Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

The McCourtney Institute for Democracy

Volume 4: O’Neill Kennedy, Penn State College Democrats

Volume 4: O’Neill Kennedy, Penn State College Democrats

For this week’s interview, we had the pleasure of sitting down with O’Neill Kennedy of the College Democrats. The College Democrats are a student-run organization that focuses on Democratic policies and viewpoints, and also focuses on helping to elect Democratic politicians. O’Neill is a senior Schreyer Honors student who is also the Treasurer of Penn State College Democrats. She is also on the judicial board for the University Park Undergraduate Association and is on the Executive Board for Schreyer for Women.

The following is an abbreviated version of our interview:

How do you define democratic deliberation?

Let’s take the example of two people who are having a conversation with one another and are truly listening and keeping their minds open. They are not attacking each other on the basis of their character and are able to acknowledge their own weaknesses in their arguments, while still defending them with honest facts. I think it’s generally being polite, just knowing that the person you are deliberating with has the right to their opinion and deserve the same respect that you do.

How does the College Democrats apply democratic deliberation?

One of the things we do for every general body meeting is a discussion portion. The Executive Board will come up with a topic that is either “in the news” or important to our members. Our President, Katierose, then presents this topic at the meeting and in no particular order chooses different members to speak their minds about the discussion topic. Oftentimes there is some disagreements. While we are the College Democrats, some people are very progressive and others are more moderate. There are many topics that get the members riled up, but nevertheless, we always make an effort to remain respectful. And at the end of the day, we are a big family and we always remember that we are a part of the same club. We also have a podcast that we do pretty regularly, we try to discuss a number of different current events topics with a couple members of the Executive Board and maybe one or two other general members.

What is your sense of democratic deliberation nationally?

I think it’s worse on the national scale than it is on the campus-level. We see politicians saying really terrible things about each other, and people in our communities doing the same. You keep seeing these videos of white people harassing people of color and calling the police on them for no reason. Just some really awful stuff that happens more, it seems, since Trump was elected. There have been so many stories of voter suppression, which completely shuts down democratic deliberation because then the voters’ voices are not heard. Then the politician who is elected does not truly represent the views of their constituents.

How do you think that social media factors into the way that we look at or use democratic deliberation?

In theory, it’s supposed to help with democratic deliberation because you can get a number of different viewpoints from all across the globe, and engage with these people with differing opinions. It’s supposed to help with democratic deliberation by providing a forum for you to have lengthy discussions with people you have never met. However, the technology has not worked out that way, as far as I understand. You are put into this bubble based on who your friends are and your demographic data. Social media sites will feed you content to get more clicks, which is their whole business model. Also, there is an element of anonymity in social media. People behave much worse when there is a screen in front of your face, as opposed to speaking in person.

What is it in politics today that makes you angry? 

I will speak on one thing that has been immediately making me angry. I do a little bit of volunteer work for the Marc Friedenberg for Congress campaign. The other night there was a Candidate’s Night put together by the local League of Women Voters. Marc was there, and so was Susan Boser who was running in our neighboring Congressional district. However, both of their Republican opponents did not attend. I have heard a couple of reasons why they did not show up, they say it’s because of “prior engagements”. However, Marc’s opponent, Tom Marino, a sitting Congressman, has refused to debate Marc at every opportunity. Months in advance when they are given the dates for debates, Marc says yes, and Tom has said no every single time. That is what makes me angry. Politicians who don’t make themselves open to that democratic deliberation and who do not make themselves accessible to their constituents. Sometimes you will call a politician who does not answer the phone when you call them, or they are rude to you, or they redirect you to another Congressman for no reason. The Founders did not intend for these politicians to be so inaccessible to their constituents.

What in politics today makes you proud? 

I think that one thing that makes me proud is the work that Democrats who are regular people do. I don’t know how many people you know who are politically-engaged Republicans, but they do not need to canvass and phone-bank as much as we do. I’m proud that Democrats put so much work into organizing and registering voters.

What in politics today gives you hope?

Kind of like my answer to what makes me proud, it’s the work that people are putting in. There are many groups to empower women to run for office or to become campaign managers. So many women have signed up for these programs and organizations, thousands and thousands of women. And I think that’s great, because as developed of a country that America is, we lag behind a lot of other developed countries in terms of women we have in government, both on the federal and state level. So I think more women running for office will make our legislature and federal government look more like the actual population, which is always a good thing. That’s what gives me a lot of hope, is that so many young women will see their mothers, aunts, teachers, and even more running for office, and that will inspire them to do the same.

College Democrats meetings are held every Monday at 8 p.m. in 108 Wartik. You can follow them on Twitter @PSUCollegeDems and on Instagram @psucollegedemocrats.