In his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington warned Americans that “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” are dangerous to democracy. Today, partisan threats to democracy and effective government are more evident than ever: polarization and blind loyalty often grind government to a halt, and allegiance to leaders comes at the expense of fidelity to principles. The rise of partisan media, “fake news,” and “alternative facts” has bred misinformation and extremism, undermining our public discourse and governing institutions. This institutional crisis spawned by hyperpartisanship was the topic of our first quarter-long program with University of Chicago students.
Senior Practitioner Fellow Jennifer Horn led a virtual study group on “Political Parties as Institutions of Democracy” which met weekly for six weeks. Horn is a journalist, communications strategist, former Republican party leader, and co-founder of the Lincoln Project. “Democracy is in crisis,” she said on joining the Center for Effective Government (CEG) in March. “This fellowship affords me the chance to work alongside experts at the Center and the next generation of leaders to do everything in our power to ensure the survival of our democratic institutions and norms.” Her study group was an opportunity to begin these efforts.
Harris students with varied ideologies, expertise, and perspectives engaged in broad-ranging conversations about US partisanship. It was a robust exploration of the topic with an emphasis on parties’ focus, ethics, opportunities, threats, and future. “Finally we get to have frank conversations with people across the political spectrum,” said one student. “It's so great to be able to engage thoughtfully and politely with people who may not share my views, but who can explain to me their perspectives.” Another student said, “I really enjoy hearing from the guests—they are super dynamic and offer really unique windows into worlds I'm unfamiliar with.
The cohort heard from numerous guest speakers with first-hand political party experience who discussed their interactions with democratic norms. One such guest was Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2009-2011, who spoke to the GOP in the era of Trump, its origins, and its aftermath. “It’s exciting to see students who are passionate about improving the state of political parties in the US. I’m so grateful to Jennifer for inviting me to speak and engage with them," said Steele about his interactions with the group. In addition to Steele, students heard from Mike Madrid, Susan DelPercio, Zack Czajkowski, Molly McKew, Jeffrey Cook, Tom Nichols, and John Sipher with expertise in political organizations, campaign strategy, media, foreign intelligence, and disinformation.
“It’s exciting to see students who are passionate about improving the state of political parties in the US. I’m so grateful to Jennifer for inviting me to speak and engage with them," said Former GOP National Chairman Michael Steele.
The study group, a component of CEG’s Senior Practitioner Fellowship, is part of the Center’s larger effort to bridge divides between different stakeholders—including students, leaders, and experts—who all have a vested interest in preserving and strengthening democracy. “We each came to the conversation with a different viewpoint,” said Maddie Soskin (MPP’21), “and getting to understand how my peers view political parties and institutions of democracy was incredibly impactful.“
Many of the study group participants hope to continue the discourse: they plan to stay connected after the close of the academic year and perhaps even reunite in person when it's safe to do so.
Learn more about CEG’s Senior Practitioner Fellowship.