“Our political system, ultimately, is failing us,” said Donna Brazile, the first African-American woman to manage a presidential campaign.
In the Smith Student Center Ballroom on Tuesday evening, Slippery Rock University hosted Brazile and well-known Republican strategist Ana Navarro for Crossing the Political Divide, a conversation about today’s divisive political atmosphere with two analysts from opposing political parties.
“This is the first of what I hope is a series of really high profile, well known speakers on campus,” Slippery Rock University President William Behre said. “With this event, we have two individuals who disagree on most things politically, but have figured out how to disagree without being disagreeable. I think it’s important going into an election season to remember that.”
“I think it’s good that all of us try to keep our fingers on the political pulse, so to speak, on every level of government,” Slippery Rock mayor Jondavid Longo said.
After the sizable audience was welcomed by Dr. Heather Frederick, a professor in SRU’s political science department, both of the women were introduced to standing ovations. Brazile, a celebrated political strategist, author, and former intern chair of the Democratic National Committee, stood behind the lectern first.
“I get the mic first,” Brazile said lightheartedly. “We did a toss, and I won. Of course, it was my coin.”
Brazile proceeded to speak about her love for the state of Pennsylvania and, half-jokingly, its 20 electoral votes. She cited a quote from Hazrat Khan, a Sufi teacher and Indian musician, that says, “We stand through life firm as a rock in the sea, undisturbed and unmoved by its ever-changing waves.”
“We are going through, perhaps, one of the most interesting waves in our history,” Brazile said. “The wave is a tide that I think we can all change. It’s a tide of instability, it’s a tide of disruption, it’s a tide of the American people frustrated with the status quo.”
“What a day it’s been,” said Navarro, a political analyst for CNN and CNN en Español. “A day, a week, a month…three years. It’s like dog years, isn’t it? […] [Trump] doesn’t sleep. And he doesn’t let anyone else sleep. He’s always churning and tweeting and the news cycle is just absolutely crazy.”
Both women touched upon unexpected genealogical experiences that helped put cooperation in perspective.
To the chagrin of her father, who believed he’d descended a marquis, Navarro, a Nicaraguan immigrant, was surprised to find out that she’s, in fact, a descendant of a freed African slave in Costa Rica. After thinking for years that she was black “head-to-toe, inside-out,” Brazile learned that she has Irish blood, too.
“It reminded me it’s so much more. We are all so much more than what you see on the outside,” Navarro said, adding that the factors of ancestry and DNA, along with experiences and circumstances, are what help shape a person. “At some point, you realize that, in order to live with yourself, you’ve got to put being a human, being an American, being a woman before being a partisan.”
“It had the effect of making me more cognizant of my family’s history, not just the history I knew,” Brazile said. “Being a Catholic black woman with Irish roots makes me feel so empowered.”
In the questions session of the event, an audience member asked if Washington would admit it made a mistake in electing Trump.
Navarro responded, saying that, if waiting for there to be an epiphany or ‘Aha!’ moment where it’s realized there was a mistake in electing Trump, people should buy some popcorn and binge-watch something long.
“I think he was right, and I think he knows it, when he said, ‘I can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and my supporters wouldn’t abandon me,’” Navarro said.
Navarro, also a co-host of ABC’s The View, stressed a “cult of personality” and Trump’s ability, as a New York billionaire, to make people feel as though he relates to them. She gave him credit for instilling such loyalty and delivering on campaign promises, such as his guarantee that any Supreme Court judicial nominees would be selected by the Federalist Society.
“In many ways,” Brazile added, “Donald Trump is a mirror reflection of the frustration that millions of our fellow citizens feel. They feel that they have been dissed. Someone has to use their power, their might, to stand up and hit at Washington and our ways. He’s a disruptor.”
Navarro mentioned that Trump has been an effective disciplinarian, who doesn’t care whether his support comes from likability, respect, or fear. He cares about the end result, she said, even confronting fellow Republicans or delving into state legislatures who have been critical of him.
“There are much fewer Republicans in Congress today, but they are far more loyal to Donald Trump, because they know what the effect of crossing him is,” Navarro said. “If you come for him, he will come for you.”
Navarro feels, in a sense, that obedience is a characteristic of not only Trump’s administration, but of her party as a whole.
“Republicans line up behind a candidate,” Navarro said. “There is discipline. If it is a Republican candidate, they will vote for him or her. It will be a hell of a long time before it’s a girl, but they’ll vote for him no matter what.”
On the other hand, Navarro said, “These Democrats, they want to feel things. They want to be inspired and in love.”
About topics such as wealth and firearms confiscation, Longo felt that voters on either side of the aisle are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“As an American, you’re almost faced with an ultimatum,” Longo said. “Do you vote for candidates who are attacking the very institutions and foundation upon which our nation was built? Or do you go to and give your support to a guy like President Trump, who is not saying those things?”
Brazile spoke about the importance of a candidate recognizing his constituents and not neglecting those who he or she doesn’t believe will have their vote.
“We only talk to the people that we think will vote for us,” Brazile said. “If you’re the choir, we’re only talking to you because you already know the songs and the hymn books, and you’re talking right back at me. It’s much easier to talk to the choir, but the congregation- Lord have mercy- we don’t even know if they speak the same language.”
Another attendee, involved in journalism, touched upon the mistrust of media caused by the government.
“I think this is the best of times and the worst of times for journalism,” Navarro said. “We’ve seen a lot of ‘journalism.’ Anybody can run a blog. Anybody can print anything […] There’s really not much you can do about it.”
Navarro believes that the antagonism toward the free press, such as the “fake news” made popular by Trump, has reminded journalists what they owe to their profession, recommitting them to the facts and investigation. She pointed to the Jeffrey Epstein story for which he was ultimately held accountable.
“We’ve got to be informed on how important it is to have journalists as part of our Democratic fabric,” Brazile said. “It’s an institution necessary for a functioning democracy.”
“Stop making everything a conflict,” Brazile added, as if a room full of CNN reporters were sitting in front of her, pads and pens in hand.
“There’s far more common ground amongst Americans than what the party leaders would have you believe,” Navarro said of the supposed unending incongruity.
“What if my side wins next election?” Brazile asked. “Should I just basically govern with my views and my values? Or should I look at the other side, which lost by less than 70,000 votes, and say, ‘You too should have a voice in this process’?”
Brazile and Navarro recognize, however, that media outlets are for-profit businesses that run off of ratings. They recalled the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared on its route in March 2014. The news story was relayed and updated for weeks, until, Brazile said, people proposed that the aliens stole the aircraft.
“That’s a partisan thing,” Brazile joked. “Were these aliens affiliated with the Republicans or the Democrats?”
At one point, the two speakers were close together and the microphone gave screeching feedback, as if to try to characterize dissimilarity.
“When we get too close together, the microphone goes ‘Wooooooo,’” Brazile said.
“It’s the Russians,” Navarro joked in response.
The entire night matched this scene. There were no voices raised at one another, no impolite argument, rather civil discussion between two highly qualified, intelligent diplomatic minds. It was no less than what President Behre anticipated at the beginning of the evening.
“I hope that [students] realize that you can disagree and be friendly,” Behre said. “People that disagree with you, you can still respect intellectually.”
Mayor Longo did exactly that, expressing disagreement with was said, but also showing respect for the women who spoke.
“I always try to see all sides and hear all arguments and that way I can better educate myself,” Longo said. “This was an opportunity for me to do that.”
“It starts with being respectful of one another,” Brazile said. “That’s how we get kindness and decency and goodness back in the world. We have to treat each other with the dignity and respect that we wish to be treated as. If we start there, we’ll be okay.”