On the evening of Monday, Sept. 26, Occidental’s World Talk Club — a student organization that engages in discussions about current events — hosted a public screening of the first presidential debate in Choi Auditorium. Students crammed into the auditorium long after the seats had been filled, crouching in aisles, perching on railings and leaning against walls. All were eager to see the two candidates, whom they had watched exchange vicious attacks all summer, finally face off in their first televised debate.
Throughout the debate, students reacted vocally to what occurred onscreen. They clapped and cheered at the candidates’ particularly effective jabs, and booed the policies and practices that they deemed unsatisfactory.
Francisco Esquer* (first year) said he believed that these interjections detracted from what he saw as the original purpose of screening the debate.
“A clear understanding of the candidates’ policies is going to be hugely important in deciding the future of our nation,” Esquer said. “The interjections were not conducive to discussion, and they just made things more polarized.”
Hannah Case (first year) agreed that these comments might have alienated some students. She added that some of her conservative friends, in anticipation of this strongly left-wing sentiment, went elsewhere to watch the debate.
“Oxy is very left-leaning, and I think that people’s reactions reflected that,” Case said. “I didn’t find it discomfiting myself, but I understand how that could make people with an opposing or more conservative viewpoint feel uncomfortable.”
Other students believed that active participation in and interrogation of the candidates’ performances was an essential part of watching the debate as a community. Anna Palmer (sophomore) contended that experiencing the debate as a community allowed individuals to learn from one another and engage more deeply with the candidates’ platforms.
“I learned a lot about topics I didn’t know from the exchange of comments I often had with viewers around me,” Palmer said.
Following the first debate, Esquer, Case and Palmer all agreed that the next two should also be publicly screened.
“[This] is a critical time in the United States,” Palmer said. “The very fabric of our nation is coming into question [and] values of basic human rights are being threatened.”
Although a post-debate analysis, hosted by Professors Caroline Heldman and Roger George, did take place the day after the debate, none of the students interviewed were aware of its existence. Attendance was limited by the fact that the email was only addressed to students in the politics and Diplomacy and World Affairs departments.
As a result, when asked what could be done to improve future debate screenings, Esquer suggested that the presentation would benefit from scheduling a post-debate discussion immediately after the fact, during which students could engage in a balanced discussion of the candidates’ performances.
Case agreed, stating that a post-debate discussion, if carefully moderated, would go a long way toward creating a safe space for students.
“You have to create the right environment, and that can be very difficult,” Case said. “It shouldn’t be a repeat of the kind of performance we saw from a certain candidate during the first debate. There should be a variety of perspectives to engage with.”
For many Occidental students this will be the first time they cast a ballot for a presidential candidate. According to Palmer, too many young voters underestimate the importance of engaging with local politics in addition to participating on a national level if they truly hope to shape the nation’s future.
“We live in a bureaucracy, where true power lies [within] the local and state governments,” Palmer said. “I want to encourage people to be [politically active] at the local level if they want to make real change in Congress and, consequently, in policy.”
*Esquer is a Weekly staff member.
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