Val Demings and Roy Blunt, executive fellows from the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), visited Hamilton on Dec. 4 to analyze the nation’s polarized political climate in the semester’s final Common Ground event.  The BPC is a not-for-profit organization that ensures policymakers work across party lines to craft bipartisan solutions.

Demings is a former U.S. representative from Florida who was shortlisted to be President Biden’s vice president, and Blunt is a former Republican whip in the House and U.S. senator from Missouri. The event was moderated by Steve Scully, host of The Briefing, a podcast on the POTUS channel of Sirius XM, and senior vice president of communications at BPC.

As an introduction, Blunt spoke of growing up on a dairy farm until he entered college, becoming the first in his family to graduate. Originally a history teacher, he fell into a career in public service thanks to a vacancy in his county’s office. The youngest of seven children, Demings credited her hardworking childhood environment for her success as a social worker and later Orlando’s first female chief of police. Demings, like Blunt, did not plan to be a politician, though a chance meeting with former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi inspired her to pursue public service through government.

Roy Blunt and Val Demings speak to students in the American Constitution & Human Rights class.
Roy Blunt and Val Demings speak to students in the American Constitution & Human Rights class. Photo: Nancy L. Ford

Students who had attended class earlier in the day with the speakers, the afternoon’s Coffee and Cookies reception, and a dinner with Blunt and Demings kicked off the night’s questions. Responses to one student’s inquiry established the situation on the ground in D.C., as Blunt stressed the selflessness of compromise and Demings condemned allowing “the destructive few to have the loudest voices.” Following a second student’s curiosity about possible paths forward, Demings pointed to making voting easier. Blunt echoed Demings’ earlier sentiment of expanding media coverage to celebrate hard work, not just “the fight.”

Blunt, however, argued that early voting disadvantages the challenger in political races. Scully asked for their opinions on instituting a national holiday for voting, which both panelists supported, although they differed on which voting barriers to prioritize eliminating. Scully then pivoted the speakers to the 2024 presidential election. Blunt did not express enthusiasm about either candidate, whereas Demings maintained that she votes for candidates with honor, decency, and integrity.

In turning to discussing the United States’ borders, Blunt and Demings advocated for less generalization and more collaboration. Blunt argued political parties are invested in trying to solve everything at once at the expense of mitigating individual problems. He used the United States’ asylum system as an example, as the status of Dreamers, those protected by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, continues to evoke debate.

Regarding Scully’s question about the possibility of removing politics from the equation, Blunt answered, “If we start where we disagree, we’re not going anywhere.” Furthering Blunt and Demings’ depiction of the United States as a compassionate nation, Scully highlighted the diverse refugee populations that call the nearby city of Utica, N.Y., home.

“You don’t have to agree with them on everything; you just need to agree with them on one thing.”

The focus swung back to the audience for more student questions. One student wondered about the long-term effects of the current political climate on young people and their engagement in politics. The panelists acknowledged challenges to public service’s appeal, with Blunt even joking, “We’ve done about everything we could do to disincentivize it,” but they ultimately urged attendees that difficulty cannot be a deterrent. “We drink wells we did not dig,” Demings said. “We needed you and we will continue to need you.”

Another student voiced concerns about leaders dismissing youth’s work, particularly their radicalism, as naïveté. Demings reassured listeners that patience is often more realistic than instant change, and that no matter what, “We see you and we hear you.”

Common Ground

Common Ground will return in 2024 to tackle climate change, congressional differences, and more. 

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Scully ended the evening with two additional questions. The first delved into Blunt’s secret to crossing the aisle, which he lightly summarized as “You don’t have to agree with them on everything; you just need to agree with them on one thing.” The next revisited an anecdote about Demings being vetted as a contender for vice president. “It was a complete invasion of my life,” she said honestly, before adding, “It was such an honor.”

The panelists’ final words were succinct but no less instructive. “Democracy’s not easy,” Blunt said, reminding attendees that hard work is nothing to fear. Demings added, “The greater good. Never forget the greater good.” Only by pursuing both will discord give way to progress. 

Hamilton and BPC began collaborating this spring to connect Common Ground and BPC’s University Partnership Program, aimed at encouraging civil discourse and bringing bipartisanship outside the beltway through robust intellectual exchange. Hamilton is the first liberal arts college to partner with BPC.       

The College thanks Mary Helen and Robert Morris ’76, P’16,’17; Eve Niquette and Charles Pohl, P’20,’25; and Lori and David Hess ’77 for their generous support of Common Ground.

Common Ground

Common Ground is Hamilton’s multi-format program that helps prepare students for active citizenship. Designed to explore cross-boundary political thought and complex social issues, Common Ground brings respected thought leaders to Hamilton to participate in small classroom dialogues and large event discussions.

Common Ground and Bipartisan Policy Center partnership announcement

Bipartisan Policy Center Partners with Hamilton

This collaboration will connect Hamilton’s Common Ground program and Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) University Partnership Program to encourage civil discourse and bring bipartisanship outside the beltway through robust intellectual exchange. Hamilton is the first liberal arts college to partner with BPC.

Gina McCarthy, left, shares her thoughts with moderator Aaron Strong, center, and Christine Todd Whitman, right, at the Nov. 6 Common Ground event.

Maintaining Optimism in the Energy Transition

Two former EPA administrators visited College Hill to explore the everyday complexities and impacts of transitioning to renewable energy in this semester’s fourth Common Ground discussion on Nov. 6.

Jason Grumet, left, shares his thoughts with Lesley Jantarasami and George Dave Banks as faculty, staff and students gather to listen to a Common Ground discussion

Paths and Pitfalls to Clean Energy Transition

With their words reverberating through the eaves of the Chapel, the panelists of the semester’s third Common Ground discussion earnestly discussed the realities, complexities, and politics of the clean energy transition in the United States.

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