On October 9, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met at Washington University in St. Louis for the second of three presidential debates. Unlike the other two debates, this would be the only debate to follow the town hall format where average citizens ask questions directly to the candidates. This form of debate is beneficial to the democratic process as it requires the candidates to confront the concerns of the electorate instead of relying on rehearsed talking points and espousing their standard stump speeches. However, a careful screening process that helps to determine not only who gets to ask a question but also what the nature of that question will be (as well as the obvious constraint of time) does, in effect, limit which topics will be covered during the debate.
While the questions put forward by the audience members were well thought out and helped to facilitate a meaningful dialogue, they were not the only ones on campus that sought to have their voices heard. From the early morning until well after the debate had ended, activists lined the streets and surrounded the university with signs and banners in hand, each with a wide range of thoughts and opinions on their mind. The views of protestors and supporters outside of the main debate hall reflected in many ways what the nation as a whole has been forced to consider as we draw closer to Election Day. Whereas some past elections have focused primarily on one or two pivotal issues, the concerns of those present touched on a number of themes such as the economy, revitalizing inner-cities, the treatment of women, immigration and penal reform while also touching on deeper structural concerns like the limitations of a largely two-party system.
Ed Johnson was one of the many people on campus that felt the issues closest to him had not been adequately treated by either of the candidates taking part in the debate. When asked what topics he would like to see receive more attention, he said that he “would want them to talk about issues that relate to the inner-cities” and “would like to talk to [the candidates] about the mass incarceration of black people” throughout the country. On the deeper level of race relations in general, he stressed that there is a real need for us to see each other as human beings and not enemies.
“When the cops pull me over, they shouldn’t see an enemy, they should see a person that probably sped a little bit and [they] shouldn’t have their guns drawn immediately,” he said.
While this might seem like common sense, the events that took place in Ferguson and many more cities across the United States indicate that this is something that requires not only attention but action as well.
International students Daji Dvalishvili and Candice Wang said that they both had an increased interest in the debate because it was taking place at their university. In fact, this was hardly the first time that students of Washington University in St. Louis have experienced the frenzy of a presidential debate as the meeting of Trump and Clinton marked the fifth time that the university has hosted a presidential debate.
Both students listed the economy and job market as their top issue. In light of the recent revelations concerning Trump and his alleged acts of sexual harassment, Dvalishvili said, “I would ask about violence towards women and children because it has become a hot topic recently.”
Zuoxian Hou, also a student at Washington University of St. Louis, said that a continuation of current immigration policies, especially those concerning international students, would be welcomed. When asked about his opinion on student visas, he said, “I think the [current system] is fine, no change would be good.”
On a night when Clinton and Trump addressed the American public and sought to win over the remaining undecided voters, their supporters outside also hoped to win over indecisive passersby. Whereas the candidates outlined their visions for the future of the country, those outside of the debate hall largely relied on pointing out the opposition’s past political controversies and personal shortcomings instead of heralding the virtues of their preferred candidate. Despite these tactics, supporters of Trump, Clinton, and even the sparse contingent of Gary Johnson-backers coexisted in a state of mutual respect and civility. In an election cycle that has had its fair share of odd, crude and even reprehensible moments, the actions of those at Washington University should be viewed as proof that our democratic process is not as fractured as it may appear.