The Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) fellows for the Spring 2023 semester sat down with The Hoya to explore the political lessons the next generation can learn, highlights of their careers and predictions for the future of the U.S. government.
This semester’s fellows include MJ Lee (COL ’09), senior White House correspondent for CNN; Elaine Luria, former U.S. representative (D-Va.); Michael Ricci, former director of communications for former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.); Mike Shields, former chief of staff of the Republican National Committee (RNC); Chris Stirewalt, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Jonae Wartel, former director for the Democratic U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
All fellows will host discussion groups with students throughout the semester to discuss current events and share their insights on politics.
If there was one lesson about politics you could impart to college students, what would it be?
Shields: I would say take part in it. Even if that’s not what you’re studying, it’s still going to impact your life. There’s almost nothing that you’re going to do when you leave here that won’t be impacted by politics, government or public service.
Lee: Staying open-minded. I know that the way I see politics now is very different from what I thought American politics was when I was an undergrad here.
Wartel: As much as we focus on the national political landscape and the big headlines, I think also focusing on local politics and state politics. I think that often gets overlooked in the major headlines.
Luria: Having had a bit of a different career and serving two decades in the military, people often don’t think of their jobs as political in nature. But politics influences the daily lives of every American, and the decisions that are made by those elected officials impact everything from our national defense to turning on your faucet and having clean water. So being engaged in the process is going to make sure that you have the right people at every level of government who share your values and can help make those decisions that will make a better environment for your family and the community.
Stirewalt: Politics is not the point of anything. Politics is what we do so that we can have nice things. Politics is what we do to resolve our disputes and resolve our differences. It’s not the purpose of life. It is something that we do to make the other parts of life better and possible.
Ricci: I would say make it as much about the journey and the process as possible, as opposed to the outcome. I know it sounds quite cheesy, but I can say this on the back end of 18 years as a staffer, you want to enjoy it as much as possible because a lot of people make it miserable. You should get fulfillment out of what you’re doing and making a difference.
What has been the most memorable or exciting moment of your career thus far?
Shields: I’d say probably the most exciting was election night in 2010. I’d run the House Republican television ad campaigns, the best way to describe it, for us to win Congress. And we did, and a smashing victory, so that was probably the most exciting.
Lee: I recently went on a White House trip to cover President Biden traveling to Korea, and I think that was extremely meaningful for me. I was born there, all of my family is still there other than my immediate family members, and the first day I got there, I got to see my grandfather, some of my aunts and my uncles, and it was this very surreal moment. My parents didn’t have anything growing up. They dreamed of a life for me and my brother in the United States, and I dreamt of being a journalist my entire career or my entire life since I was little.
Wartel: I was the runoff director for the Senate runoffs in Georgia. Obviously, that was a huge election, both for our country and for the state of Georgia. But also, it had a lot of personal meaning for me. I think that was one of those moments where you really see your career come full circle. I started in Georgia politics because I wanted to make a difference at home. I had worked on the Obama campaign, and I saw us have this huge national victory, and it was such a big moment for our country, being the first African American president. I wanted to do something that had impact for my family and the communities that I grew up in.
Stirewalt: I grew up in West Virginia, and I treasure the fact that people from my hometown in my home state think that I’m a good representative of my state. That’s something that means a lot to me.
What do you think America’s political climate will look like in 10 years?
Luria: I think each of us has a level of optimism. We know it’s a difficult time, and we feel that to students here at Georgetown, this is all they’ve known. This, essentially, since they’ve been of an age to pay attention that this is how politics looks to them. But we know, being a little older, that it’s not how it should look. And we kind of have seen an arc or trajectory to get back to a place where there’s political discourse without the hatred and vitriol that we see today.
Stirewalt: I do think there’s lots of reasons for hope. The best way to get good at something fast is to play for more than you can afford to lose. And we have experienced in 2020, in 2021 and subsequent events that this last best hope of earth could go away and that the liberty and safety and freedom that we enjoy in this country, we could lose. And I think that awareness is itself the remedy.
Lee: We will, in part, still be reeling from the moment we’re in now and the period that we’ve just lived through. The optimistic part of me thinks that we will be looking back and knowing and realizing that everything that is fundamental to this country is stronger than a moment in time.
Wartel: My hope is that we have a democracy that is in, whatever ways it needs to be, more representative of the people that it serves. I think we’re still a long way away from people really seeing their ideas and their ideals reflected in our elected bodies, both at the local level and at the national level.
How can bipartisan dialogue be facilitated, and what is the media’s role in enabling it, if any?
Lee: I think it’s our responsibility to, sometimes, as appropriate, cover the planes that do land, not just the planes that don’t land; cover the bills that do pass, not just the bills that don’t pass; and cover the stories when the two parties work together and not only when they are in conflict.
Stirewalt: The incentive structure for us in the media is to play to the worst impulses, the quickest click, and we have propagated cruelty. We have rewarded vitriol, and we have done all those things. And some of that’s just a byproduct of free expression and a free society. That’s just what you’re gonna get. When you have information, you will have misinformation and malinformation. That’s part of the price of freedom, but, as I said before, we’re aware of the cost now.
Shields: Social media in particular is profiting off of conflict amongst a few people that drown out the majority of other voices, so that people are titillated by it, and they then make money from advertising to that. So I think when people can break out of that, they are relieved. When they get to have face-to-face interactions, the temperature always goes down.
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