Politicon 2017: Conversations or Debates?

This summer was certainly a dry spell in my exposure to the political world. Living at home with parents who were tired of politics after 2016 and interning in construction where the subject would never have to — and therefore didn’t — come up, I spent most of my time perusing newsmap and reading New Yorker opinion pieces.

Though I didn’t even know about it, the event self-dubbed “The Coachella of Politics” was happening close to my hometown. A friend brought it to my attention, and I decided I had to attend. For the third year at the Pasadena Convention Center in Los Angeles, faces of politics from campaign managers to talk show hosts to analysts to the politicians themselves converged to speak at Politicon: The Unconventional Political Convention. I had found the perfect solution to a summer without politics.

My friend and I decided to drive to Pasadena for Day 1 of the event. Having no idea what to expect (we had only bought tickets two days earlier), we immediately planned out which events we would see, fitting four into what would prove to be a very packed schedule.

Having grown up right outside of consistently liberal Los Angeles in the conservative stronghold that is Orange County, I was interested to see what the crowd would be like. Would my conservative neighbors also be making the drive? Would the audience be packed with affiliates of the entertainment industry and LA colleges that fell much farther to the left? Perhaps people had travelled from even farther and would hail from different states.

My question was quickly answered in the first event we attended. The hosts and producers of Pod Save America had attracted a line that was already at least 100 people strong by the time we arrived two hours early. Once inside, the crowd erupted in cheers whenever Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, or Tommy Vietor — all of whom have worked in some capacity for former President Obama — called for an activist movement to “take back” the Senate and the House.

Immediately following this first panel, we rushed to our second event of the day, Art of the Campaign Strategy. The unquestionable headliner, James Carville of Clinton campaign(s) fame, asked the crowd “How many of you are from California and want to help the Democratic Party?” Nearly every hand in the crowd went up before Carville urged them all to move to a different state. The silent majority, it seemed, had not shown up.

The next line we waited in was unquestionably the longest. So shocked at how long it was, I went to the front of the line and asked the people standing there what it could possibly be for. At the exact same time, a 20-something boy in a “Hillary for President” shirt said “Chelsea” and a similarly-aged girl in a “Hillary for Prison” shirt said “Tomi.” Amazed, I walked back a significant distance to join my friend in line for what had just proven to be the most anticipated event of the day, “Chelsea Handler in Conversation with Tomi Lahren.”

While at first glance the two seem an unlikely pair, upon further thought — and we had plenty of time to think in that line — they have at least some things in common. Both blonde women got their start in entertainment (though two very different varieties) in their early 20s. Both hosted their own TV shows characterized by loud and often fast jabs, in Handler’s case at the expense of either herself or her guest and in Lahren’s case at the expense of anyone who even leans politically left. And finally, both have tense relationships with the networks where they got their respective starts. Handler, after hosting Chelsea Lately for seven years, was quick to criticize her former bosses once closing a deal with Netflix for a new show. After Lahren was suspended without pay by Glenn Beck and TheBlaze for announcing she is pro-choice, she immediately filed a wrongful termination suit that was ultimately settled. Though their career trajectories — Lahren’s much shorter thus far than Handler’s — have some coincidental similarities, this is where the likeness ends.

At the beginning of the “Conversation” between the two, Handler stressed that she was treating the event as she would treat having a guest on her show. Rather than a debate, it was to be an opportunity for the two to get to know each other while both a live audience of over 2,000 and an internet audience watched. She announced she would start with questions that wouldn’t highlight the political dissimilarities of the two. After asking about Lahren’s upbringing, the stark differences between the only child born of two Christian ranchers in rural South Dakota and the youngest of six born to a Jewish-American father and an immigrant mother in New Jersey were highlighted much earlier than Handler probably anticipated.

The conversation about upbringings quickly turned to individual and American values. Then somehow, less than ten minutes into the debate that wasn’t supposed to be a debate, a raging argument over health care ensued. Handler predictably backed Obamacare while Lahren predictably lamented the loss of the so-called “skinny repeal” some two nights before.

The crowd was determinedly split between the two sides. After mere minutes of political discussion, Handler berated them for not letting the headliners speak. (“Don’t cheer after every fucking thing we say please. Just let us have a conversation, okay?”) But even she could not contain the hollers of the more liberal segment of the crowd when Lahren announced, after criticizing Obamacare, that she in fact profits from one of its more popular aspects, responding to the question of whether or not she has a health care plan, “Well luckily I am 24 so I am still on my parent’s [health care plan].” The other half of the crowd erupted when Handler claimed the recent health care bills proposed by the Senate are built on tax cuts for the rich. A woman sitting a few seats down from me, in fact, started screaming “LIAR!” over and over as loud as she could.

It was around this time sitting in the audience that I decided I would have to write about the event. The tension in the crowd was shocking to me, but I knew it shouldn’t have been. It is easy to forget, as a current college student, that the way I am used to disagreeing about politics at school is not necessarily the way these disagreements exist outside of the boundaries of campus. Yes, intolerance of opinion definitely exists on our campus and many others. This has been explored and written about by countless authors both at national news organizations like The New York Times and local ones like Duke’s very own Chronicle. However, as a member of the definitely smaller and arguably dwindling right-leaning portion of our campus, I can say from two years of experience that I have never felt the hatred that I have seen in political clashes outside of campus while safely on it.

Yes, I have had my fair share of heated discussions about this candidate or that piece of legislation that get personal. But, I have had just as many that end amicably, sometimes with opinions on one or both sides altering. This healthy debate I have become accustomed to encountering is something I am very thankful for and very proud to be a part of.

Back at Politicon, sitting next to one of my closest friends who is someone more than willing to debate me whenever we disagree (which is often), I almost couldn’t believe that perfect strangers sitting yards away were screaming at each other with such malice. It reminded me of a year and a half ago, when I found myself covering a Trump rally during the South Carolina primary. I had gotten a ride with Shaker Samman, a now-graduated DPR contributor. The two of us differed on many if not most political issues, and debated various finer points of the candidates’ platforms the whole ride to the rally. Later, we stood next to each other and watched as people we had never met hissed and booed at us simply for being members of the press.

After spending a solid few minutes spent reminiscing about the primary and looking around at those surrounding me in the crowd, I turned my attention back to the Politicon participants. To both of their credit, while they rarely could agree they were extremely good at changing the subject. The only exception to this was a discussion of President Trump’s recent announcement that the government would no longer allow “transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military”. The heated discussion that neither woman seemed to want to end led to perhaps the largest blunders of the night for both. Lahren, after toeing GOP party line and vehemently declaring her opinions stem from a solely fiscal point of view, then claimed, “The battlefield isn’t a place for a social experiment.”

Handler leapt on this phrase with a passionate declaration that the LGBT community is not a social experiment, but instead a community that is only going to get bigger. This led to wild cheers from the crowd and what should’ve been a succinct end to the topic. Handler, riding this high, immediately changed the subject, asking about Lahren’s seemingly blindly loyal support for President Trump. Lahren shot back that she was originally a Rubio supporter, leading Handler — in a moment that reminded everyone she is a comedian first and a political commentator second — to joke about Rubio being a “non-man.” Lahren pointed out the hypocrisy in arguing from a perspective that gender is a social construct then insulting a man about his masculinity, and Handler lost the momentum she had just recently gained. 45 minutes into the non-debate, the two had started nitpicking words.

The rest of the “conversation” revolved around lies in the 2016 election (Handler actually pulled out a note card with a list when pressed), renewable energy and energy independence, the President’s tendency to spend time watching TV and Facebook, and the question of where Trump’s tax returns are. Throughout the event, people in the crowd — either eager to get to “Ann Coulter vs. Ana Kasparian” or fed up with the sometimes ridiculous banter and definitely ridiculous responses from the audience — steadily made their way to the exits.

Takeaways from “Chelsea Handler in Conversation with Tomi Lahren” included realizing comedian Chelsea Handler is now taking to getting her voice heard in politics, Tomi Lahren isn’t going anywhere even if she is currently unemployed, and even the most genuine attempts at conversations to bridge the divide between left and right will often dissolve into debates that sound more like one-sided conversations.

Handler, to her credit, tried to end with a question they could both agree on: “Would you ever hit a baby?” Unfortunately, I was too excited to go watch the best-looking man on CNN host his show next door to hear Lahren’s answer.

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