2024 Speaking Competition: Democracy

Susan Daniels, Jaimie Han, Spencer Michaels, and Kamil Mahmood


Every February since 2019, the College has held a speaking competition in Johnson Chapel centered on a different theme. Past themes have included power, progress and justice, and this year eight finalists considered the idea of democracy. The students came from each class and were coached by Susan Daniels, associate in public speaking. And a panel of judges selected three winners—whose speeches covered democracy around the world, from South Korea to Pakistan to Slovakia.

Given this year’s theme, it seemed judicious that an alumnus, whose portrait hung on the wall behind the dais, had much to say about democracy, too. William Henry Hastie, Amherst class of 1925, was the first Black federal judge in the United States. “Democracy is a process, not a static condition,” Hastie once said. “It is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.” 

That eternal struggle figured into the speeches delivered this winter’s day in 2024. Watch, listen and read below.

Best Overall Persuasive Speech

Award: Best Overall Persuasive Speech

Winner: Kamil Mahmood ’27  

Speech title: “How to Scare a Military Dictator”

Mahmood’s speech began like this…

You know, I’m going to be a bit honest for a second: I do not really understand why democracy is such a great system. At Amherst College, it seems like we’re all about it. Oh, save democracy, protect democracy, take a pledge to serve democracy… but why? 

I mean, sorry, President Elliott and anyone else here who loves democracy.

But if you think about it, it’s a pretty weak system. In my home country, Pakistan, all it took for democracy to crumble was for one military general to hop up on camera and just declare the constitution void. To this day, not a single democratically elected leader has completed their term. … 

Best Delivery of a Persuasive Speech

Award: Best Delivery of a Persuasive Speech 

Winner: Jaimie Han ’26

Speech title: “North Korea”

Han’s speech began like this…

Fun story: When I was applying to colleges, CommonApp asks me what country your parents are from and all that. And it’s in alphabetical order, so I’m scrolling and I get to the D section. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Perfect. 

Not perfect. DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF KOREA IS NORTH KOREA. I’m pretty sure Virginia Commonwealth University did get my application with that information on it. But, no, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is actually North Korea, and South Korea—which is what I wanted—is just listed as “Republic of Korea.” Apparently, anyone can claim to be a democracy if they want, so what does it even mean? That the people vote on their leader and the majority wins? Then, sure, North Korea is a democracy. Kim Jong Un is a choice on the ballot every year, and he wins by a majority. But, obviously, democracy is not just that. … 

Best Content in a Persuasive Speech

Award:Best Content in a Persuasive Speech

Winner: Spencer Michaels ’24

Speech title: “Distrust and Verify”

Michaels’ speech began like this…

Two days before last year’s Slovakian elections, candidate and predicted winner Michal Šimečka went viral. In a short clip that circulated on Facebook and Twitter, he tells a popular radio host that he’s rigging the elections, partly by buying votes from the nation’s marginalized Roma population. In a separate clip, he informs voters that he’s going to double the price of beer once in power. These clips, of course, were misinformation generated by an artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, they nudged voters away from Šimečka, and he lost the election—with power of the government going to his pro-Russian opponent. 

Democracy relies on the free and fruitful flow of information. And our digital age has offered us opportunities to communicate and learn, to promote democracy and freedom like never before. But it has also offered bad actors the same opportunities to fill the waves of the web with misinformation and static. Of course, we’re all very familiar with misinformation—we all remember 2020—but we are woefully unprepared for its newest mutation with generative AI. …  

Photos from the Speaking Competition