When people describe campuses as “bubbles” and “ivory towers,” they aren’t kidding and they aren’t (entirely) wrong. In my coursework, for example, I very often discuss the history of history, which I consider quite important. Penn’s University Council even has a Committee on Committees. Perhaps the only profession as self-referential and introspective as academia is political punditry – so it should come as no surprise that Tuesday’s Penn Dems vs. Penn College Republicans debate came packaged as an attempt to rejuvenate meaningful discourse, to rise above the debased level of current argumentation, and to get at the issues. In the same spirit as this year’s Silfen Forum on civility, this debate sought to be “very much a different kind of debate,” which would avoid “one-line platitudes” and hearken back to the Lincoln-Douglas tradition, according to the introductory remarks of Alec Webley. Alec, of course, is the Moderator of the Philomathean Society, which has been on campus for centuries with a mission of engaging meaningful ideas. I very much applaud them for doing that – and I very much applaud the Penn Dems and Penn College Republicans for their genuine concern with ideas and their consequences – but I don’t think last night’s debate hit the target.
The topic was “stimulus vs. tax cuts.” Most speakers, to their credit, did engage a theoretical or empirical point about the stimulatory benefits of either government expenditures or tax cuts. In “an election season dominated by witchcraft ads, Nazi costumes and allegations of a Communist takeover of America,” as the DP put it, this debate was quite good. We heard that tax cuts encourage investment and entrepreneurship, that government spending is an investment in our future, that healthcare and education must be the pillars of social policy, and that the national debt is the only thing that matters. Of course, those are the terms of the debate, so I don’t fault the debaters for those messages. And one speaker did mention what I believe to be this paper by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina. Props to him for wading into the terribly complicated world of academic macroeconomics. Yet the same speaker closed his remarks by suggesting that we should put the country on sound footing, “like our Founding Fathers did for us.” It shouldn’t be necessary to explain that Jefferson and Hamilton, equally Founding Fathers, bitterly disputed the need for a), government activism in the economy, and b), a national debt . Nor that Hamilton, on the “pro” side in both cases, won out. (The last word on using the Founding Fathers as a rhetorical trope can be found here.)
On the subject of our Founding Fathers, I do wish that “partisanship” would recover from the undeserved savaging James Madison gave it 220 years ago (he called it “faction”). But I still found it unsettling that most of yesterday’s speakers felt the need to promote very specific initiatives by administrations of their party: the stimulus, health care reform, the Bush tax cuts, Dodd-Frank, etc. Who proposed these measures, and the fact that they were proposed, has no bearing on whether expenditures or tax cuts should be used to stimulate the economy. For that matter, which past legislation led to the economic downturn has some bearing (but not much) on which will get us out. Multiple speakers on both sides declared, “We are not here to play the blame game.” Yet they spent much of their time doing exactly that. It felt to me as if half the debate was about the alleged failures of the Bush and Clinton administrations.
In any case, the most obvious success the debate could have would be as a “respite from political platitudes,” in the DP’s words. So how did it fare on that score? The aforementioned “we’re not here to play the blame game” and Founding Fathers reference tell most of that tale. We heard stories of small towns in Midwestern farm country, insistences that Americans should make things in America (from both sides), barbs about “the failed policies that got us here,” and so on. The final Democrat closed with the repeated exhortation that “If you believe [thing one], there’s only one party you should vote for this Fall. If you believe [thing two], there’s only one party…” And the closing words of the whole debate – taken, I suspect, not from the writings of Lincoln but from the back cover of Mark Levin’s book – were “Liberty and Tyranny.” The final speaker, Jan Egeman, is obviously deeply engaged with political ideas. He is obviously sincere in his desire to improve the United States. But the fact is that Lincoln spoke those words about slavery, not taxes; and any attempt to give your ideas the force of those words should relate to slavery, not taxes.
I have to say that I would very much have preferred to sit through this debate than through many other political debates. We didn’t hear a word about witchcraft, how people’s opponents were Nazis, or any of that. But we can’t measure our success against Christine O’Donnell. We can’t measure our success against Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann.
The important thing is this: as long as politicians have reason to believe that platitudes will be successful and that pathos will win out over logos, nobody can blame politically involved students for echoing their tropes. The point of political activism is not to come up with wonderful ideas, after all – it’s to make society better. You just can’t do that without your people in office, and you can’t get your people in office without getting them elected. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” as the saying goes.
In times past, the level of discourse has been maintained by one elitism or another – from lords to landholders to Latin-readers – and I certainly don’t advocate for a return to those systems. For one thing, our current Ivy elitism isn’t getting the job done anyway. I don’t want to engage in declinism here, since I think we’ll get by as humans always have. But as I see it, either the bulk of the populace will stop accepting facile arguments uncritically, or the intellectual discourse will become unalterably unhinged from the political. We can see that already if we hold up Supreme Court confirmation hearings alongside nominees’ publications. We don’t quite see it yet in electoral politics, but we might get there soon. Once again, I applaud Penn Dems, Penn College Republicans, and Philo for trying to fight that trend, and I encourage them to keep trying.