Ashbrook Scholars Discuss Contentious Presidential Primaries—And the Principles all Americans Share

December 24, 2020

Visiting bellwether Ohio to find explanations for this unusual presidential primary season, a group of foreign journalists stopped by the Ashbrook Center to hear the views of Ashbrook Scholars. The journalists were traveling on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour. Six undergraduates in the Ashbrook Scholar program, centered on the reading of great texts in political philosophy and primary documents in American history, spoke to the journalists. Politically, the Scholars ranged from left to right. Yet each offered an educated perspective.

They were questioned on hot-button topics in American news. Was a candidate’s religious affiliation important? Senior Ivan Larson said he could support qualified candidates who favored limited government and fiscal conservatism, “regardless of their religious affiliation—as long as they understand that they cannot force their religious views on others, which is something that any candidate should understand.”

What about a candidate’s stance on illegal immigration? Sophomore Madeleine Emholtz explained that, having lived for some time in southern Texas, a border area rife with illegal migration, she could understand voter anger on this issue. We need to reform the current legal pathway to citizenship, she said, making it “less bureaucratic. Then we can work on new policies for immigration. New policies will not work unless the immigration system we have now can be made to work.”

How important is America’s international image? “It is very important,” asserted sophomore Sophia Leddy, adding that the current administration had failed to show strong leadership in response to Russia’s aggression against neighbors, Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, among other issues.

One reporter wondered whether other Scholars shared sophomore Nathan Klainer’s concern about money influencing politics. Klainer’s classmates did not dismiss the problem. “If there were a serious effort to actually cut the size of government, we could undo the reason for so much money in politics,” Larson said. “The government has gotten so big, with so many agencies with so much regulation that there are many more avenues for businesses to get what they want” by pressuring legislators or luring regulators with implied promises of future employment.

An Asian reporter pointed to the portraits of American presidents hanging on the wall of the Ashbrook Center. “Who is your favorite president?” she asked. She heard a range of responses, each backed by a history lesson. Junior Joey Barretta stoutly defended William Howard Taft, who he said gets too little credit for being “a reformer yet a strict constructionist of the Constitution.” Senior Kelly Ranttila, alluding to George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” appreciated our first president for pointing out the divisiveness that attaches to political parties. Emholtz also preferred Washington, citing his statesmanship as both a general and a political leader. Klainer liked Theodore Roosevelt for his environmentalism, while Leddy commended Calvin Coolidge for not interfering in the economy. Larson described the statesmanship Abraham Lincoln displayed as he worked to limit the spread slavery, keep the Union together, and pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery permanently.

An Italian reporter was reassured by the Scholars’ respectful attention to each other’s views. They are “definitely more tolerant than what we’re hearing from television,” she said. Barretta suggested a reason for the noisy spectacle worrying European observers. “America has had a lack of proper civic education,” he said, mentioning Ashbrook efforts to counter this through programs for undergraduate Scholars and high school social studies teachers. “As Roger [Ashbrook Executive Director Roger Beckett] said, America is an idea. It’s founded on principles we all agree to. Unfortunately, too many people no longer understand those principles.”

Barretta and his fellow Ashbrook Scholars testified well to the difference a thoughtful civic education makes. “They always come through,” Beckett said, smiling with quiet pride as the State Department liaisons ushered reporters out of the Ashbrook Center.