Public Editor: Campus politics – not just a series of events

Ben Armstrong

Bipartisanship has arrived at Northwestern, this paper claimed after the College Republicans collaborated with the College Democrats in organizing a debate between former DNC Chairman Howard Dean (D-VT) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA). The announcement was as superficial as the agreement that inspired it.

While leaders of both campus political parties appear satisfied with the armistice that led to the debate, their cooperation nearly unraveled before the event was announced. As a member of the Republicans sought to leak news of the debate and ultimately posted an announcement on-line, the Democrats were wary to make anything public before the contracts were signed, sealed, and delivered. National party cultures were on display: the Republicans were aggressive, and the Democrats legalistic.

The arrival of two high-profile political leaders seems a boon for campus political discussion in preparation for the mid-term elections. However, NU’s political discourse – and this paper’s coverage of it – is flagging not in stars, but in substance. The front-page story announcing the Dean/Santorum debate gave no clear reason for students to attend other than to take a picture and say, “I was there.” Will students be able to ask questions or offer comments? Is the purpose to host a political slugfest that lands on YouTube, or to inform students of the substantive choices in and implications of the forthcoming elections?

We should measure NU’s level of political participation not in the number of voters registered for the next election or the number of students who attend a speaker, but in the number of students who ask provocative questions and initiate substantial discussions. ASG, The Daily and political groups across campus are complicit in measuring success on the number of participants instead of the quality of participation. Northwestern’s politics is a series of isolated lectures and seminars wanting of continuity.

The Daily is a weak and passive bystander in NU’s (similarly weak and passive) culture of political exchange. It is not enough to print press releases and notices of events on campus. Tell students why these events are compelling. Make a case for learning about Dean’s ideas for campaign finance reform and challenging Santorum’s understanding of civil rights. Generate questions in advance of the debate to frame the issues that might be discussed. Interview the moderator and allow them to preview what students might learn from the divergent perspectives. Host a pre-debate in these pages where students give their thoughts on the topics to be covered. Most importantly, do not stop when the debate does.

While campus political groups should work to situate their events in a broader political conversation, The Daily needs to track, stoke and frame this conversation in a way that provokes new questions and attracts new participants. Forum should do more to continue coverage of campus news events, representing multiple opinions not only as guest columns, but also as shorter clips and quotes. High-profile speeches on campus should be met with reaction columns from those interested in the topic at hand.

The danger of accepting a series of isolated political spectacles is that we will leave Northwestern having seen heads of state, diplomats, authors and activists without remembering what any of them said – or refused to say.

Ben Armstrong is a Weinberg senior. He can be reached at [email protected]