By Chidinma Onuoha
At a time when growing domestic and foreign issues are continuing to divide America, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development hosted U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen for an analytical discussion about America’s current events Thursday.
Students, professors and friends of Van Hollen squeezed into the rows of seats in Hoff Theater and listened intently to his opinions and observations on issues regarding partisanship, the travel ban, race relations and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The forum brought people from all political viewpoints, including republicans like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, who served on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board under the Bush administration.
Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development Shibley Telhami moderated the event, titled “The American Partisan Divide: From the Travel Ban to Charlottesville,” in order to create an open platform for honest discussions. The Peace and Development program’s primary goal is to perform public policy research on subjects related to peace and development in the world.
The Sadat Forum, which opens annually, is a forum that is less a lecture and more a conversation on important issues of the day by having prominent personalities get involved.
Over the years, they have hosted dignitaries like the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and former president Jimmy Carter. Last year, Telhami hosted Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, to introduce his new book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Telhami stated that it was very important to bring respected speakers with political influence to communicate serious issues with the public.
“It is important to have a prominent political leader at this time to talk about the issues of today in part because of race relations,” said Telhami. “We all have faced the painful events that unfolded; Charlottesville was only one example and we’ve seen some of that on our campus, unfortunately.”
Telhami said that America is highly polarized. In the University of Maryland 2017 Public Opinion Poll, Telhami found a divided America on almost every big issue from foreign policy to domestic politics. Given that all these issues were now set on the table, Telhami thought that it was incredibly important to have Van Hollen speak.
Van Hollen, a native of Maryland who has served in both state politics and the U.S. House of Representatives, said that the person in the White House, especially when they control both houses of Congress, has a big advantage of controlling the conversation; by controlling both houses, you control the congressional agenda.
“While there were deep differences on Capitol Hill between Republicans and Democrats, deep differences in policy—domestic issues—you didn’t get the sense of the kind of gridlock and division you see on Capitol Hill today,” said Van Hollen. “What is making it different now is that you do have a president who ran a campaign in a very divisive way. And at the end of the campaign, most presidents decide during their presidency to try to bring the country together.”
Our new president is different.
Van Hollen said that this time, President Trump is focused more on energizing his political base through division, which is reflected in the nature of his policies like the travel ban and his delayed response to Charlottesville.
“First of all, it was very important that the senator acknowledged the murder of Lt. Collins, which affected and disturbed us greatly on campus and that he expressed the shock we felt that this could happen here,” said Sean Rao, a graduate student with a focus on comparative politics. “Second, I heard him mention that President Trump has been manipulating division and that the senator considers his party to be the party of inclusion. This is quite appropriate for an opposition senator critiquing the president and promoting his own party as the better option.”
However, Rao said that to create a national consensus, Van Hollen would have to acknowledge that many feel his party also played a part in stoking division, such as former president Barack Obama’s stance on gun control and religious practices, and that Van Hollen should acknowledge the concerns of the people who voted for President Trump in “good faith” so that it can simultaneously satisfy the concerns of people in both parties without diminishing either.
Though going about that is “extremely difficult,” Rao said that Van Hollen’s primary job is to reach out to the public.
“There is always tension in society,” said Van Hollen, “but it exploits them and I would argue, brings out the worst that’s out there rather than trying to bring us together.”