In an increasingly polarized political climate with a 24-hours news cycle and where social media has become a platform for political discourse, the last thing people seem willing to do is listen to opposing viewpoints. 

But on Tuesday night, that’s the first thing that seven students from Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans did.

In a Listen First Conversation moderated by Pearce Godwin, Trinity ’08, the students discussed topics ranging from school choice to terrorism. The Duke Democrats were represented by sophomores Faven Getahun, Allison McHorse and Leah Abrams, who is the club’s president and the editorial page managing editor for The Chronicle. The students who spoke for the Duke College Republicans were sophomores Audrey Kornkven and Jake Chasan, junior Michael Brunetti and senior Colin Duffy, who is the club’s president.

Here are three of the topics that generated the most interesting discussion from the students.

National debt and President Donald Trump’s tax plan

One of the first questions posed by Godwin was on the federal deficit and what students think about the state of national debt. 

Chasan drew the analogy of repeatedly taking out 30-year mortgages on cars that you replace every five years and explained that “eventually you become underneath a mountain of debt and you can’t pay it off.” He said that it’s essential for the United States to figure out how much is too much debt, and what can effectively be paid off without the the country being under that mountain.

Abrams responded to the analogy, agreeing that the national debt is “an incredible problem.”

“But I do think that it has to be tempered with our obligation to provide certain services for folks who are in need of them,” she said. 

She referenced the current tax plan being considered by Congress, and said there are ways to lower the national debt without reneging on responsibilities to provide programs like social security and Medicaid/Medicare.

Duffy pushed back on negative views of the tax plan by critiquing the Congressional Budget Office’s assumption that the economy will only grow at 1.9 percent. He said that when good tax reforms are enacted that minimize loopholes, it is possible to see the economy take off. He called out multi-national corporations and the University itself for being beneficiaries of those loopholes. 

“Duke is taking advantage of the current system, in the sense that even us, we have millions of dollars parked off-shore for our endowments that we don’t have to pay taxes on,” Duffy said.

McHorse took particular issue with the effects that the current plan would have on graduate students’ taxation rate for school costs. 

Duffy challenged the proposition that graduate students would be hurt by the bill.

“What do you think would be more important though—having the ability to write off that interest or having a job there to allow you to pay off those loans?” he asked.

“I just don’t have faith that the cutting of the corporate taxes will directly help people that much,” McHorse responded. “We’ve seen it have limited success, and I think there is no reason to hurt graduate students trying to pay back their loans in order to cut those corporate taxes when you could help in other ways.”

Brunetti took a step back and summed up the overall view of the bill.

“It’s kind of sad that it seems no one is really enthusiastic about the plan on either side,” he said.


The students' discussion of immigration ranged from how to handle refugees to how strongly the United States should enforce illegal immigration laws.

Getahun explained that in regard to refugees, she believes that the United States has the responsibility to bring in refugees and that it is critical that the government also offer aid and financial support once the refugees reach the United States.

Duffy agreed that the United States has a responsibility to help refugees, but noted that the best way to do so is not necessarily by bringing them into the country. He suggested an alternative option—integrating them into another Middle Eastern country like Saudi Arabia where they share a common religion and language. 

“How do we take the money we’ve already allocated towards this and use it best?” he asked.

Brunetti addressed the other end of the immigration spectrum, saying that the United States should shape policy and enforce it in relation to legal and illegal immigration. He said that it is easy to say legal immigration is good, but things get trickier when it comes to illegal immigration. 

He said that the right response was somewhere in between the positive economic impact and the negative judicial extreme of illegal immigration being a crime.

Gun control

Abrams kicked off the discussion on gun legislation by saying that she does not know of any reason that a person should own a semi-automatic weapon, and pointed to Congress’ lack of progress on the issue.

“The fact that there has been absolutely no action on gun reform from Congress is absolutely irresponsible, especially given the number of mass shootings we have seen in just my lifetime and the amount of people that have been killed,” she said.

Kornkven offered an alternative view on how to curb the number of mass shootings and gun violence. She advocated for better enforcement of the current gun laws, and noted that there are non-regulatory ways of addressing the issue as well, like the media not using shooters’ names in order to not encourage copycat killers. 

Duffy concurred with Kornkven on increased enforcement of the current laws, noting in particular a lack of prosecuting felons who try to purchase guns.

Brunetti raised the question of whether or not a successful ban on all semi-automatic guns would truly bring an end to mass killings. He said people intent on causing harm may just turn to using bombs or vehicles instead.

“I’ve noticed that when people are really determined to do something heinous like that, they will try to find a way to pull it off,” he said. “People are, unfortunately, really creative.”