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Q&A: Former DNC, Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee on polarization, why he left 'enterprise of politics'

The Chronicle recently sat down to speak with Mo Elleithee, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee and for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential run. Now, Elleithee is the founding Executive Director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and a Fox News contributor.

Elleithee was on campus for a Wednesday talk sponsored by the Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle:  How was working for the Democratic National Committee and working for Hillary Clinton different?

Mo Elleithee: I worked with Hillary in 2008, and I spent most of my career in politics working for individual candidates. The DNC was a unique job, because there I wasn't focused on the candidate. In fact, part of the time I was there was in the middle of a primary campaign, so I wasn't focused on the candidate. I was focused more on the broader Democratic message and drawing distinctions with the broader Republican field.

When you’re working for a candidate, your focus is to sell your candidate—draw distinctions with your opponent. But at the DNC, I was trying to help define a party and ideology both in terms of the Democratic brand, but also in terms of defining the Republican brand. It was kind of nice to not get wrapped up in the day-to-day of a campaign, not get wrapped up in the day-to-day of a particular candidate and to just focus on the bigger story of who we were as Democrats and the difference between what we wanted people to think Republicans were.

TC:  What lessons did you take away from the 2016 election?

ME:  So, I wasn't involved in the 2016 election. I left the DNC in the summer of 2015 to take my current job as Executive Director of the Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown. So, I was an outsider, and it was a unique perspective because I had just been the DNC Communications Director, and I had worked for Hillary Clinton before—I had worked for Tim Kaine before, her running mate, in his races for governor and Senator. 

I think the political dialogue in our country has shifted from left versus right—and the struggle between Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative—to "in" versus "out." Outside of the political class, most people are not thinking about who's the most progressive or who's the most conservative. What I think most people believe is that the system isn't working for them, and it goes much deeper than politics.

The real struggle is between the elites and the streets, people and the powerful. We have been increasingly moving in that direction for the past 25 years. It's not limited to the United States, because we're seeing the same dynamics play out in all these populist movements in Europe and Latin America. But the political class kept missing it. Donald Trump defeated the Republican party before he defeated the Democratic party. He ran on a platform of the system being rigged and needing someone from outside the system to level the playing field, and all his Republican opponents hit him for not being a true conservative. 

So the paradigm has shifted, and I think more and more people are realizing that, and you're starting to see more political discussion within both parties trying to finally catch up to that.

TC: Tell me about the work you're doing at your current job.

ME: I left the DNC the first week of June in 2015. My last day there was about a week and a half before Trump announced his candidacy and three weeks before the DNC was hacked, so my timing has never been better. 

I made the move for a number of reasons, but one of them was I was beginning to wonder what my role in this whole process was. I was beginning to wonder whether or not the way I had spent 20 years doing politics was actually impactful in a good way, because people hate politics. 

On a good day, the enterprise of politics might have an approval rating in the high teens—there are diseases more popular than politics. But I believed in it. I still believe in the impact of politics for social change. So where was the disconnect? I was beginning to feel that the anger we were peddling and how strident we were—including myself—wasn't the way to go. I stepped away as Georgetown was launching a new institute for politics and public service. I'm an alum, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to build it. 

We try to do a couple of things. First, make the political process more transparent to young people by pulling back the curtain, showing them how it's done and why it’s done, by engaging with the people who do it. Second, I'm not there to teach them how to do politics...I'm going to help show them who does it, why, demystify the parts that get a bum rap, but really engage the students at Georgetown—and hopefully beyond—in conversations about how they think it should be done differently, what changes should be made now to get more of their peers interested in doing politics, as opposed to everyone running off to Silicon Valley to change the world. 

And the main thing I focus on there, that I think is so critically important, is that we all live in these filter bubbles. It’s not a new phenomenon. Sociologists have been talking for the past twenty years about this movement called the "great sort," where people are moving increasingly into neighborhoods surrounded by people who think and sound and look like they do. They’re sorting themselves out from others. When we isolate ourselves from different perspectives, we immediately discount other perspectives. Once we discount other perspectives, we tend to demonize the people who offer those perspectives, and it just creates a vicious cycle. 

TC: Have you faced any pushback during your time at Fox News?

ME: If you look at my Twitter after one of my Fox News hits, it sometimes validates the dark side of humanity. You have a lot of people who just start hate tweeting me the second I show up on the air, without even listening to what I have to say. 

And I get pushback from my side, who wonder why I would dignify that network with my presence, but what’s very encouraging is the people who will stop me sometimes when I’m walking through an airport or taking my kids to an amusement park. People will stop me and say “Hey, aren’t you that Democrat from Fox? I don’t agree with anything you say, but I appreciate your perspective,” or say “I don’t agree with anything you have to say, but you made me think about something the other day,” or even “I don’t agree with anything that you have to say, but I appreciate that you don’t yell and scream like a lot of other people do on the air and that you’re actually willing to engage in a conversation.” That’s a win. That makes it worth it. 

To people who hate me on the air because I’m a Democrat, they’re not interested in listening to me in the first place, but they’re the abnormality. To the people on the left who are disappointed that I do it, someone’s got to, because we’re leaving a lot of voters out there and we’re letting them define who we are.

TC: What advice do you have for a college student who wants to become politically involved and maybe follow a career path like yours?

ME: Do it. Just go. The best thing you can do is on-the-job training. No offense, I love higher education, but no one cares where you got your fancy degree from in politics. But, Duke students have access to a tremendous network...who are connected. Leverage those relationships. Leverage that network to get your foot in the door somewhere. Go volunteer. Swallow some pride. Do the grunt work and learn. Work hard, impress people, and meet people. 

You can go volunteer on a campaign or intern on a campaign this summer and be willing to do whatever is asked of you and then some. And offer to do more, and go and introduce yourself to all the stuff, and ask for ten minutes just to pick their brain and learn about their jobs. You’ll begin to do the two most important things in politics when it comes to getting jobs: one, expand your skills, and two, expand your network. So, the best way to do that is just go do it.

Nathan Luzum and Jake Satisky contributed reporting. 


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