This past Sunday, The Argus sat down with students from various political groups on campus for a roundtable discussion. Olivia Ramseur ’23, George Fuss ’21, and Bryan Chong ’21 are a part of the Wesleyan Democrats, Cormac Chester ’20 organizes for USLAC, and Mathias Valenta ’20 heads Wesleyan Republicans. The conversation centered around the Democratic primaries, Joe Biden’s lack of support from left-leaning young voters, and the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren divide that has opened up on the national level and Wesleyan’s campus.
The Argus: How do you guys feel like the Democratic primary and the debates have gone so far? What are you excited about and what are you concerned about?
Olivia Ramseur: I feel like, especially in the format of the debates, we don’t really get a view of what each candidate is trying to say—even though for most people who watch the debate, it’s like the only source that they would have. A lot of people don’t do any outside research on the candidate. But none of [the candidates] get to express what their views are because they get such short time to talk, and so they’re going for these zingy one-liners, and that really…. Like, endorsing these sides or anything, you don’t really get a view of what any of these candidates have to say.
Cormac Chester: It’s a classic shitshow [laughs]. It’s a whole bunch of candidates who are running, who share relatively the same ideological position and are trying in various ways to distinguish themselves, even though they ultimately support the same class interests. And we have one and a half candidates [who are] presenting themselves differently. Because the whole Democratic race is essentially a money-making scheme for large media corporations, you will see if any of the candidates who are being threats to these multimedia corporations then you will these candidates being treated unfairly, unfavorably, in a misleading or mystifying way, or they’re just not portrayed at all.
Bryan Chong: Speaking as someone in WesDems [Wesleyan Democrats]…we want to shift the focus back onto keeping Democratic unity as a whole and pushing forward a progressive agenda. That includes not only paying attention to the presidential race, but also everything else down-ballot. Creating differences can only, to a degree, hurt down-ballot results in Congress, but also in state houses and the state race in Connecticut. And I think there’s evidence that WesDems as a whole could benefit more from the view that we are supporting all people who are advocating for progressive and liberal reforms. And speaking from a personal perspective now, I definitely echo what Cormac said about media bias—there have been very obvious, blatant mischaracterizations of certain candidates, especially those who are explicitly unfriendly towards the establishment. I generally have more of a hopeful view toward the primary, I think there are some very interesting new ideas that are being pushed forward, such as Andrew Yang, who brings a completely new perspective to politics as a whole, not just the presidential race. Another very hopeful thing that we’re seeing with this primary is that it’s just gone more to the left—it’s much more progressive than it was four years ago. What Bernie Sanders was championing four years ago is now, some might argue, the mainstream of the Democratic party. If not as far as demographics, his policies are, as far as “Medicare for All,” free college. The shifting paradigm is a very hopeful thing. And I personally choose to weigh that more than looking at the media shitshow, as Cormac put it. And also the one-liners. Obviously these are problems, right, but personally I choose to weigh the hopefulness of having new ideas come forward and having those ideas becoming the mainstream in this country.
A: On a campus like Wesleyan, and among young people in general, Joe Biden is obviously not that popular. But he still is the frontrunner and draws support for different kinds of communities around the country. How do you guys grapple with this? Is this a tension at all for your groups?
CC: His fucking teeth nearly fell out at the debate. He’s had two pulmonary embolisms. He can’t speak coherently. The only reason people like him is that he’s a rich white dude who represents an old part of the Democratic party.
A: But there’s a reason he’s still ahead in the polls.
CC: Yes, it’s because for people, he represents a part of the Democratic party that they wish they could go back to. They think he can solve their problems.
George Fuss: I don’t really agree with the narrative that he’s super far ahead as the frontrunner—if you look at the early states, he’s not doing all that well. In terms of national polling, if you look at the way their models work, their millennial turnout is way lower than in 2018, which was a midterm election. You also have to take into account that when they do these polls, they’re almost exclusively done on landlines, which people our age have never had. I think polls are notoriously wrong, and even as we saw in 2016, when you’re ahead in the national polls you can still lose. Because the national polls are just not how voting is done. I don’t think it’s Joe Biden or we lose. And personally, I don’t think he can beat Trump based on his debate performance. He seemed totally incoherent, no idea what he was talking about.
OR: And I think he very strongly uses the fact that he was part of the Obama Administration, that’s like his thing, and I feel like he struggles to get past that at all. Everything he mentions is about Obama. Which then has all the other candidates mention Obama, which means we can’t get past that and move on and forward. Everyone’s just trying to go back to Obama. And it’s hard to move past that and see what could happen with the party in the future, beyond Obama.
BC: I think there’s a bit of a bubble around how our demographic thinks, on college campuses especially. I think there is a bit of a disconnect. What seems to be missing from this understanding…is that people operate out of fear. People have been quite frankly terrorized by Trump’s win and the last four years of his administration. And when people are afraid, they default to what is safe. And I think that that is not something we want to see, not only because we could have someone who has a much more progressive ambition than Joe Biden, but also because it is never a great thing. It is not healthy in a democracy to be operating out of fear. Choosing a candidate based on what you’re afraid might happen.
Mathias Valenta: One of the things that’s very striking is that Joe Biden does incredibly well in polls compared to progressive candidates with minorities and with African Americans. And the argument that I’ve heard is basically, often coming from liberals on college campuses, is that they’re so afraid because they’re the ones with the most to lose, so they’re going to go with the safest candidate. But if you actually go by historical trends, African Americans and minorities almost always have supported centrist Democrats. Whereas—
CC: I just don’t think that’s true at all.
MV: It is absolutely true. Historical data will show that the candidates—say the 1968 election, where is was Hubert Humphrey versus McGovern, who was the hardcore, progressive, “We’re going to end the war in Vietnam,” who were the demographic supporting McGovern at the time? Mostly us, mostly rich white kids, who believe that they are the possessors and holders of truth, who are going to bring about progressive utopia in the United States. And the people that have generally been against that have been blue-collar white people in the center of the country, but also African Americans who, you know, who feel a strong sense of condescension from liberal white progressives who are highly educated and who come to their communities and tell them, “We’re going to save you.” And I think that that generally they feel a lot more confidence in say, an establishment Democrat, because to some extent an establishment Democrat says we’re going to preserve things, but we’re not going to interfere and reshape your lives for the better.
CC: I think that that’s very misleading, because people in America are very rightly very suspicious of candidates who claim to be able to change things, who then in fact don’t do anything at all.
A: Okay, transitioning to the Bernie/Warren divide, what do the candidates represent for you guys?
OR: I feel like the aspect that Warren is a female does impact her support. I think a lot of people want to see a female president, and people liked Hillary because they wanted to see a woman as president, so I think the female card is very active in Elizabeth Warren’s campaigning, and I also feel like Bernie doesn’t do as great of a job as he could in gaining support—I think he’s great at keeping the support he has, but I don’t think when he’s out speaking about his policies I don’t think he does a great job of trying to convince people to support him, but I think Elizabeth Warren does a better job of gaining support.
MV: Yeah I think Warren is a better campaigner. We definitely know what Bernie is like at this point at rallies, attacking the one percent…. The whole persona that I think appeals to his base, but I know people who go to Warren events and find her very convincing and has a great way of presenting the issues and creating a strong unifying sense unlike Bernie. And Bernie is a lot more aggressive, while Warren is more constructive.
GF: I want to push back on the idea that their policies are not divergent—obviously they are more similar than the other candidates, but I mean Bernie wants to cancel medical debt and student debt, and they talk about different pathways to universal healthcare. [Warren] wants to put more rules on capitalism versus Bernie’s democrat socialism, and you see that in their donors—I think Bernie’s average household income is something like 40k, while the other candidates are around 100,000.
BC: I think Bernie has been very clear in his intention to continue his movement and drive grassroots support to make local areas more progressive, and I think there’s significance that he’s made that a talking point explicitly. That’s really interesting and a point Obama didn’t make. During his presidency, he failed to capitalize on or continue to push with the social vehicle he created with his campaign in order to drive change on the local level—that’s why they failed during the midterms during his presidency. It was the failure of grassroots organizing. Bernie takes that to the table and drives the social narrative and paradigm more left and bring social causes of class conflict into the fold. Or the idea that there is this massive one percent that exists on both aisles that oppresses the people, as opposed to Republicans versus Democrats. He has this narrative that I think transcends party politics to a degree—I think that him being in office will help drive that narrative across the country, whereas I’m more skeptical that Warren will do that or even has the intention to do that.
MV: I strongly agree with the idea that Bernie certainly carries a real, not just ideological, but social narrative—he’s bringing back a notion of class conflict and a greater sense of history.
BC: Right, which for a long time America was allergic to [because of] the Cold War and such.
MV: Right, but at the same time, it is true that a certain core of his electorate overlaps with Trump’s, that a lot of that traditional working class did vote for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton. What I mean is that there is a class narrative to the nationalist narrative. Trump’s message [is] “the poor classes need to be taken care of.” It’s just that instead of empowering them, [he says] “I’m going to protect them through protectionism and strong man policies, through retaining old industries.” I wonder if during the election whether the working class might be attracted more towards that nationalist narrative, because it includes other elements like identity and social issues, which that demographic in the middle of the country tends to be more attracted to.
CC: That Trump’s base is mainly full of disaffected white working class voters has been exaggerated, and I think it’s true that there is overlap between Sanders and Trump but some people said, “I think we’ll just throw a bomb in the system and see what happens,” and clearly Bernie Sanders appeals to that revolutionary idea.
MV: Right, Trump is not actually questioning the logic of the capitalist system. Elizabeth Warren has the technocratic element that capitalism is good, we can just change it. And Trump thinks he can make capitalism work for the average man, but doesn’t actually change the system, and his policies are actually destructive. Because if we accept a capitalist world framework, then protectionism is actually terrible for workers. But even if their material situation deteriorates, I also think that on issues of identity there is a greater spiritual need that isn’t being answered by Trump. And I think it’s beyond racism. I think that’s an element of it for sure, but I do really believe that there is a sense of deep loss in a globalized capitalist world.
GF: I just want to push back against the narrative that the working class voted for Trump. If you look at Black and Latino voters they overwhelmingly went for Hillary. The average Trump supporter isn’t some rural guy. It’s some suburban guy in Pennsylvania who watches Fox News and hates liberals—it’s not the forgotten man.
MV: But those suburban Republicans are part of the disappearing middle class, who aren’t just the stable suburban Republicans, they’re the Republicans who have seen their wages stagnate for ages, and have been slowly pushed into the working class.
CC: There’s a really interesting analysis by Mike Davis that talks about a strong explanation for Trump winning being a lack of Democratic voter turnout, as opposed to the white working-class vote.
GF: Oh yeah, if you look at Obama, then McCain, then Romney, then Trump, you see a dip for Clinton that is just huge. And Trump barely increases on Romney’s margins at all. It’s enough in a few states to give him the edge but he didn’t, like, massively increase this forgotten voter.
This discussion has been edited for length.
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