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The presidential debate and what it means for Notre Dame

| Monday, November 4, 2019

Notre Dame ​will host​ the first presidential debate in the general election next fall. The response I’ve heard most often: “Why?”

There are a multitude of easy answers: the prestige, the attention, the money. To “foster healthy dialogue on campus.” Of course, it’s going to be phenomenal to have President Trump and his opponent on campus, and for the nation and the world to see the inside of the JACC. But I’m not convinced it’s worth it.

First off, I’m assuming few Notre Dame students will be able to attend. It is, after all, a presidential debate, and I imagine tickets will be harder to come by than tickets to a basketball game — which are already sometimes difficult to get. I also would think Notre Dame and the media will want to focus on South Bend, its role in the Midwest and possibly its connection to Mayor Pete. That could lead to more community tickets and less for students. It makes for a more interesting political narrative than ‘We let in a bunch of our wealthy, mostly-white students’.

I’m also unconvinced that it will help foster healthy political dialogue, of which our university is in desperate need. Given the obvious, that “President Trump” and “healthy dialogue” are nearly never in the same affirmative sentence, I would expect that the increased attention paid to the election will hurt our campus conversation, not help it. The President, whether you like him or not, divides people, and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be the exception.

One response might be, “Sure, maybe the benefits are being overstated, but we aren’t truly losing anything by hosting this debate.” It’s a fair point, but I would disagree; I think we could use our resources more wisely.

Why didn’t Notre Dame host a debate in the last congressional race for our district? Why didn’t we host a debate for the Senate race last year, which involved a Notre Dame alumnus? Now, maybe we tried to and didn’t secure the opportunities; but given South Bend and Notre Dame’s prominence within Indiana, I find that doubtful.

In general, hosting this debate contributes to a political culture where only the presidency is important. We live in a nation where the near-entirety of political commentary focuses on the idiosyncrasies of one strange, disillusioned man. How is that healthy? How is that just? Local and state governments play, or at least can play and should play, as large a role in our lives as the day-to-day decisions of Donald Trump. Why isn’t our focus there?

Again, one response might be: “Notre Dame is a national university, and has never claimed to be something else. It’s right for a national university to have a national focus.” I think this one gets to the heart of the issue: For what kind of national life is the University training us? Is it one where we focus exclusively on the big picture, or one where we engage in our communities and give back to those who have lifted us up?

I don’t know if there are statistics of how many Notre Dame students from small towns move to big cities after graduation, but I don’t think it’s controversial to claim it’s a lot.

By hosting this debate, Notre Dame seems to want to gain national attention, for something other than football or leggings, and have some healthy dialogue on the side. I don’t think national attention is what we need, and I don’t think dialogue about the president and presidency is the most healthy. Will it be cool? Of course! Is it worth it? I’m not so sure.

Vince Mallett is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He is proud to hail from Carroll Hall and northern New Jersey. Vince can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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