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During the first weekend of February, over 70 college students from all over the United States descended upon Harvard’s Institute of Politics. They were there to attend the IOP’s 2017 National Conference for Political and Civic Engagement. The goal? “Reconnecting America,” according to the National Campaign’s website. In order to fulfill this mission, these undergraduates—hailing from a diverse variety of schools—were invited to Cambridge for a weekend of discourse, debate, and good old fashioned political engagement. “Student ambassadors identified what they saw as the root causes of national divisiveness and outlined plans to take leadership roles creating community-based action plans to address those issues,” declares the website confidently.

We sat in on many of the proceedings. Given the event’s strong focus on rather gloomy themes like partisanship, division, and political disillusionment, we expected the students to be skeptical—if not fed up—with the current political zeitgeist. However, the opposite was true: the conference was characterized by an optimistic view of our existing political establishment. Attendees were hopeful that activism and engagement could lead to desirable change. It seems that the conference attracted a self-selecting crowd: college students who were willing to spend a weekend discussing politics tend to be the ones most inspired by politics. There was also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a healthy dose of the IOP’s distinctive brand of community-building and think-tank optimism. College students became “student ambassadors” who would spend 90 minutes trying to brainstorm “concrete action plans” to fight inequality. Overall, the conference succeeded at uniting politically active minds and stimulating discussion, but it mistakenly believed that students would be able to spontaneously brainstorm novel solutions.

One of the main “polling” events of the weekend was a town hall in which John Della Volpe, director of polling at the IOP, posed questions to attendees on national themes and issues. The event was quite effective in terms of gauging student reactions to national issues.

Della Volpe began by asking participants to find pictures to represent America. Predictably, many of the photos alluded to the “divided”, “polarized” nature of America. (I say “predictably,” because ever since November 9 that’s all anyone seems to ever talk about.) One picture showed protestors from different political persuasions clashing; another showed a large “resist” poster suspended on a crane behind the White House. But students did not seem to think this divide was insurmountable. Rather, one picture depicted a Jewish and Muslim family protesting the travel ban together. This was seen generally by the room as a sign of unity. Note that in a room of roughly three-fourths Democrats, a visual representation of unity is illustrated by a demonstration of multiculturalism and unity between different “identity” groups, while divisiveness is associated with partisanship. And significantly, even as students identified political polarization as a problem, they identified traditional political methods of engagement—activism and protest—as solutions.

A mental blacklisting of perceived partisanship was a strong theme throughout the town hall. “Political” almost became a dirty word. One student from the US Military Academy described how he did not vote because he wanted to join the military, in which it was idea to be “apolitical.” There was extensive talk of polarization and divisiveness. “The truth is politicized,” announced one participant. One student explained how politics was seen as “corrupt,” “gridlocked,” and “for the elites only.” But here again we saw the triumph of a strong underlying idealism over a veneer of disillusionment. Even as students described politics to be dirty and tainted, they proposed solutions based on traditional outreach tactics, revealing a persistent faith in time-tested political answers and institutions. For example, one student detailed his efforts at creating an organization dedicated to bipartisan voter registration.

The IOP seemed to share the students’ faith in the ability of political engagement and discussion to solve problems. Later on, students broke into discussion groups designed to brainstorm actionable solutions on one of three topics: citizenship, the media, and inequality. Unfortunately, from what we observed, these groups were not as successful as intended. While students in the focus group were able to voice many of the causes for divisiveness, solutions—especially solutions that college students could implement—were nearly impossible to come up with. This was perhaps unsurprising given the broad and far-reaching problems selected by conference organizers. Regardless of the participants, any one-hour discussion on how to solve inequality in America has certain limits on its efficacy.

And though discussion moderators attempted to bring the conversation back to concrete proposals, students had relatively few tangible ideas. For instance, members of the media group thought that increasing funding for state-run news programs like PBS would make news more accessible. However, this proposal assumes that viewers would be motivated to watch and trust PBS. Even if PBS’s popularity increased, it seems quite likely that coverage by PBS would be branded as fake or illegitimate by those who opposed its coverage. The media and the inequality groups spoke broadly and often of “education” as the key to resolving misunderstanding, but few tangible ideas emerged.

Nonetheless, future conferences may be able to learn from the strengths and shortcomings at this year’s NAC. For instance, we believe that the conference was particularly successful in its aim to connect politically engaged students from across the country. The networking impact of the conference—the exchange of ideas, phone numbers, and opportunities— is difficult to overstate. We also believe that students gained a more complex understanding of divisiveness—especially in the structured focus group. Della Volpe did a particularly good job at pushing students when their ideas were vague and pushing back against ideas. It is possible that more structure and more guidance during the solution-focused discussion groups may have made these discussions more productive. Nonetheless, despite aspects of the conference that were less successful, as observers, it was valuable to view our current political climate through the collective lens of a diverse, politically active group of young people.

Image Credit: Katherine Ho

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