By Nicole Wong
The School of Social Science’s Dean’s Ambassadors Council (DAC) hosted their 9th Annual Hot Topics Debate last Wednesday in Donald Bren Hall. At the debate, political science professors William Schonfeld and Mark Petracca debated whether the success of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns constitute a revolution in American politics.
Professor Schonfeld, who took the affirmative, began by explaining that because the American political system is run by two dominating parties, there is “no space for any other political views.” Therefore, third parties are no more than “a bit of noise in the background” and have no influence in politics, but candidates have still run for election.
He then laid out some characteristics of Trump and Sanders.
“[Trump’s] connection to the Republican Party is minimal and uncertain,” said Schonfeld. “[He] has no prior experience whatsoever in a political elected office or as a major figure in the military and is strongly and virtually unanimously opposed by the Republican Party leadership.”
Schonfeld then turned to Sanders, stating that Sanders has held a political office since 1981 “but never as a Democrat.”
Schonfeld argued that Trump and Sanders look like third party candidates, and the fact that they are doing so well in the two major parties is revolutionary and undermines the American political system.
Professor Petracca directly opposed the use of the word “revolutionary.”
“Where is the revolution?” he said. “If the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were revolutionizing American politics, you’d think the evidence for revolution would be all around us. But it’s not, is it?”
Petracca went on to explain both Sanders and Trump unnecessarily use the word “revolution” to describe their campaigns and themselves.
“Simply using the word ‘revolution’ does not make the campaigns revolutionary, no more than naming a house cat ‘Tiger’ makes that cat an actual tiger,” said Petracca.
“No political revolution has ever taken place at the ballot box,” he said, listing various revolutions, like the French and Haitian, to compare them to this year’s presidential election. Each major historical political revolution has involved widespread violence, and “a couple of people getting beat up at Trump rallies” is not evidence enough to be considered a revolution.
Petracca asserted that Trump and Sanders are not undermining anything. They are simply running campaigns by playing on voters’ fears and angers, which is what all candidates do. He also pointed out that there is nothing distinctive about “two upper-class white men from the east side of New York” running for president.
Both debaters then had a chance for rebuttal.
“What’s happened in this campaign is something brand-new, totally unprecedented, and it matters,” said Schonfeld.
“I’m not going to use this sort of abusive language that Donald Trump and Mark Petracca used because I just think that’s below our level,” he quipped.
Petracca reiterated that “revolution” has become synonymous with “change.”
“If ‘unusual’ change is the standard,” said Petracca, “then just about anything constitutes that.”
Petracca also directly opposed Schonfeld’s claim that third party candidates have no influence.
“Third party challenges at the presidential level, historically in the 20th century, have been enormously consequential. They may not resolve in the third party candidate winning…but they make it possible for people who wouldn’t have ordinarily won to win.”
The debaters then took questions from the audience.
One audience member asked why primaries are not open to all people regardless of their political affiliation.
Professor Petracca pointed out that parties are regulated by the state and are not mentioned in the Constitution. This results in fifty different voting systems. He added that lack of national legislation for a standard voting process is an issue.
Another audience member wanted to know what makes Trump so successful if he and Sanders have similar characteristics.
“Most people listen to him,” said Schonfeld. “He says things that they haven’t said before and for a large number of people, many of the things he says, that’s not crazy.”
Petracca argued that the rules of the system are what prevent Sanders from winning and what keeps Trump on top. Any candidate can win by following the rules.
“The rules will produce the outcome,” he said.
Throughout the event both professors frequently made jabs at each other, which entertained the audience. Petracca often commented on Schonfeld’s old age.
“Be polite to Professor Schonfeld tonight,” said Petracca at one point. “At his age he needs that kind of tenderness.”
“What? What did you say?” joked Schonfeld.
Schonfeld also preferred to walk around when he spoke and directly approached those who asked questions while Petracca chose to remain at his podium.
“I admire your tact of going behind the timekeeper,” teased Petracca as Schonfeld moved towards the back of the room.
However, the two put jokes aside as they made their closing arguments.
“If big change is the definition of revolutionary and if big change has to be somewhat unique in order for this resolution to be true, the resolution can’t be true because we’ve seen big change before,” said Petracca.
Schonfeld, on the other hand, held that the campaigns of Trump and Sanders are revolutionary because they will address race and other prevalent issues in our society.
“This is more important than a woman getting elected president and an African-American getting elected president because those things involve people with differences that were a sign that our society is becoming more open,” said Schonfeld.
DAC member Stephanie Fernandez hopes that events like these will bridge the gap between students and teachers in a situation outside of the classroom.
“I just hope that [students] can have a good time with the professors, see them in a different light, but also see a different point of view and just be able to learn from the whole experience,” said Fernandez.