Remedying injustice and bridging partisan divides are chief goals for the post-Trump era, according to the spring 2021 Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service fellows.
The fellows spoke to campus media in a Zoom press event Jan. 29. The semester’s cohort is former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, National Director of States Organizing for the Biden-Harris campaign Anatole Jenkins, Associated Press Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace, former Director of Public Affairs at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency Sara Sendek and Fox News contributor and radio host Guy Benson.
The spring fellows mark the program’s 12th class. The program, launched in 2015, brings influential political minds to campus to exchange ideas and analysis with students. The fellows host weekly discussion groups focused on current political issues and office hours, all held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can you introduce your discussion group topics? What’s the objective of your group? What would you want a student to take away from participating in your group?
Jenkins: The subject of my discussion is going to be organizing in 2020, organizing during a pandemic and the lessons learned for the road ahead. Not just the road ahead in terms of our electoral fights that we have, in terms of the fights that we need to do, making sure that as a party that we keep control of the House and expand our control in the U.S. Senate and a whole host of other legislative and elected seats across the country, but in addition to that, social movements fights.
Pace: My discussion group is going to focus on the media in a post-Trump era. I think that for the media, the Trump era has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s been good for business — we certainly saw readership go up. I think a lot of outlets did some of the best journalism that they had done in years, but I think in some ways it also played to some of the worst instincts of the media, and we saw a veer from some more traditional mainstream outlets into a little bit of opinion. I think we saw a lot more of the ideological split in the media become clearer. One of the things I really want to talk with our group about is how the media moves forward, how we gain trust with the public, how we focus on not just putting forward opinion but really trying to put facts first, particularly given how much misinformation is out there, and what the role is of the mainstream media at a time when there is so much division and it often seems like we can’t agree on a simple set of facts.
Jones: I am going to talk in my discussion groups about something that I feel very strongly about and that I have worked on a lot of my career — my professional career and into my Senate — and that is trying to right the wrongs, create justice where injustices exist by bridging divides. Our discussion groups will focus on how we got here, where we are. I think since Jan. 6 it’s actually gotten worse than it’s gotten better. We’ll look at the injustices and the connections between the injustices in society and the divides that we have in this society, how we can bridge those divides and try to ameliorate the injustices that exist. We’ll be looking at, across the board, racial injustices and racial divides I think permeate our entire society, and we’re gonna be looking at that as a backdrop, but also looking at how all the divides affect healthcare delivery, the economy, jobs and of course partisanship, and where we stand in Congress and in legislatures across the country these days.
Perez: One of our goals in our study group is going to be introducing you to problem-solving at a federal level, a state level and a local level. We’ll talk about the Democratic primary, how we managed a campaign with an unprecedented number of candidates, how we got through that and how we were able to achieve a necessary unity that helped us to win. At the same time, when you’re in Washington, D.C., there is a tendency to think that the center of the universe is four miles away from the Georgetown campus, and what I want to make sure we do is that we work with students so you can see that you can solve problems at a state and local level as well. My goal at the end of the term is I want people who have an understandable cynicism about our politics right now, because our politics are broken, to not have that cynicism and to understand that even in these seemingly dark moments, there are remarkable opportunities to make a difference and to use local government, state government, federal government, DNC, RNC, to use tools for the public good.
Sendek: I most recently was the director of public affairs at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, the newest federal agency in the U.S. government. There we were the lead for federal government election security efforts. My discussion this semester will be entitled “Democracy, Dissent and Disinformation.” I think we all saw recently this month what effects disinformation can have on our democracy. It’s a huge problem. I don’t know what the solution is but really looking forward to digging into it and discussing what can be done and what steps everyone can take to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.
Benson: My discussion focus is going to be really where the conservative movement and the Republican Party go from here. It’s interesting because if you look at the election result, overall, it’s not really a catastrophe for Republicans. Yet, as someone who is a conservative and interacts with a conservative audience and interacts with a lot of Republican lawmakers and strategists on my show and various other platforms, it doesn’t really feel like the party is even in the ballpark of a healthy place right now, despite some of the electoral gains or not-so-horrible losses. I think initially the conversation was going to be “what does this look like in the post-Trump era,” and I think part of this discussion is going to be whether or not it is the post-Trump era.
Following the events of Jan. 6 and recent polling evidence that suggests the country is more divided than it has been since 1947, what direction do you see bipartisanship headed as we enter a new administration?
Perez: The president has been very clear. He was clear at the outset of his campaign that his campaign was for the soul of the nation, and he is working tirelessly to bring the nation together, whether that happens. I was hoping the aftermath of an insurrection that we saw where you turn the U.S. Capitol into a crime scene, I hope that that will force people, at least enough people, to take a step back and ask some very serious questions about our democracy. I spent a dozen years of my life prosecuting domestic terrorism cases. Many of the people involved are connected to the same groups that I prosecuted in the ’90s and early 2000s, and that’s really worrisome. What’s different now is you see some members of Congress who are appearing at rallies with these folks, and that is really troubling, and there has to be a reckoning here. I think we’re better off as a nation when we have a strong two party system.
Jenkins: Speaking from an organizing perspective, it’s interesting — or it’s not interesting — that the Biden-Harris campaign, the ticket, had the most, the broadest coalition of support just from the top level. But it’s interesting if you even look at the volunteers or the American citizens who we actually mobilized to take action, and having worked on Barack Obama’s campaign, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, midterm elections, this was the first time that we had a significant portion of folks who were mobilized and activated who were not registered with the Democratic party, who were Independent or who were registered with the Republican party, who were actually mobilized, which tells you that they weren’t necessarily mobilized to be a part of the Democratic party, but they were mobilized because of the issues that we were talking about. I think it’s a big something that we have to figure out how to solve. It’s “how do we keep those folks mobilized and engaged,” not necessarily with the Democratic party, but more importantly with and in their local communities talking to their neighbors and taking the partisan lens out of it and taking it to a community level.
Benson: I do suspect that some of the right-leaning or centrist people mobilized for the Biden campaign were doing so based on one issue named Donald Trump, so I think now that he’s no longer president, it’ll be interesting to see how the Democrats decide to govern. One of the things [Biden] did talk about a lot was COVID. One of the things he did talk a lot about was unity. And so I do think it’s incumbent on him now to prove it.
Pace: What we saw on the sixth was the manifestation of a lot of forces that have been bubbling up around this country for a long time. Trump may have exacerbated them, and he may have created a permissive structure for them to be let out into the open, but it’s not as though in four or six months, if Joe Biden manages to get some Republican votes on a COVID package, or if he looks like he’s going to bring Republicans over to the White House to have some negotiations, that that does anything to address what’s happening in the country. I think his administration recognizes that. But I think what we’re really dealing with is so much bigger than what happened in Washington with our politics. I mean, out in the country right now we are seeing a split happening that is not traditional red and blue. It’s about a lot more than that, and I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but I think we are in for a long period of time where we have to really grapple with why we saw what we did on the sixth.
Sendek: I think one of the major challenges of that split is, now more than ever, Americans have increased options of where to go so they can just hear their own echo chamber, whether or not it’s on social media or news channels, and they have this ability to only hear the side they want to hear and not hear anything else.
Jones: I also would say a lot of this is really going to depend on the character of those people running for office and those people holding office. If they want to work to get things accomplished, then they can do it, but it also is going to mean that they can’t lurch from one election to the next. People have to start looking at what can we do, what are we facing right now in this country and the problems we’ve got and let the chips fall where they may on the election because unfortunately people want and they talk about unity and they talk about bipartisanship, but they damn sure don’t always vote that way. And that’s gerrymandering, and it’s a bunch of things.
What you do feel is your most important trait as a leader that you have or should have as a leader? Who is the best leader or mentor that you’ve served with? What leadership traits make them the great leader they are?
Jenkins: I think that one of the biggest traits and aspects of a leader is someone who empowers others, someone who surrounds themselves with folks who they can rely on and trust, and they actually have some investment in their development and their growth.
Sendek: I have to follow on that and say I 100% agree it’s someone who empowers others. The one thing I have noticed is the best leaders, when they talk about their accomplishments and their work, they say “we.”
Pace: I think the best leaders get as much satisfaction out of seeing their teams succeed as they do about seeing themselves succeed. That is a great piece of advice I got from the person who I consider to be the best leader who I worked for, who is Sally Buzbee, who is now the executive editor of AP.
Perez: I really believe in what I call the irrelevance theory of leadership. My goal is to become as irrelevant as possible as soon as possible, and the way to become as irrelevant as possible as soon as possible is to empower the people around you to do the work that they are doing.
Benson: I was only at the White House, President Bush’s White House, in ’07 for about four months, and that’s really my only direct interaction with politics proper because I cover politics. But that was my brief foray into it, and someone who I really admired in that setting at the White House was a guy by the name of Tony Snow. Tony had worked at Fox News for years. He was diagnosed with cancer while he was in that position, and he was getting so sick that he couldn’t really continue. I was assigned as an intern to some of his closing interviews to sort of help him, and I just witnessed firsthand the grace and gratitude with which he conducted himself in what he knew were the closing days of his life. That has always really stuck with me because he had a huge platform and a lot of power, and he just was so genuine and humble and extremely kind and took the time of day to even talk to me.
Jones: I think the thing that you’re hearing through everybody is empowerment. If you take bits and pieces of what folks are saying, giving people trust is a big part of listening, trusting the people that are around you to do the job to the best of their ability.