Socialists mop the floor in election debate

March 14, 2016

Laura Snedeker reports on a lively election debate in which both Republicans and Democrats shifted sharply left in order to dodge the criticisms of the DePaul Socialists.

NEARLY 150 students gathered at DePaul University in Chicago on Super Tuesday to watch the DePaul Socialists face off in a heated debate with the College Republicans and Democrats about the economy, foreign policy, immigration and racial justice.

In her opening statement, Hannah Utain-Evans, a student at DePaul and a member of the DePaul Socialists, placed the polarization of American politics and the various issues swirling around Election 2016 in a larger context:

People see the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few; they see the corrupt campaign finance system that allows billionaires to buy elections. We've had mass protests, like in Ferguson and Baltimore; movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Wisconsin State Capitol occupation; and the Chicago teachers strike in 2012.

Right-wing populism says things are bad--blame the immigrants. Blame the Muslims. Blame the poor. Left-wing populism says things are bad--blame the bankers and the rich, then tax the rich, create jobs and provide education. It's this tradition of left-wing populism that Bernie Sanders and his call for a political revolution come from--and that's a call that we, as socialists, absolutely agree with.

Debating Election 2016 at DePaul University in Chicago
Debating Election 2016 at DePaul University in Chicago

The Republicans, who turned out several people from the nearby Lincoln Park Republican Club, used their opening statement to refute claims that they are a party of "old white men" by naming Republicans such as Mia Love, Bobby Jindal, Olympia Snowe and others. The Lincoln Park Republicans distinguished themselves by wearing Trump hats and occasionally waving a handmade sign that said, "Keep America American."

Repeatedly demonstrating that they were the most prepared debaters on stage, the socialists went on the attack after Republican Brendan Newell talked about the need for less financial regulation and a simpler tax code. "The reason we have rich people is because we have poor people," said socialist Jon Kurinsky, who made up the other half of the socialist debate team.

Kurinsky explained that it's not difficult to find the money needed to finance a better standard of living for working people and better social services for the public generally: tax the rich and corporations that have been the chief beneficiaries of the economic recovery since 2008. Higher taxes on corporations and a financial transaction tax are two ways to generate revenue--instead of raising property and sales taxes that disproportionately affect poor and working people.

NEWELL'S COMPLAINT that the socialists were "vilifying bankers" drew laughs from the crowd. "Banks are fundamental to our society," he said in response to the socialist case that bankers and CEOs should be held responsible for the Great Recession and that we should tax the wealthy to pay for social programs. The Democrats argued that the banks had done their part and "paid us back with interest" in the wake of Obama's massive bailout of the financial system in 2008.

Twice the Republicans tried to challenge the socialists by talking about how Venezuela is "running out of toilet paper," with Newell saying that he would rather live in a country with poor people than have toilet paper lines. Kurinsky responded by saying that "if we're going to talk about Venezuela, let's talk about what U.S. foreign policy has done to that country," referring to economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. government and aid to opposition political groups.

Given the young, progressive audience and the steady string of criticism from the socialists, both the Democrats and Republicans on stage shifted sharply to the left in order to gain a hearing--or rather, to avoid being laughed out of the room. The Democrats, for example, readily admitted that going into Iraq was a "mistake," even as they defended Obama's record on foreign policy.

In response to the consistent anti-imperialism of the socialists, the Democrats argued for an aggressive policy of "humanitarian intervention." And they claimed it would be "irresponsible" for the U.S. to simply withdraw from the Middle East without "fixing" what it broke--echoing an argument made by former Secretary of State Colin Powell to Republicans in order to explain that they couldn't simply depose Saddam Hussein and leave.

Although many people in the room seemed split between wanting the U.S. out of the Middle East and thinking the U.S. has a responsibility to clean up its messes, they responded positively when Kurinsky said that we should look at the bloated defense budget when thinking about where to get money for social programs. "Look at the huge percent of the budget that goes to the Pentagon," he said. In 2015, military spending accounted for nearly $600 billion.

Utain-Evans also struck back, asserting that the Democratic Party's "historical record over the past 100 years shows that we've been led into more wars under the Democratic Party than we have under the Republican Party."

DEMOCRAT NASSIR Faulkner, who is African American, came out strongly against police brutality after the Republican Newell said that Black people "commit more crimes."

"When in our country did we decide that committing a crime meant your life was taken away before you were put on trial?" Faulkner asked. "Far too often in this country, you have Black men that are targeted." Democrat Mikayla Ziegler chimed in to say that we need organizations like the Black Panther Party.

For the Republicans, gaining a hearing meant they had to go against their own party's platform. They often seemed confused, a reflection of the disorientation within the party wrought by Trump's candidacy. For example, the Republican debaters called for a flat tax, but crucially said that their flat tax would exempt the poor--seemingly oblivious to the fact that a flat tax that exempts the poor can't be called a flat tax!

They also argued for a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants while simultaneously arguing that they opposed "amnesty." But "amnesty" is precisely the word used by Republican Party leaders to denounce those who favor a "path to citizenship" for the undocumented.

At one point, during a question about abortion rights, Nicole Been, the other half of the Republican debate team and the National Northern Regional Director of Students for Trump, and Newell disagreed over the circumstances in which abortion should be allowed. Newell favored the right to abortion in cases of rape or incest, but Been said she would only defend the right to abortion if the pregnancy threatened the life of the mother.

While both the Republicans and Democrats stressed the importance of voting, the socialists conveyed a different message: that change comes primarily from struggle regardless of who holds office, citing the women's liberation movement that mobilized tens of thousands in the streets in the years leading up to the Roe v. Wade ruling and the civil rights movement that won the end of legal segregation in the American South.

"What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but 'who is sitting in,'" Kurinsky said, quoting Howard Zinn.

The socialists' success at winning the majority of the applause and murmurs of approval throughout the night indicates a broad opening for socialist politics on campus and the need to continue making the argument that those who plan to vote for a socialist should join a socialist organization.

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