Campus | May 5, 2017 at 9:00 am

“Safe Space”: The Harvard Political Union and the 2016 Election

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On November 9th, Harvard Yard was silent. The election was on everyone’s minds, but nobody wanted to discuss it, barring the occasional hushed exchange between close friends. Many of my friends expressed a fear of controversy or misunderstanding that deterred them from speaking about the election. The tense and restrained campus atmosphere revealed a need for a civil and constructive space for political discussion.  While most of Harvard’s campus was subdued that evening, the Harvard Political Union held its regular Wednesday meeting. We openly discussed our reactions to the election, our predictions for the future, and how the election’s result impacted our perception of the American presidency. The Harvard Political Union is a forum to debate political issues. But in an election year defined by the polarization of national politics and the breakdown of constructive dialogue in many arenas, the HPU was a place for objective and fierce evidence-based disagreement.

As the center of political debate and discourse on campus, the HPU holds weekly club debates, organizes discussions on political issues between students and expert guests, and hosts large-forum debates between student organizations. Students from all experiences, backgrounds, and political philosophies come to the HPU to have their opinions heard and challenged as part of a welcoming community. According to Christopher Cruz ’17, “the HPU is the hub for both informal and formal political debate and discussion. […] In a sense, it’s really the heart of the Institute of Politics.”

Immune from Acrimony

While the HPU has always had an important role in facilitating open political discussion on campus, in 2016, this task became even more important. One crucial way the HPU lived up to its mission was by facilitating non-election related discussions, which provided a sense of insulation and normalcy throughout the turbulence of the 2016 election season. Despite the increasingly acrimonious tone of national discussions, the HPU remained a space for civil debate. According to Raya Koreh ’18, chair of the HPU in 2016, “Although the 2016 election certainly changed the HPU’s external role on campus [because] the campus was always abuzz with the latest election-related news and students were eager to come to election-related events, … the inward-facing role of the HPU was relatively immune to the craze of the election.” She emphasized that the HPU “managed to avoid focusing only on the election, not by being ‘apolitical’ but rather by keeping in view the wide range of other issues that matter and discussions to be had.”

The HPU’s insulation from the bitter national political scene was evident in our first weekly debate of the spring semester. New members crowded the IOP’s main conference room to discuss the expansion of school choice initiatives. The meeting happened to fall on the day after the Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos as Trump’s Secretary of Education, a controversial event largely due to DeVos’ support for school choice programs. Since we had chosen our debate topic a week in advance, the HPU’s executive board worried that the timing of the confirmation hearing would cause the debate to devolve into a heated argument about the Trump administration, rather than a discussion of the merits of school choice programs. As I stood up to give the opening speech for the affirmative side, I made a disclaimer to the audience: “I know that this is a very timely topic, given Betsy DeVos’ confirmation yesterday. It’s important to note that an argument for or against school choice is not an argument for or against Betsy DeVos’ confirmation. This doesn’t have to be a debate about the DeVos confirmation; it will only be one if you all make it that way.”

To my surprise, that was the only time DeVos’ name was mentioned throughout the entirety of the debate. For the next 45 minutes, the HPU objectively analyzed the merits of voucher programs and charter schools, discussing issues like educational equity, racial segregation, and school funding. As I listened to our members’ arguments, I felt particularly grateful for the opportunity to participate in a space for civil political discourse that remained focused on the substantive advantages or disadvantages of policies, rather than their current controversy in the context of the new administration.

Objective Political Discussion

The strength of the HPU is the way in which it encourages political debate based on evidence, not party loyalty. As the nation transitioned from President Obama’s leadership to the first few weeks of the Trump administration, the HPU continued to promote constructive political dialogue while avoiding the toxic polarization afflicting national politics. In late February, we debated the resolution: “All things considered, President Obama’s foreign policy record was a failure.” As an explicit call to evaluate an administration, the resolution would have easily allowed the debate to devolve into a collection of broad statements about Obama that were little more than personal political opinions hypercharged by a contrast with the new administration.

Instead, HPU members cited specific examples for analysis, such as the Syrian “red line” incident, the Iran nuclear deal, and the U.S. intervention in Libya. We debated the importance of international law, American leadership in the world, and respect for the sovereignty of other nations. Rather than defer to their general opinions about the former president, members conducted a deep and objective analysis of the most important foreign policy events from the past eight years.

The debate’s objectivity was especially notable to Chris Kuang ’20, who was debating the negative side of the resolution—that President Obama’s foreign policy had been a success. Given Harvard’s relatively liberal campus, Kuang expected “a generally friendly audience.” But rather than instinctively deferring to any existing partisan loyalties, HPU members objectively assessed the evidence presented. Kuang recalls, “Mack Andrews ’18, who was debating against me as the affirmative, brought compelling evidence and was very persuasive, eventually winning over almost the entire audience. In a room of many strong allegiances to former President Obama, it was refreshing to see that facts and convincing analysis had won the day, even though I lost the debate.”

The foreign policy debate adhered to the HPU model of constructive political discussion. As members frequently boast, the HPU is “a great place to argue your opinion, have your beliefs challenged, and still be friends with everyone afterwards.” During my relatively short time at the HPU, I have made several very close friends with whom I argue almost every week. Often, I spend an entire meeting trying to refute all of their claims and then rave to them on the walk home about how much I loved their arguments. The HPU’s welcoming community creates a comfortable environment that allows political debate to build relationships, rather than damage them.

The political surprises and controversies of 2016 have tested the limits of respectful and objective political discussion. As the national political climate became increasingly polarized over the past year, the HPU fulfilled a critical need for a space free from hostility. As a nonpartisan debate group with a tight-knit community of members, the HPU facilitated cordial political discussions, looking beyond the current political context to substantive policy analysis. In an email on the morning of November 9th regarding plans for that evening’s meeting, Raya Koreh ’18, then the HPU chair, adroitly summarized the role of the HPU on that day and throughout the past year: “Perhaps a bit of normalcy will be good—everyone just being together, discussing and debating. Politics is more than just this one moment.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia/DnetSvg

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