Public service is a good thing.
Politics can be too.
I love politics.
I know that’s a provocative statement.
Nobody likes politics. Nobody likes anyone that has anything to do with politics. People don’t trust candidates for office, and it doesn’t get any better once they’re elected. They don’t trust the political parties. They don’t trust the pollsters or consultants. They don’t even trust the media that are supposed to be the referees.
People look at Washington and all they see is a romper room of dysfunction. Hyper-partisanship is crippling us. Big money is flooding politics in ways the Founders could never have imagined. We’re debating the major issues of our day 140 characters at a time. “Opinion” and “analysis” are rapidly replacing what used to be known as “reporting,” further cheapening our national dialogue.
It’s no wonder that most Americans look at their government and ask “is anyone there looking out for me?”
It’s a good question.
But despite all that, I still love politics. Because at the end of the day, when it’s done right, politics is still about public service.
The hard-working civil servant who goes to work every day to provide services to help you and your family.
The government official who takes a hiatus from their career to answer a call to serve and apply their expertise to the common good.
The elected official who exposes themselves to a rhetorical battering ram every campaign cycle so they can serve their constituents.
The campaign organizer who gets paid next-to-nothing and works terrible hours because they believe in a cause enough to try to engage you in it.
The journalist who tries to provide you with the facts, the perspective, and the story to help you make an informed decision.
The common thread binding all these people together is you. These people all exist to serve you.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. And when it works, amazing things can happen that can bend the arc of history. Politics is how democracies settle differences. It’s not always pretty, but the alternatives are far worse. When the system works, it gives voice to your hopes and your dreams.
But the system only works when you’re bought in — when you get involved. And too many people have lost faith, because too many people in politics have forgotten about the public service. And when you tune out of the process, your voice is silent.
Politics has gone from being a noble calling to a dirty word. It doesn’t need to be. We just need to get better at it again.
So, yeah. I love politics.
And that’s why I’m leaving it.
I’m leaving politics to learn how to do it better.
And I’m counting on young people to show me how.
For nearly twenty years I’ve been on the frontlines of politics. I’ve worked for four different presidential candidates, and countless Senators, Governors, and other federal, state and local candidates. I’ve worked for the Democratic Party, for progressive interest groups, and even a SuperPAC.
During that time I’ve said mean, nasty, terrible things about my political opponents — in part because that’s what I was trained to do, in part because I believed those things.
I once had a national political reporter tell me he was “totally psyched” to hear I was joining a campaign, because that meant “blood on the walls.” For years afterwards, I considered that a compliment.
But here’s the dirty little secret about all those candidates I spent years trashing — I may not have liked what they stood for, but I respected the hell out of most of them. Because whatever their politics, they were stepping up to the plate. They were putting their name on a ballot. They were willing to take the hits, have their names dragged through the mud, spend hours each day dialing for dollars for one simple reason — they wanted to serve. (Most of them, at least.)
There’s nothing wrong with the partisan back and forth — just as competition in the marketplace makes for better business, competition of ideas makes for better government.
But when the competition becomes the end and not just the means, that’s when we’ve failed. That failure leads to a disconnect between people and politics.
No one feels more disconnected than young people. And that is a huge problem.
There’s no shortage of people in my generation sitting around trying to figure out how to reengage young people. We’re going about it the wrong way.
We need young people to take the whole thing over. They’re the ones redefining activism and redefining the way we communicate. They should be the ones telling my generation how politics can be done better.
In 2013, Georgetown University founded a brand new McCourt School of Public Policy, made possible by a $100 million gift — the largest in university history — from Georgetown alumnus Frank H. McCourt Jr.
At the time, part of the vision was the creation of a new center dedicated to exciting and inspiring young people toward public service, civic engagement and active political participation. The goal was to create a new center that would connect graduate and undergraduate students with leaders in politics and public service in Washington, across the country, and around the world.
That vision became the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service. And when I was given the chance to head it up as its founding Executive Director, I couldn’t pass it up.
Twenty-five years ago this summer, I walked through the Georgetown campus gates for the first time as a student. I came here because of its location in Washington and because I wanted to be pursue a career in the foreign service. (The fact that Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo were playing for the team then didn’t hurt either.)
Established in 1789 — the same year as the new republic — Georgetown remains committed to the core principles of its Jesuit identity.
Students are challenged to engage in the world and become men and women in the service of others, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the community. These values are at the core of Georgetown’s identity, binding members of the community across diverse backgrounds, faiths, cultures and traditions…. Through scholarship and service, Georgetown students, faculty and staff work together to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems — including poverty, disease and conflict.
I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like what politics and public service are all about.
Here’s what’s so cool about what we’re going to do.
This is what the new Institute’s mission statement says:
The Institute of Politics and Public Service at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy is grounded in Georgetown’s Jesuit mission of service to others. It is dedicated to inspiring young people to become leaders in politics and public service here and abroad. It will engage political, business, nonprofit academic and other leaders in efforts to shape global, regional and national agendas. Together with these stakeholders, it will work to define common challenges, propose solutions and stimulate actions by global citizenry.
Here’s what that means.
Based in Washington, we have access to many of the smartest and most recognizable political figures and public servants in the country. But we’re not just going to be a place where a bunch of political veterans come to talk to or at students. We want this to be a place where students drive the conversation. An incubator of political thought where students are connected with public servants and political practitioners to come up with the next big ideas on how to make our political system work better.
We’ll explore issues like how we conduct our campaigns; how to promote effective leadership and more effective governance through deliberative democracy; how we communicate in a changing media landscape.
We’ll look at politics both here and abroad, what issues bind all democracies, and what lessons we all can learn.
We’ll look at the 2016 elections in real time, and how the campaigns intersect with governance and public service.
We want to be a place where students are teaching as much as they are learning, where public servants walk away with more than they came in with, and where young people get excited about lives in public service.
We want to be a place where we prepare the next generation of leaders, and where they help us become better leaders ourselves.
Time for new voices
I’m a proud Democrat. That’s never going to change.
And while we don’t see eye-to-eye on most issues, I respect my Republican friends who feel they have the better approach. Our democracy is strongest when we can debate the issues and figure out how to move forward, even when we don’t agree. We can be fierce partisans and still be productive.
We’ve lost sight of how to do that.
It’s time to bring new voices into the process to help us figure it out.
That’s what our new institute is going to try to do. I hope you’ll join us.
A 20-year veteran of national politics, Mo Elleithee leaves his job as Communications Director of the Democratic National Committee next week to become the founding Executive Director of Georgetown University’s new Institute of Politics and Public Service. A Georgetown alum, he can often be found at the Verizon Center (or on Twitter during away games) cheering on his beloved Hoya basketball team.