Campus Speech and the Politics of Consensus
BY: NICK BECKER, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR
During a school wide assembly at the end of the school year, students had the unique opportunity to hear a speech by one of the most influential politicians in Pennsylvania: House Speaker Mike Turzai. Although I was taking the AP United States History exam during assembly, I talked to dozens of people to hear their reaction to the speech and one of my breaks coincided with the end of Rep. Turzai’s remarks and the beginning of the question and answer segment. It was then that I witnessed the now infamous question posed by Form V student and dear friend, Fuad Youssef. Here is the exact text of the question Fuad asked: “Speaker Turzai, in 2012 you said that voter ID laws would help Mitt Romney win Pennsylvania. Can you clarify that comment and can you justify your continued support for voter ID laws despite the fact that there is little to no evidence of voter fraud and these laws disproportionately burden minorities and the elderly?”
To be clear, this question is 100% supported by facts. According to PoliticsPA.com, Rep. Turzai, at a Republican State Committee meeting in June 2012, cited a long list of Republican goals in Pennsylvania including, “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” The problem with Rep. Turzai’s position is that voter fraud that can be stopped by voter ID laws is a non-issue. A policy brief from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law notes a five year study by the George W. Bush Justice Department found only 86 confirmed cases of individuals casting fraudulent votes; out of 196,139,871 ballots cast. The Brennan Center brief humorously concludes, “Statistically, Americans are more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning” than cast a fraudulent vote.
This, then, begs Fuad’s question of why Rep. Turzai and so many Republicans are out to find these nonexistent fraudulent votes. The answer is in the demographic problem for the Republican Party. African Americans, who have faced bitter attempts in the past to keep them from voting, vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. Interestingly, African Americans are far less likely to possess a photo ID than whites. And they aren’t the only ones; Students, citizens with disabilities, the elderly, and other minority groups face discrimination under voter ID laws. It is no wonder why a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge ruled the voter ID law that Rep. Turzai sponsored, Act 18, unconstitutional. With Rep. Turzai grandstanding for a run for governor in 2018, Fuad’s question was extremely important in ascertaining Rep. Turzai’s current position on the issue and his true reasoning behind that position.
Now that we examined the forces behind Fuad’s question, let us look at Rep. Turzai’s answer. By all accounts, Rep. Turzai gave a meandering response that first accused Fuad’s question of having too many “presumptions,” then cited cases of fraud in absentee voting, which, by the way, cannot be stopped by voter ID laws, and concluded with an intentionally emotional but unrelated monologue about his philosophy of “one person, one vote.” In essence, Rep. Turzai gave the stereotypical response of a politician who is confronted with a tough question. That is to be expected. And while the obvious goal of Fuad’s question was to seek clarity on Rep. Turzai’s position, it also sought to stoke debates and discussions among the student body about voter ID laws. However, the debate about Fuad’s question was not about voter ID laws. Instead, students and faculty alike were divided over whether Fuad’s question was too “rude” to Rep. Turzai to be asked in the first place.
This division highlights a troubling trend in our school that is emblematic of the state of our society as a whole. The 2016 election cycle was unprecedented in its brutal negativity that would have left the country badly divided no matter who won. While there has been an outbreak of increased political awareness in some sectors of the public in the wake of the election, the rise of a silent majority, who unconsciously want to avoid a replay of the horrors of the 2016 election cycle by divorcing themselves entirely from “political talk,” has accompanied the new activists. That standoffish approach to politics has clearly rooted itself at my school. The leaders of our school, including both student leaders, faculty, and the administration, made a gallant effort after the election by calling for increased empathy and respect for one another’s opinions. However, the way we seem to be accomplishing that goal is by eliminating political opinions altogether from the school environment. I do not believe this is a conscious effort, nor do I believe it is the sole fault of the leaders of our school. Instead, we, and by “we” I mean the school as a whole, are spending too much time and effort tip-toeing around topics that could ignite people’s passions and, by doing so, we have created a climate in our school that is dismissive of political thought and inquiry. Not only is this unconscious effort antithetical to my school’s mission to challenge students to “think expansively, act ethically, and lead responsibly,” it is also downright dangerous to our democracy.
Back to Fuad. During last period in US History, where Fuad is my classmate, many people high-fived him on his thorough question. This congratulatory tone was in sharp contrast to other students whom I talked to after school. Many of them felt Fuad’s question too critical of Rep. Turzai. While I made it clear I strongly disagreed with their characterization, I did not share the same euphoria that my history classmates and friends had when they congratulated Fuad. Fuad is not a hero, or at least he should not be in an ideal society, nor was he being disrespectful. He was doing his job as a good citizen in a democracy by holding an elected official accountable for his past, present, and future stances on an issue that could impact many Americans. Fuad’s question should not be met with surprise, pleasant or otherwise. When political thinkers come to our school to speak, particularly elected representatives like Rep. Turzai, they should fully expect to be held accountable for their actions. After all, our government is of, by, and for the people. And we are the people.
There is a reason why a schism exists between the two reactions to Fuad’s question. We, as a school, have not done enough to engage each other on controversial problems. Prejudices on both sides of any issue, coupled with our aversion to any form controversy, has blocked the vision of the consensus: many people with many viewpoints coming together to find common ground. Now there is hope. At my high school, in fact, there have been initial attempts to open the road to a consensus. Our Political Science Club, Democratic Student Union, and the Patriot Society held a joint discussion in January to discuss the future of healthcare in the United States. There were perhaps a dozen or so people at the meeting and both liberal and conservative viewpoints were represented. As you can imagine, there were disagreements and, at times, the discussion got heated. Yet, we walked out with one idea we all agreed upon: Americans are entitled to have access to quality and affordable healthcare. We did not, yet, agree upon a politician or policy that would fulfill that vision, but at least we had found a common end goal for our future discussions. But less than a dozen people coming sporadically to some meetings after school does not cut it. We need to radically change the way that we view politics and political inquiry at my school and society as a whole.
This is my plea to anyone who is reading this article: let our school, our local democracy, become the “forum” where we stand on equal ground to disseminate, discuss, and engage ourselves in the great issues of our time. But most importantly, let us listen to each other’s opinions, keeping in mind others’ perspective and our own, so that we may find a dialogue in which we can begin to build a consensus. Our nation needs it.
Photo Credits: By Jenn Grover [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons