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Finding Common Ground

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Dan Pfeiffer, Tara Setmayer discuss politics in the coronavirus era

National Agenda students and alumni discuss politics with guest speaker Dan Pfeiffer on April 29 at a virtual "Happy Hour" on Zoom.

​National Agenda students and alumni discuss politics with guest speaker Dan Pfeiffer on April 29 at a virtual "Happy Hour" on Zoom.

By Laura Matusheski, University of Delaware sophomore and intern for the University of Delaware Center for Political Communication

Visit the National Agenda page to learn more about the National Agenda 2019 speaker series including "Speaking from the Left" with Dan Pfeiffer and "Speaking from the Right" with Tara Setmayer. 

MAY 11, 2020—America's political landscape is dominated by two opposing parties, but what if it were on a spectrum? Is there a way to understand each other from the other side, especially in a time of global crisis? At a virtual "Happy Hour" on Zoom, hosted by National Agenda Director Lindsay Hoffman, Ph.D., guests Dan Pfeiffer and Tara Setmayer discussed how Americans can meet across the aisle.

After the University of Delaware transitioned to online instruction last March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Hoffman invited current National Agenda students and alumni to attend weekly reunions, featuring past National Agenda speakers as surprise guests. On April 29, Hoffman welcomed Pfeiffer and Setmayer, who spoke at the 2019 series on September 6 and October 2, respectively.

Pfeiffer, a former communications director and senior advisor to President Barack Obama, joined the first 30 minutes of the Zoom conversation. In 2017, he began co-hosting Pod Save America, a politically progressive podcast. Pfeiffer is also a political activist and New York Times best-selling author of two novels. A native Delawarean, he resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and daughter.

National Agenda alumna Natalie Haytayan (AS19) asked if the coronavirus pandemic brought even more pressure to the already constant barrage of political news. “I’ve always lived in politics,” Pfeiffer responded, “but the things that we used to be able to enjoy we no longer have. And we can no longer get the break we need. Early on during quarantine, I made myself watch the Trump press conference every day. After a while, I felt like I couldn’t do this every day, both physically and emotionally.” He also noted how important it is to carve out leisure time in your daily life in order to stay sane amidst the crisis. 

Another alumna, Georgina Class-Peters (AS16, 17M), noticed how much the COVID-19 outbreak has pulled at the heartstrings of news reporters, and how they are talking more personally when asking political leaders questions about our future. She asked him if this will have a lasting impact on journalism as a whole, and whether journalism as we know it is gone forever. 

“There will always be a place for “just-the-facts” journalism. But in a social media-driven world, we are moving more towards it.” he said, “The question will be whether consumers of media catch up to this.” With the constant bombardment of news, he recognized, it makes it harder to find specific pieces of information. In turn, this has made consumers of media overwhelmed with news, and as he calls it: “uncomfortably numb.” Podcasts will not replace news media, said Pfeiffer, but added they will help immerse their audience into the depths of a variety of topics. 

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Setmayer discusses upcoming presidential election

​National Agenda students and alumni discuss politics with guest speaker Tara Setmayer on April 29 at a virtual "Happy Hour" on Zoom.

​​National Agenda students and alumni discuss politics with guest speaker Tara Setmayer on April 29 at a virtual "Happy Hour" on Zoom.

In the last half of the Happy Hour, Setmayer continued the conversation. Setmayer is a CNN political commentator, contributor to ABC News, and former GOP communications director on Capitol Hill. Living in the New York City area, she is a conservative and strong critic of President Donald Trump. She also hosts her own podcast, Honestly Speaking with Tara Setmayer, where she discusses opinions on politics, culture, and sports with special guests. 

Despite Setmayer’s conservative political beliefs, she endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden for President, and said that she is 100 percent behind him when she spoke at last year’s National Agenda Speaker Series. Rachel Sawicki, a senior majoring in communication and president of the Student Television Network at UD, questioned how Biden’s benign nature measures up with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ more confrontational demeanor. 

“You need to know how Bernie did in state polls (like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, and Florida). In those states, Bernie did decently, but this is before people really explored his positions on things.” said Setmayer. “As a country that is mainly center-right, Americans do not want the level of radical disruption that Sanders would have brought to our current system with his policies. But where Bernie also thrived was with younger people, but they don’t vote. Biden does very well with the majority of those who do vote (older people) and that’s how he ultimately won over Bernie." 

She also said that Biden’s affability is just what we need in a president right now. “We definitely need some class and respectability back in the Oval Office.”

Haytayan asked if far-left progressives would have a hard time voting for presumptive Democratic nominee Biden. Setmayer, who has voted out of her “comfort zone” before (for a third-party candidate in 2016), said, “I would advise them to make a decision. If you can stomach another four years of another Trump presidency, then don’t vote. Take that principled stand. If you want to push your political platform forward, then you have a better chance when supporting Joe Biden. It’s better to get 80 percent of what you want and sacrifice 20 percent, rather than getting nothing.” 

Abigail Goldring (AS16), a National Agenda alumna and former teaching assistant to Hoffman, was unsure of how to effectively communicate with someone with different political viewpoints than her own. Setmayer emphasized how vital it is to see the other person’s point of view in a debate. “The best way is to agree to disagree. Respect their point of view, and walk away. Meet them halfway, see what attracts them [to the other candidate]. Take that example and find common ground. Listen to them and ask questions; let them talk.” 

As a conservative woman of color, Setmayer said she has always felt the conflict between her political principles and her race. In an effort to navigate both, she found that the best way to do so is to stand in one’s shoes. To her, political debates are not about winning and losing, but to get the other side to think about a different point of view. Setmayer recommended that the sure-fire way to engage is to listen: “If people feel like they’re being listened to, then they’ll be more open to listen to you back.”

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