Hamilton community members were transported across party lines on April 11 as Jim Messina, former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, and Reince Priebus, former Chief of Staff to President Donald Trump, engaged in a Common Ground dialogue surrounding some of the country’s most pressing issues. The event was moderated by Jackie Judd P’14, a veteran journalist and political communications consultant.

The first topic addressed by Messina and Priebus was the extreme polarization of American politics. “The data says that America’s now the most polarized country in the world,” Messina said. While both former staffers agreed this was an urgent problem facing our nation, they attributed it to different factors.

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Messina claimed that the two-party system in the United States, a product of the Electoral College, was contributing to this polarization: “What is the only country that is not having these third, fourth, and fifth political parties? The United States of America. And we don’t have those things because we have the Electoral College. And those back-and-forths, those hammerings at each other…we’re seeing that in our politics, but more importantly, we’re seeing it in our policy.”

Priebus instead cited the media as a major force of division: “The media, in general, makes profit on division. Division is profit, unity is a loser… You can listen to exactly the media that you want to listen to that agrees with you, every day, to harden the things that you believe in, never to be challenged.”

The two speakers then addressed an array of topics, including their experiences as White House staffers, immigration policy, environmental policy, gun safety laws, the national debt, and the outlook of the 2020 presidential election. The conversation sometimes seemed pessimistic about the future of the U.S., especially when Messina and Priebus discussed what matters to voters.

“There’s no heart in this country for truly taking care of the national debt,” Priebus said. “You can’t have that conversation without talking about what you’re going to do about Medicare, the costs of Medicaid, and Social Security. Those are losers. I wish they weren’t…You’re not going to vote for the kinds of candidates that are going to give you a 10-year plan to get this country out of debt…I predict that no one will touch these issues until we’re on the precipice of disaster.”

Priebus Messina common ground
Students ask questions of Reince Priebus and Jim Messina during a class in the Red Pit. [Read Story] Photo: Adam Brockway

However, a recurring positive dialogue throughout the night was the heightened engagement of voters in 2018 and the likely continuation of this trend.

“The young people in this room are the most engaged political generation in the history of the republic by five times. There was 500% more political engagement and voters under 25 than their parents’ generation,” Messina said. “The next presidential election will likely have the largest turnout in the history of American politics.”

Priebus agreed with this statement, and the two discussed how often, lawmakers in Washington D.C. exacerbate certain issues for political gain while many Americans have found common ground. “While Washington’s been dysfunctional,” Messina said, “there has, in the country, become a real consensus on some of these issues that only Washington doesn’t seem to understand.”

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