The other day, in Georgetown’s picturesque Healy Hall, a young man gave a tour to prospective students.
He mentioned that he was a math major, and that he had recently added political science as a minor. He told the crowd of about 25 high schoolers and their parents that Georgetown had opened up a whole new world to him: politics. After he attended an event with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and realized two things: he was into it, and he could make a difference.
At a time when the conventional wisdom tells us that young people feel they can better affect social change working in Silicon Valley than in politics, stories like this are heartening. And they are more common than you’d think.
Problem solving on their own time
Believing that these young people are the key to getting our political process back on track, the Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy every year taps into their interest in public service, as well as their entrepreneurial spirit, by hosting “Hackathons” to fix politics.
Each semester, we take five teams of five students each and give them a simple task: tell us one thing you don’t like about politics, and come back to us at the end of the semester with a fix.
While our GU Politics Fellows serve as mentors throughout the process, the students drive this. They identify the problems. They come up with the solutions.
No extra credit or grades. Just 50 students who care enough to find a better way.
10 things Hoyas would fix, and how they would do it
The challenges these students identified should sound familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to modern politics. The corrosive influence of money in politics. A government that doesn’t represent the changing face of America. Media bias and “fake news.” Voter suppression. But their ideas are fresh and interesting. Here’s what they would do: (click links for more detail on each student proposal.)
Student Proposal: Slash campaign season in half and rethink primary states
Mentor: Scott Mulhauser, Former Chief of Staff to US Embassy in China & Fall 2016 GU Politics Fellow
Our long, drawn-out presidential campaign season and primary calendar led one team to battle against campaign season fatigue and make early primary states more representative of our population. They propose that candidates for President not be allowed to announce their campaign until the year of the election and making Illinois, Kansas, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina the early primary contests.
Student Proposal: Reform presidential debates
Mentor: Rebecca Sinderbrand, former Washington Post Deputy National Political Editor & Fall 2016 GU Politics Fellow
The Democratic and Republican Parties have too much influence in the primary debate process, concluded one student group. These students came up with a number of recommendations that they believe would give more control back to voters, including giving them a voice in the question selection process and increasing opportunities for them to interact with candidates (like in town-hall style formats).
Student Proposal: Diversify our politics
Mentor: Juana Summers, CNN.com Editor & Fall 2016 GU Politics Fellow
How can government work when it is not truly representative of the people? One group tackled this tough question with a proposal for a “radical revisioning of civic education” in America, that “challenges young people to reimagine their place in the community, their ability to influence government, and perhaps most vitally, their potential to lead our society into the future.” They devised an 8-week extracurricular program that would challenge young students to explore the relationship between people and their government through workshops and discussions on topics like leadership, power, and identity.
Student Proposal: Address political polarization
Mentor: Martin O’Malley, Former Governor of Maryland and Fall 2016 GU Politics Fellow
Everyone acknowledges how politically polarized we’ve become. So how do we create a political system that works for everyone in this climate? One student group would form “The Magnet Foundation,” a bipartisan, nonprofit foundation designed to “foster common understanding across people of all ideological convictions and to bolster open-minded political engagement.” The Magnet Foundation would tackle political polarization through a two-pronged strategy: the media and civic engagement. Their “Outlooks” initiative would aggregate news from reputable sources across the ideological spectrum to make differing viewpoints more accessible. The Foundation’s “American Pathways” program, modeled on the Birthright Israel, invites students from across the country to explore our history and heritage through a 14-day trip across the country, fostering commonalities across experiences, geographies and backgrounds.
Student Proposal: Reform campaign finance
Mentor: Michael Steel, former advisor to Jeb Bush and John Boehner & Fall 2016 GU Politics Fellow
Mark Twain once said, “we have the best government money can buy.” Another student group thinks the best way to combat that problem is to make campaign finance as transparent as possible. Their plan calls for an end to limits on the direct campaign contributions of individuals and corporations, while simultaneously require full disclosure of any and all contributions.
Student Proposal: Help Americans identify media bias
Mentor: Tony Sayegh, Asst. Treasury Sec. for Public Affairs, Trump/Pence 2016 media consultant, & Spring 2017 GU Politics Fellow
In another issue related to our political polarization, one student team came up with an idea to help ordinary Americans recognize media bias, thus creating more informed dialogue around issues of the day. Bringing this approach as close to home as possible, the students imagined a new take on “The Stall Seat Journal,” a communications outreach program centered on posters in campus bathroom stalls. “The Bias Bugle” would be produced by students for students, and would report accurate information on the news of the week and provide tools to identify misinformation.
Student Proposal: End voter suppression
Mentor: Marlon Marshall, former Hillary for America Director of State Campaigns & Spring 2017 GU Politics Fellow
Access to the ballot box and obstacles to voting were top of mind concerns for one student group. They proposed a project to take on protect the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of their political party, through grassroots strategies like repealing existing laws that suppress voters, and educating would-be voters on voting requirements.
Student Proposal: Bring accountability back to politics
Mentor: Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform and Spring 2017 GU Politics Fellow
Too many politicians break their campaign promises, further eroding public trust in our officials. That observation led one student group to devise a method to hold them accountable. Modeled on the Americans for Tax Reform “ Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” these students pitched issuing a “Voter Protection Pledge” consisting of an “itemized list of commitments which candidates would sign, line by line” to formalize their commitment.
Student Proposal: Fight fake news
Mentor: Anna Palmer, POLITICO Senior Washington Correspondent & Spring 2017 GU Politics Fellow
The intersection of press and politics was again at the center of another issue Hoyas would like to fix, specifically combating the rise of “fake news.” One group proposes the creation of a non-profit and bipartisan organization to educate the public on fake news. By providing accuracy “ratings” for major news sites, independent as well as those with an ideological bent, these students believe this organization would go a long way towards helping the American public decipher fact from fiction.
Student Proposal: Help public servants adapt to a social media world
Mentor: Jen Psaki, Obama White House Communications Director & Spring 2017 GU Politics Fellow
Social media is changing the way people consume and share information. But are political leaders maximizing its potential (while avoiding its pitfalls)? Our final student group wants to help politicians learn best practices for using social media to advance policies, spread news and most importantly, tell their story in a genuine way. They crafted a “Social Media Playbook” complete with case studies for using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram more effectively.
Young people today believe that public service is a good thing. It gives me hope for the future to see so many young people rolling up their sleeves and thinking about how to make sure politics is too.
Mo Elleithee is Executive Director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.