Against Abstraction

image via Creative Commons

by Emma Marsano

Last week, Dartmouth’s College Democrats and College Republicans held a debate, reinstating a lapsed tradition on campus. As the room filled up, two Republicans and three Democrats settled themselves behind a long table, flanked by moderator Dean Lacy, Professor of Government. Audience members chatted restlessly, some balancing dinner on their laps. Noticing that the two Republican debaters were dressed in suits, while their opponents wore matching Democratic donkey t-shirts, someone called out, “Democrats don’t wear suits because we don’t need ‘em!”

Echoing such audience gibes, the five debaters showed strong allegiance to their parties from start. In their opening statement, the Republicans thanked the Democrats for coming, because “we know it can be hard for you guys to confront opposing viewpoints,” focusing immediately on the state of political discourse at the national level, rather than establishing fresh expectations for the event at hand. Such allusions to partisan animosity peppered the conversation that followed. Though “The Great Debate” was extremely substantive overall, the focus on national-level party politics was concerning, not because it lowered the level of discourse, but because it reflected a widespread belief on campus: that “politics” are reserved for the national level, removed from students’ daily lives.

To clarify: it’s certainly important for college students to be informed about national and global politics, so that we can vote for candidates whose views reflect our own and understand the political climate within which we exist. But we must focus on how national and global issues manifest themselves locally. Otherwise, we ignore the fact that we as college students are already political actors. Those of us who are US citizens over the age of eighteen can vote. What’s more, each of us is implicated in the political realities that define this country, on the basis of our race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, socioeconomic status, and presence on Dartmouth’s campus. In addition to impacting our every social interaction, our identities along these axes help determine our access to civil rights, social services, and financial stability. Those of us who are not aware of the extent to which our race, gender, and socioeconomic status have shaped our lives are likely benefitting from existing laws and social systems that were built for people like us. The ability to think of politics only in the abstract is a privilege that more Dartmouth students must address explicitly going forward.

A series of comments made during the debate highlighted the urgency of these concerns. Touting the potential of deregulation to make healthcare more affordable, one Republican representative cited the power of free-market competition, claiming that certain goods which were once luxury items are now very affordable: “Today, anyone can afford a plane ticket [or] a flat-screen TV!” Beyond being a shaky analogy for the sale of health insurance, this statement ignored the reality that airfare can still be prohibitively expensive, leading some Dartmouth students to stay on campus between terms rather than going home.

When the debate turned to immigration, the Republican representatives’ easy and often-vitriolic use of the term “illegal immigrants” suggested at best an ignorance that some Dartmouth students are undocumented, if not a callous disregard for the challenges facing undocumented students. (There was no mention of the successful campaign of a group of Dartmouth students to push the Library of Congress to stop using the words “illegal” and “alien” to refer to undocumented immigrants in 2016.)

Finally, the discussion of counterterrorism touched on the responsibility of the United States to civilians in other countries, whose lives are impacted by the violence of American counterterrorism efforts. However, none of the debaters mentioned now-Senator Maggie Hassan’s position as the only Democratic governor to support a temporary halt on Syrian refugees entering the US in November 2015. The omission meant a missed opportunity to explore party politics at the state level, where Dartmouth students can have a direct impact.

Perhaps Professor Lacy put it best when he prefaced a question on the Affordable Care Act with the qualifier, “Maybe you can figure out what Congress couldn’t…” As his words suggest, there’s something perfunctory about a group of college students rehashing arguments taking place in Washington, D.C., without factoring in our immediate circumstances. We’re unlikely to stumble upon novel solutions given our limited knowledge and experience, and yet we neglect our actual sphere of influence in the interest of focusing on the national level.

I don’t mean to suggest that “The Great Debate” was not a successful event. On the contrary, it was extremely substantive, partisan bickering aside. Both teams came prepared with detailed research on the topics at hand, and their focus was largely on the ideological differences that guided their divergent interpretations of empirical data. As one spectator remarked, the level of discourse likely exceeded that of the Presidential debates during the 2016 General Election. With the exception of several deliberately provocative comments – like the Republicans’ assertion in their closing statement that “Obamacare is a European socialist program leading us down the road to serfdom,” which elicited waves of laughter from the audience – all involved committed themselves to having a nuanced discussion.

But the assumption underlying the event – that to debate politics means only to echo conversations taking place at the national level – is dangerous, because it masks the reality that “politics” exist everywhere, and that big-picture change starts locally. It is the acknowledgement of these truths that empowers students to engage with the world. Without it, we wouldn’t see student movements like Divest Dartmouth, holding protests to pressure the administration to divest from companies that extract fossil fuels. We wouldn’t see student activists writing documents like Dartmouth’s Freedom Budget, a list of demands compiled in 2014 to address the ways in which the institution ignores the needs of marginalized communities on campus. This movement was instrumental in shaping the administration’s Moving Dartmouth Forward campaign (though MDF’s practical success is a topic for another day).

I’m not arguing that political awareness must lead in every case to activism, which is just one important component of political participation. Rather, I’m stressing the importance of direct engagement in politics because our actions are constrained by the scope of our awareness. To be ignorant that one’s existence has political implications is to be shielded by privilege of some kind. The shields of Dartmouth many students deny us the agency to challenge structural inequities in the world around us, perpetuating our complicity in systems of oppression.

Obviously, the tendency to treat “politics” as an abstract entity did not originate with the College Democrats and Republicans, and my intent is not to generalize from one event to suggest that the clubs don’t engage with politics at the local level. Just last week, the College Democrats visited Concord, the seat of New Hampshire’s state legislature, to defend the voting rights of college students in the state. In addition, as chapters of outreach organizations that encourage college students to affiliate with the Democratic and Republican parties, these clubs do have a responsibility to be familiar with their parties’ positions on national issues. But knowledge of a party’s positions and reflection on how those ideologies play out locally are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they must go hand-in-hand.

I’m calling for a rejection of the political abstraction that divides the Dartmouth bubble from the “real world.” Our potential impact as Dartmouth students is real, and our presence on this campus is inherently political; it’s time to stop pretending otherwise

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