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Perez, Steele talk midterm election

DNC chair, former RNC chair stress importance of youth voting, bemoan polarization in Congress

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2018

Former Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez ’83 P’18 sat down yesterday at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs to kick off a two-part forum called “Across the Aisle.” They discussed the upcoming midterm elections, the current state of U.S. politics and the importance of youth engagement in politics. The event was moderated by the Director of the Watson Institute Edward Steinfeld.

Steinfeld emphasized that these forums are meant to provide more than a simple analysis of the midterm elections. “It’s about real discourse about ideas and debate about ideas,” he said. Steele’s and Perez’s remarks echoed this theme. “We can understand that you can disagree without being disagreeable,” Perez said, while Steele added that college campuses should remember their role as spaces for public discourse.

Steele and Perez also discussed the rising polarization of the two parties, and where it originated. Steele suggested that partisanship within the electorate is due to the fact that partisan political tactics have become increasingly personal. The divisiveness that President Trump evokes from voters acts as a distraction and “clouds all other judgements,” he said. But Steele admitted that “we’ve been on this path for a while.”

Steele then argued that the upcoming election is not about policy differences but rather a referendum on Trump. “The president himself has told us as much every single day,” he added.

Perez agreed with Steele, adding that “the party of Lincoln is dead. … It’s been replaced by the party of Trump.” He said the death of Sen. John McCain marked the end of an era where Republicans were willing to work across the aisle.

Despite the uphill battle that Democrats face in the midterms, Perez feels positively about the direction of the party. “I feel bullish about 12 days from now … because we’ve gotten back to our roots. Listening better. Organizing everywhere,” he said.

Steele blamed the broken policy promises of both parties for the popularity of Trump. He cited how Republicans had vowed to cut the Department of Education during the Reagan years and how the Democratic Party told voters that it would tax the rich. “How do you think the circle completed itself with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump standing there talking about a rigged system?”

Perez echoed the statement, saying that voters want the kind of growth and prosperity the country experienced after World War II. “Workers are still working hard, but they’re not sharing in that prosperity,” Perez said.

Steinfeld then turned the conversation toward voter suppression. Perez argued that voter suppression is not a recent trend in elections. “This has been a permanent staple in the playbook,” he said. “Our job in this country is to have a debate in the marketplace of ideas. We should make (voting) easier, not harder.”

Steele added that no voter should take the right to vote for granted. “We’re in an environment in which our politics have become so personalized that the goal is to get you to check out, not check in,” he said.

Both Perez and Steele stressed the importance and power young voters have in the midterms and future elections. “You have no excuse not to engage in your civic responsibility to vote. Just cut the crap,” Steele said. Perez noted that the Trump administration’s repeated violations of institutional norms have been incredibly damaging to the fabric of U.S. politics. “Our democracy as we know it is on the ballot,” he said. Perez emphasized that this was “the most important election of our lifetime.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Brown College Democrats, Republicans, Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, the American Enterprise Institute at Brown and the SPEAK coalition. The second installment of “Across the Aisle” Nov. 19 will also feature Steele and Perez.

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