Time passed, but no one came. This was new. Other events at the Harvard Institute of Political Science this summer have consistently attracted a healthy pool of interested undergraduates. A luncheon with senior Biden administration officials was attended by 16 students. A trip to the Secretary of Labor’s office got a dozen.
However, as the meeting time approached, it became clear that the numbers at the RNC did not match. By 2pm it was just me and one other student.
In fact, there were more panelists than students. In his next hour, his four senior communications directors at the RNC share career paths, talk about how the organization is structured, and respectfully offer their concerns for the future of American democracy. Did. Like all other events this summer, this is primarily intended to be educational and informative, and not overtly political or partisan. The issue of empty seats was not mentioned in most of the meeting — until at the end we stood up to take a group photo.
The Harvard Institute of Politics is the university’s umbrella organization for all things political. The annual Summer in Washington program invites politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats to meet Harvard undergraduates interning in Washington, DC.
Almost all of these seminars this summer have addressed the issue of polarization. Students nodded as the guest speaker discussed the need for both sides to come together and find common ground. Everyone in Red and Blue agreed that parts of Congress weren’t working the way they used to. Everyone agreed that talking to people on the other side and sharing their experiences was a small but tangible solution.
This turned out to be easier said than done.
As an Australian who first set foot in the United States three years ago for college, I was concerned about the health of our democracy. In Australia, the strength of American democracy is often seen as the touchstone of the strength of democratic governments around the world. In recent years, however, American labor unions have seemed frayed.
This summer gave us the opportunity to go beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts and explore the republic’s capital first hand. In this spirit, I attended nearly every event organized by the Institute, regardless of political affiliation. I was particularly curious the next day when about 10 of my classmates took a trip to the Democratic National Committee.
So I asked. One of the sophomores explained that she believed being in the same room as the other side was a form of endorsement or justification. But she also believed in bipartisanship and wanted the other side to come to her table more often. She argued that it was unfair to expect her to behave in the manner of
I sympathized with her point of view, but I couldn’t help but wonder, so what now? Someone needs to break the downward spiral of polarization and start rebuilding bipartisan relations. Sitting in the same room and listening carefully to the other side felt like a small but necessary first step.
This was Harvard’s first Summer in Washington program in three years. In some ways, the summer of 2022 was a political experiment. How do students across the partisan spectrum react to these events? The results challenge our image of ourselves as open-minded students eager to learn from different perspectives. Despite all the chatter about the need for cross-aisle conversation, when we Harvard students were put to the test, we failed.
These students are the future leaders of this country. Many of my friends who interned in Washington this summer expressed interest in a career in politics. They hope to one day run for public office. Many of them are also concerned about the direction democracy is headed. They want to play an active role in changing that.
At every panel this summer, speakers from every shade of the political spectrum expressed one thing in common: they had a tone of great anticipation when they talked about our generation. Unaware possibilities, traces of hope. The message was clear. We are where the pendulum swings next.