They may disagree on the details of political issues, but Natalie Brown ’18 and Austin McLaughlin ’18 — the newly elected presidents of the Cornell Democrats and Republicans respectively — do have some common ground: they both consider the other a “good friend,” and hope to work together to foster a new era of bipartisanship at Cornell.
Both Brown and McLaughlin told The Sun what they hoped the future would hold for their organizations and addressed the current challenges they face.
Polarization and Stereotypes
Brown and McLaughlin agreed that party polarization and negative stereotypes have hindered meaningful collaboration and discourse among people with differing views.
McLaughlin partly blamed national rhetoric as the cause of polarization, saying it has made people less willing to compromise and work together for the greater good.
“I think unfortunately a lot of notions of compromise and the idea of service has been lost to a lot of representatives and senators, [who] now serve in their own best interests as opposed to the best interests of their constituents — the people they represent,” he said.
McLaughlin was also disappointed with the level and quality of discourse on the national stage.
“It’s been really frustrating to see the national discourse go down the drain in terms of the level of discourse,” he added. “I think its been greatly reduced over the past few years.”
Although party polarization has been growing for years, Brown said the recent election “really burst it out into the open.”
“In reaction to the loss and the shock [from the election], people have maybe retracted from being a little more conversational and have decided that they don’t want to be more in the middle,” she said.
As a result of this increased polarization on both a national and campus-wide level, Brown and McLaughlin said they have witnessed a trend of individuals making rash, underdeveloped assumptions about those with opposite ideologies.
“Polarization has definitely led to assumptions that are just generally unwarranted at times and it detracts from any sort of conversation,” Brown said. “It’s just not appropriate. It’s just not what I aspire out of Cornellians, to make assumptions and dismiss conversations so easily.”
McLaughlin provided an example of this polarization by saying that when people think about Republicans, they often assume think that they are all racist, sexist and homophobic, adding that these kinds of claims are unjustified and unfortunate.
“It’s really disconcerting, it’s really frustrating because I think there’s this real bias, especially on the part of the Cornell community, to stereotype and label and even ostracize Republicans just for their political affiliation and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “I think it’s important …[that] before you assume these labels and put these labels on someone to actually have a fair discussion with them.”
Brown echoed these sentiments, saying that it is not easy to be a campus Republican right now.
“I know not every Republican is racist or sexist. I would never make a blanket statement like that. It really hurts people … to claim that they have hateful ideologies … which underlies the importance of having conversations with people of opposite political views from you. If you don’t, you’ll never really understand where they are coming from. And conversation might even bring you to a great middle ground, who knows.”
McLaughlin felt that typically Republicans tend to be more ostracized and that stereotypes associated with being a Democrat are less prevalent on campus.
“Most people on this campus are Democratic or left leaning, so I guess they associate the Democratic party as a friendlier party,” he said. “I don’t think there are really that many stereotypes with Democrats to my knowledge, at least on college campuses. I don’t think that applies the same way as to Republicans.”
Brown also acknowledged that the liberal nature of Cornell has historically created more favorable environment for the Democrats.
“I will admit because we are a liberal campus, we have had more opportunities to poke things in the Republicans’ faces over the years,” she said.
However, Brown elaborated that on a more national level, Democrats are often labeled as “snowflakes” or “cry-babies” who are accused of taking offense easily and having a higher cultural sensitivity.
“I don’t think that’s really representative of our cause at all,” she said. “I don’t think it takes into account the reason why people get upset.”
“The Democratic Party is the party of recognizing inequalities and trying to rectify them as much as possible,” she added. “By doing that, it means being more culturally sensitive and trying to be more inclusive and that’s the goal. I don’t think that’s something that should be criticized.”
Internal Party Divisions
In addition to polarization and a growing gap between the two major parties, McLaughlin and Brown also addressed how each side faces challenges from divisions within the party.
“I think [the Democratic Party] is really divided,” McLaughlin said. “I would say it’s less muddy in its divide than the Republican Party is. The Republican Party definitely has more factions right now. I think the Democratic party is split more about whether they want a more moderate identity or whether they want a more far left, socialist identity.”
Brown said although this is a significant problem for the Democrats, she hopes these two factions of party can reconcile and recognize that they agree on more than they disagree on.
“This election definitely showcased that the Democratic Party is imperfect and that we do have flaws, but they are not flaws that we cannot rise above and I am very confident in that,” she said.
McLaughlin elaborated that the Republican party is more of a “motley crew,” with subsets like strong social conservatives, religious conservatives, ideological conservatives, neoconservatives, libertarians and neo-libertarians.
“I think because of that, that’s why you see so much division when it comes to issues like Obamacare and repealing Obamacare,” he said.
Although these divisions do exist within their Cornell chapters, both presidents said that they exist to a much lesser extent than on the national level.
Putting a positive spin on intra-club disagreement, Brown said that debates within the Cornell Democrats can lead to productive discourse.
“If you don’t let the voices be heard before making these types of distinctions, you’ve already lost,” she said. “If there are people within the club who disagree with a policy stance we take, they need to say it so we can move forward and have a conversation and reconcile and make sure we’re making the right decision.”
Value of the Organizations
McLaughlin and Brown took different paths to their respective presidencies, but both agree that being politically active is important on Cornell’s campus.
“I supported Democratic causes, but I didn’t really know how to channel it in an organized fashion,” Brown said about why she joined the club in the first place.
For McLaughlin, the Cornell Republicans play a unique role on campus by bringing in conservative speakers and showing people a different perspective that they might not be be able to get in other settings on campus.
“One of my most formative moments at Cornell was after one of my classes in September my freshman year, a senior took me outside after class and said, ‘Austin, you can’t make those comments anymore, it’s going to start affecting your grades’ and that really made me take a step back and think about what I’m doing and [it was] probably that experience that led me to the Cornell Republicans,” he said.
McLaughlin urged people with any inclination to go into politics to join either organization, depending on their affiliation.
“A plus for the Cornell Republicans or the Cornell Democrats is if you are interested in politics, either of those organizations entertain great discourse, entertain great discussions,” he said.
Brown’s passion for political activity comes from the many ways politics affect the way people live, she said.
“Politics are life,” Brown said. “There is no part of your life that is untouched by the federal government, state government, local government. It is going to be a part of your life. Why not voice your opinions … so you can have policies in your favor or in the society’s favor?”
Hopes for Future
Looking to the future, both leaders stressed the importance of cooperation, bipartisanship and discussion.
McLaughlin admitted that the Republicans suffered from some public relations debacles in the last year, so he wants to focus on setting the organization apart from some of the national and local toxicity and establishing it as a respectful club that is open to dialogue.
“A big factor that motivated me to run for president was kind of in the pursuit of re-setting our relationship with the campus community and really working to a turn a new leaf this next year, earn less division, seek more bipartisanship,” McLaughlin said.
Brown also said that in addition to focusing more on activism, one of her larger goals as president would be to cooperate more with the Cornell Republicans and focus less on antagonism and negativity.
“I am so optimistic next year to have better conversation and better relations with the Republicans,” she said.
“It comes down to is having people of different ideologies, people of different backgrounds sit down in a room with one another and really just talk, and it’s really that simple,” McLaughlin said.