The fall 2022 class of Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) fellows sat down with The Hoya to discuss issues ranging from the upcoming midterm elections to what they hope to learn from students and each other this semester.
The 15th class of fellows, which was announced Aug. 18, spans both sides of the aisle and encompasses diverse experiences in politics. The fellows include former Governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe (LAW ’84), Pulitzer-winning journalist Karoun Demirjian, former Director of Public Policy at Facebook Katie Harbath, former Senior Advisor and Communications Director of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) Xochitl Hinojosa, audience analytics expert Alex Lundry (GRD ’04) and former Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Mary Elizabeth Taylor.
They’ve come together to host individual discussion sections with students, share their perspectives on current events and, for Lundry and McAuliffe, give back to their alma mater.
Why did you decide to become a GU Politics fellow, and what do you hope to gain from the experience?
Taylor: The intentionality that GU Politics has demonstrated throughout this entire process is really compelling. Clearly, the Institute here is just really invested in ensuring that the students get an incredible experience and learn from people from all different kinds of backgrounds.
Harbath: What really compelled me was the combination of the theory and practitioner, bringing the practice and the real life experiences of people to try to help students understand how to take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply it in actual jobs.
Demirjian: I appreciate tremendously the way that GU Politics considers journalism to be part of the political ecosystem. Especially in a place like this, it’s important to understand how it’s both the objective scrutinizer but also part of the general political world in which we live. I love that the students seem so interested in learning about parts of politics that aren’t necessarily what they do. I’m personally really interested in learning from Georgetown students about how they think about news and consume news — students are our readership, and if we cannot write in a way that is going to get the students of today to read what we’re doing, then news doesn’t have a future. So this is as much going to be an education for me, if not more so, than me bringing my own experience to the table.
Lundry: I’m here because I got my graduate degree from Georgetown University, a Master’s in Public Policy, and it is directly responsible for my career and the profession I’m in. They gave me the skills that allowed me to succeed as much as I have. And so a big part of this for me is just giving back to the Georgetown community, along with the fact that my first job was as a high school teacher. I just love being in a classroom teaching about what I’ve learned. Not that many people understand exactly what we do and how we work in the data business, so I’m really excited to share that with students.
Hinojosa: I joined because real world experiences are critical in politics, and I would love to share how I managed and navigated that throughout my career. At the same time, I hope to learn a lot from the students. We get stuck in the political quibble of Washington, D.C. and day-to-day headlines and breaking news, and it’s really hard to take a step back and figure out what is important to people, what’s really important to young voters, what’s really important to the rest of the country, and not just what the political headlines of the day are. I’d love to learn more about how some of the messages that the Democratic Party and others are putting forward really resonate with people.
McAuliffe: I love the program and I know it very well — I’ve been a guest lecturer here a bunch of times for different forums that we’ve had. I love being in the classroom, and I enjoy coming in with students. I think it’s important for us who have had a lot of experience — I’ve been in politics for 40 years — to bring real life experiences so that you get a true understanding of how politics is done, and most importantly, how impactful it can be on your life and hopefully encourage young people to get active in community service or politics. This is sort of a way to give back and that’s why I’m excited to be here.
How will the political climate of this moment, including any lessons we may learn as the 2022 midterm elections approach, dictate the course of your discussions?
McAuliffe: We are in a tough place in this country today with polarization. We have got to get past that, and we’ve got to get people working together again. You and I can disagree on issues all day long, but we still can be great friends because we love this country. And one of the hopes I have is for young people to get the polarization down and learn to work together for the sake of this country. It is the greatest nation on Earth. I have traveled to 84 countries in my lifetime and I can tell you there’s nothing like going back to the United States.
Hinojosa: After the 2016 election, I was at the DNC and it was a very, very dark time. When you’re not the party in power, you have to come up with a message, you have to ensure that you are talking to the American people about what they want to talk about. It’s usually the economy, usually health care, and Democrats were really disciplined after the 2016 election and that’s why Democrats won in the House and the Senate and the White House. You’re not seeing the same from the Republican party today. You’re seeing a lot of infighting, you’re seeing them talk about other things like the 2020 election wasn’t won by Joe Biden. They’re not talking about the issues that Americans care about, and I think that’s a lost opportunity for them. They’ve failed to recruit candidates who’ve been tested, and so that is an opportunity for Democrats. I think what you’ll see is that while there was this red wave, you’ll no longer see a red wave because Republicans have really missed this opportunity.
Lundry: My discussion group will be a little different in that we probably won’t be talking about the midterms every session, but I do think we’ll talk about it in two distinct ways. Number one, there will be one session where we’re talking specifically about data driven journalism and its role in covering elections. So, is there a Nate Silver effect? Is there a 538 effect? The fact that he in 2016 said there was a 30% probability that Trump could win? Did people really understand what that meant? They felt betrayed by him when Trump won, so we’ll be talking about that. But I think the thread throughout my discussion will be about the behind the scenes operations of these campaigns. There is actually a highly sophisticated, very expensive, multimillion dollar marketing operation that is going on behind these campaigns that I’d like to shed some light on. How is data driving the decision making that these campaigns go through every step of the way?
Demirjian: My discussion group is talking about the intersection of politics and national security and how that is covered. There is an intensity around the midterm that is putting a lot of the things that are in that national security space potentially on the ballot; we are at an inflection point where we’re talking war and peace in ways we haven’t since the Cold War, and we’re talking about huge stakes internationally, we’re talking about huge stakes domestically. If you think about the very ugly and intense debate between the parties about the institutions of justice and the FBI and all that stuff. I’m hopefully going to be talking with the students that join the discussion group about how to distill and navigate and dissect how national security issues, which we usually think about as arising from the political fray, don’t at all. They’re affected and very much influenced by the discourse. This is a time when journalists are being challenged to figure out how to do our jobs, do it objectively, do it without bias and yet not just be stenographers of what’s happening. In a world where the rhetoric is getting more polarized and uglier, disinformation is potentially anywhere and spin is not off the charts, but is getting there, it’s our task of making sure that we are reflecting what’s going on but putting it in a context that doesn’t let anybody off the hook. This goes back to when I was talking about being interested in how students are perceiving the news they read and what to trust and how well we’re doing our jobs.
Harbath: Similarly, my discussion isn’t just about the midterms, but it’s looking at technology’s impact on elections, not just in the U.S. but around the world and democracy overall. So we’re gonna be talking about issues of content moderation, mis- and disinformation, political advertising, that of course have an intersection with the election and what the candidates are doing that are obviously issues that I think will absolutely be coming up in the state legislatures as they come into session.
Taylor: In my discussion group, similarly, we will not have a specific conversation on these upcoming midterms. Rather, we’re gonna have two different sessions, one on the House and one on the Senate, kind of unpacking them as institutions. What does it look like when there’s a split government? What does it look like when there’s not? I think I’m probably going to bring in one or two people from each side to really look at what it looks like in different environments, regardless of however the midterms go.
Why is it important to promote conversations about politics and government on college campuses?
Lundry: It’s hugely important. We have to have the conversation because of course you all are the ones who are going to come along and do a better job than we’ve done with it. Right? So better to have that conversation now and have people like us, practitioners, hopefully coming and interfacing more with students so we can have open and honest conversations about that so that when you arrive you’re kind of prepared for the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between. So I’m all for it.
Hinojosa: It’s a historic time. When I was in college, there was nothing that compares to what’s happening today. It’s important to tackle those issues head on, and to have conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable, with each other, as long as they’re respectful.
McAuliffe: It’s critically important. I’m going to spend most my sessions talking about the importance of state government. I don’t think a lot of people actually realize that the governor or state legislature has more to do with your life and the president of the United States since they don’t build our roads, clean all your roads, run the health care, run the education systems, all the things that impact your life every single day are really done at the state level. So I’m going to have a lot of my former cabinet in to go through different discussions. It’s important for young folks to realize the importance of how state governments actually impact your life. And hopefully people will run at the state level and they’ll get excited or you know, go work in the governor’s office and understand the importance of how you can shape and change people’s lives.
Taylor: I think there’s a real opportunity to have these conversations in college. I still challenge myself to be open-minded and receptive to all different viewpoints, and when I think back, college was kind of the pinnacle of that. And I think it’s incredibly important to create spaces and environments where people from all different viewpoints, all different ideologies can feel safe and supported in speaking up and saying what they believe in.
Harbath: College is really the place where, at least for me, you learn how to really talk with people that have differing viewpoints, you learn how to have those debates. Some of the best debates I still wish I could have were those I had with the student government or others that during the day, we were battling over something but then we were going to State Street and having a drink — I went to University of Madison — afterwards. The 2000 election happened in the middle of when I was in college, and it really helped me to formulate what I believed on the issues and it was what actually turned me into going into politics. I think that by exploring those opportunities now it really helps to set you up even better for when you go into the workplace and you’re going to be encountering those things every day.
Demirjian: For a lot of people, college is the last time they are guaranteed to be put in a place with people who don’t think like them. Life only gets more siloed as you move beyond college. The tendency is that the diversity of opinion or experience shrinks and shrinks and shrinks as you get older, so to take advantage of this time that you have and the place that you have is important. Whether or not it feels safe, it’s good if it does and everybody feels supported, but even if it doesn’t, it’s something also to learn to engage and to learn to listen. For my job, listening is tremendously important. You have to listen because you are trying to make sense of everything you’re hearing. I think it would help if politicians listened more too, but I think fundamentally even if you go on to do more school, it’s still going to be more siloed than in college. So it’s really, I don’t mean to be defeatist about it, it’s potentially, unless you intentionally throw yourself into those spaces later, the only one that’s just organically there for you. And if you get used to that sort of thing, you seek it out later in life too so that can’t be a bad thing.
What do you hope to learn from one another?
McAuliffe: We obviously have different political beliefs, but it doesn’t matter — we can all be friends, and that’s one thing I always like to convey to people. I said this yesterday in my speech to all the students. We have gotten to this point where it’s like a Game of Thrones: if you’re a Republican, you’re a jackass, if you’re a Democrat, you’re equally so. It’s so shallow — you can have disagreements and you can still be friends. For us here, we’ll build great relationships here that will carry on for years and years to come. I think that’s one of the best things. We’ve got three Republicans, two Democrats and an Independent, and we’re not always right. Talking to folks about different issues is important, and we can all grow and learn by listening to each other.
Hinojosa: When I started at the DNC, the number one piece of advice I got from the lady who had my position before was make friends with your counterpart at the RNC. And I thought this was a little bit crazy, we were in the Trump era, and I didn’t really trust that. But we became friends and I really found we did have a lot in common. There were times, like when the insurrection happened and there was a bomb placed at our office, there was also a bomb placed at the RNC. We were able to find common ground in terrible, terrible situations, but to this day, we still talk and we are still clearly different from each other. But our hope is that even though I’ve said a lot of bad things about Facebook, and I’ve said a lot of bad things about the Trump administration, at the end of the day, I think it’s good to hear everyone’s perspective and really learn from it.
Lundry: I do a lot of my work kind of toiling away in the data mines, like down in the basement of wherever the campaign is. So it’s always great for me to hear from people in other parts of the political world and get to know more about their job and their needs. Because theoretically, the data science component of the campaign should be all the different from all the other parts of the campaign — we’re like an internal consulting group. And so better understanding the comms function helps me understand how I can find better products and better insights. Better understanding how Facebook works makes me better understand the targeting options that we can do. And so there’s this great exposure here that is not just ideologically diverse, but it’s cross-functional. And that’s really great for me to see all these different parts and getting that experience is really helpful for me.
Demirjian: Off-the-record conversations are important because they get you to think in ways where you figure out how to plan your next articles that aren’t breaking from the pact and are doing things that are innovative and make people understand things that they wouldn’t have otherwise. This is a gathering in which there are people who know about data science, international elections, some of the biggest tech companies on the planet, the DNC, the world of being a governor, of having run for various things, the White House, the State Department. This is a great little hotbox of people who have incredible perspective on institutions, on players, on how things work that I’m going to be able to just soak up and hopefully, somewhere in the mess of my goo of a brain, start to have germs of ideas of things that come up of things that I should look at and try to report more on. And that’s a huge asset and benefit for my professional life just from this group, and that says nothing about the large family of alums who I understand stop in and out of the GU Politics office all the time who have umpteen more areas of their expertise and knowledge, most of them being the practitioners that work on the inside of all these things, that is a fantastic resource for being a smarter reporter.
Harbath: While we all have distinct discussion groups, the other thing that has really become clear is there’s overlap. Alex and I might do a joint session talking about things like Cambridge Analytica and data in political advertising. I was talking about how next year, I think the state legislature will be bringing up a lot of bills around voting or content moderation or around tech, and obviously, the midterms. For me, there’s little areas where I think we can connect dots, not only amongst ourselves, but with the students, of how all these different places really do interact. And maybe in some ways, we’re actually quite the microcosm of D.C. between government, private sector, civil society and others, to show how all those kind of interact on a day-to-day basis that is really hard when you sometimes just look at it from the outside because it just looks like a bunch of chaos.
Taylor: I feel similarly. There’s such beauty in the diversity of backgrounds that GU Politics has brought together with this class. But what I’m really excited about is identifying the things that we have done and the people that we know that are all similar.