Panel Discusses Political Discourse and the Midterm Elections

Alumni political experts commented on the recent political violence and hate crimes and explored the future of civil discourse as midterm elections approach.

Political Discourse 2018
Left to right: Frank Sesno, Andrew Desiderio, Joanna Rodriguez and Jacob Sherman discussed political discourse and the midterm elections during George Washington University’s Colonials Weekend. (William Atkins/GW Today)
October 29, 2018

By Tatyana Hopkins

The country should not expect to see an improvement in its divided political discourse if Democrats in next week’s midterm elections win enough congressional races to take control of the House of Representatives, said Jacob Sherman, a senior writer at Politico and author of the Politico Playbook.  

“There's this idea that the Democrats are going to come in, and the president is going to work with [them]—get real,” said Mr. Sherman, B.A. ’08. “He is going to try to work with the Democrats, but the Democratic base does not want any cooperation with this president at all.”

Mr. Sherman said polarity of the political parties tends to begin in the primary elections.  

“Most members of Congress go home, and their principal political hurdle is a primary. So, they're always playing to the extreme elements of their party, both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I think that is a big problem in politics today.”

Mr. Sherman spoke Sunday on a panel about political discourse and other key issues shaping today’s political landscape and driving the midterm elections. The discussion was hosted by the School of Media and Public Affairs and was part of the week the George Washington University’s Colonials Weekend.

SMPA Director Frank Sesno moderated the panel that also included Joanna Rodriguez, B.A. ’13, and M.P.S. ’15, communications director for Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), and Andrew Desiderio, B.A. ’17, a congressional reporter for the Daily Beast. 

Mr. Sesno said the country has grown more divided under the leadership of President Donald Trump. He said rather than unite the country to build his base after his election, Mr. Trump continues to appeal to the members of his party that elected him.

“I have not seen a moment like this, here in Washington and in our politics, where we are this divided, where we are this suspicious of one another,” Mr. Sesno said. “Polls show that now people are less comfortable with a child bringing home, as a potential partner, someone from the other party than they are as someone from another race.”

Last week, authorities said a Trump supporter sent at least a dozen explosive packages to critics of the president, a gunman killed 11 worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue and another gunman killed two black shoppers at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky after failing to gain entry to a nearby black church filled with worshippers. In addition to the bombs and shootings, Ms. Rodriguez said, Mr. Curbelo also received a death threat online.

“I by no means blame everything on Donald Trump, but he is a different kind of leader in a different kind of time,” Mr. Sesno said. Mr. Trump “both reflects and he magnifies” trends in the nation’s current attempts at civil discourse, he said.

 Ms. Rodriguez said that the recent political violence and hate crimes are “a sign of where discourse has gone, and is really just broken.”

“To see it becoming increasingly more prevalent is a threat to our very existence as a country and who we are and our values,” she said.

Politicians, the media and citizens will have to play a role in reshaping civil discourse to prevent more political violence, but she said no one has “taken the first step to do the right thing.”

“The proof is in races like ours,” she said.

Ms. Rodriguez said Democrats have heavily outspent her boss, Mr. Curbelo, in his south Florida race in an effort to oust him despite that fact that he has been ranked the fourth most bipartisan member of Congress and agrees with Democrats on issues such as immigration, gun safety and climate change.

“They want to get him out because a moderate like that is a threat to exactly what they want— a Democratic majority that isn't going to get anything done for at least two years.

“What you've seen for a long time is either the most progressive side of the Democratic caucus or the most conservative side of the Republican caucus,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

Mr. Desiderio said based on his coverage of the neck-and-neck Senate race in Tennessee between Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen, it is clear that voters want a candidate who can work across the aisle.

“Over the past few years, the message of bridging the partisan divides, reaching across the aisle, hasn't been a successful political message,” he said. “But when I was in Tennessee talking to people, that was the main theme I heard—people want someone who is going bridge the partisan divide especially in light of the assassination attempts.”

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