three seemed to support policies that are more tolerant of drug legalization than the mainstream of either the Republican or Democratic Parties. Could this result simply stem from the college mentality of greater personal freedom? Or does this commonality represent the growing acceptance of more liberal drug laws and a future in which each state or locality can set their own policies? And when a Republican student from Washington D.C. asked if anyone thought that the American Civil War was not a “good war”, it was amusing to see a fair number of hands in the audience raised in opposition.
However, what made the evening truly special, in my mind, was the fact that the three groups made a conscious effort to come together in a civil atmosphere to actually discuss political principles. Unfortunately, it seems as if the whole political sphere has become increasingly poisoned with divisive and unproductive rhetoric. The mentality of far too many individuals is, why waste your time debating issues with people of differing opinions?
The 2012 Republican nomination for President, Senate, and House of Representatives shows a similar trend among members of the party. For example, twenty-year incumbent Bob Goodlatte has so far refused to directly engage Karen Kwiatkowski, his primary opponent. He practiced a similar move in 2010 when facing challengers outside of the GOP. Although there are certainly tactical arguments to be made why he shouldn’t debate, his more or less outright refusal to do so further erodes the chance for future political dialogue here in the Shenandoah Valley. Now it would be disingenuous to pretend Goodlatte is some sort of lone exception. After all, this act has been the trend of frontrunners and incumbents for many years, a tactic used to delegitimize their opposition. Nevertheless, regardless of the merits of the candidate who employs it, political debate ought to be encouraged rather than stifled.
However, I’m a bit disappointed to confess that I haven’t always held such a viewpoint. As I recall, during my time with the College Republicans of William & Mary from 1998 to 2002, our group didn’t make many efforts to reach across the aisle to engage the Democrats or other opposed organizations in order to openly explain the difference in our two groups so that the student body could get a better understanding of the issues that separated us. Why would we? After all, weren’t they the hated enemy that we sought to defeat by any means necessary? And what about the libertarians? Those that came to our organization were typically viewed with suspicion and deemed too wacky to be taken seriously. I’m glad to see that the JMU organizations are choosing a more open-minded path.
Getting back to the present, here in the Shenandoah Valley, there are currently at least five different kinds of political groups active: Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, and the Tea Party. Is it possible for some or all of these groups learn from the JMU students and to come together and offer the community a similar forum? Or is such an idea nothing more than an idealistic dream?
Given their efforts to improve political dialogue on Thursday, I applaud the efforts of the JMU students in Madison Liberty, the College Republicans, and the College Democrats. Although there is certainly a wide variety of political opinions, the attempt of these groups to not only reach out to the community for more recruits, but also foster a greater understanding and even tolerance for opposing viewpoints is a lesson that organizations outside the university and national political pundits would do well to learn.
For those of you who did not attend, to follow is a brief excerpt of the gathering. I hope you find it informative.