Duke sophomore Nick DeParle interned with Crooked Media, the company behind Pod Save America, in summer 2019. DeParle sat down with the hosts of the podcast, Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor, to discuss the role of college students in today’s politics. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Nick DeParle: What should college students do to get involved in politics now?
Jon Lovett: People say this all the time: ‘This is the most important election, this is the most important election, this is the most important election.’ You happen to be at college, you happen to be a student at a genuine pivot—a hinge for the future of this country. We are at a moment where this country is going to go one of two directions. It’s not going to stay the same. It’s going to get better or it's going to get worse.
And it’s a really dark time, but it’s also a moment where there are all kinds of new organizations and opportunities to participate in, and it’s a chance for you to get involved in some of the biggest fights you will ever have been in. First of all, if you’re in North Carolina, then you gotta make sure you’re registered to vote, and make sure everyone you know at school is registered. Because North Carolina is going to be one of the most important states in this election. And then after that, you have to make sure you take the time to canvass, knock on doors, participate.
It’s hard, the very first time, to go to a canvass or a phone bank. But you won’t regret having tried, because not only does it feel like you are doing good, but it is also an outlet for the anxiety and fears and concerns you have—to feel like you are actually helping and not just complaining or being worried on Twitter or wherever.
ND: What would you suggest college students do to prepare for a career in politics?
Jon Favreau: I think joining a campaign—it’s the best experience I’ve ever had. The best political education or maybe education of any kind that I’ve had is to be on a campaign, so if you have the ability to join a campaign full-time, great. If you don’t, volunteer at a campaign. And I think it can be a campaign for local office, it can be a campaign for state office, it can be presidential. It can be a Senate race, whatever it is. I just think the people you meet, the responsibilities you have, sort of the excitement and adrenaline involved—it’s really great.
ND: And if there’s a single current issue or two issues that you’d want a college student to be really informed about, what would those be?
Tommy Vietor: I wouldn’t master anything. I would stay informed. Like, buy The New York Times and read it every day. That’s what I would suggest, seriously.
ND: Is that an ad?
TV: No, seriously. Know a lot—like be informed about everything. Like, nobody’s going to ask a 22-year-old to be their specialist on climate change, you know what I mean? So figure out a whole bunch of things, find what you’re interested in, and then seek out a job where you can learn from the smartest people around you.
But, generally, I would just say get your ass to Iowa and work on a campaign and be a field organizer and knock on doors, because open primaries like this don’t come along that often. It’s the most chaotic, fun, crazy thing you’ll be a part of. And it’s not going to be about being a policy person. That job doesn’t really exist for entry-level folks. It’s about like talking to real voters and figuring out what they care about and persuading them, and it’s the best training you can get.
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JF: My first internship, they asked legislative interns to check off which issue they cared about. And I remember looking at that and was like, ‘I don’t care about any one of these issues, so I checked press intern.’ And it was the best thing that I ever did because I ended up sitting with the communications director, and John Kerry was running for president. It helps a lot more because if you decide to narrow down to a specific issue early on, it really takes you sort of out of campaigns and puts you into the advocacy world or the think-tank world or stuff like that—and for some people that might be great, that might be what you’re really passionate about.
ND: Was there a class you guys remember that was most helpful for your political careers? Any book you remember reading? Any campus experiences?
JL: For me, I had a math professor named Frank Morgan, and I took a few classes with him and I really struggled at first. I didn’t take it seriously, but over time I kind of grew more committed to it and he encouraged me to take more classes and pushed me to actually care enough to try and actually do the work and put in the time. So by the time I left Williams College, I had a math degree. I was working on a math paper that we later published. And math became an incredible vehicle for me to just think really hard.
Math and philosophy were the two kinds of classes I took that really demanded critical thinking and were a way of learning how to approach the world that was rigorous and forced you to be completely accurate—in math, you can’t be almost right. And that was an incredibly valuable experience for me that carries over to this day.
JF: Early on, I started taking a lot of political science classes and a lot of sociology classes. Sociology is sort of an ideology unto itself, and all the professors were from very progressive to outright socialists and communists. So I was taking, like, sociology of race and ethnic relations and labor and work and all this kind of stuff. And then the political science department at College of the Holy Cross was actually pretty conservative. So I was taking all of these public policy classes, international relations from these more conservative professors. And I found it fascinating that I would go to office hours with my sociology professors and get the ‘lefty’ worldview and then I would go to office hours and debate with my political science professors and get the sort of more center-right, right worldview. I thought it was very formative for me because it helped me to argue.
TV: College was great, and I learned a lot and I probably learned how to think, but it was the post-college work that was much more formative for me politically. And that would start with the internship but then doing campaigns was the thing that really set me on the path to work in politics. And I hope people reading this in college don’t see that as a bummer but it’s more like, don’t worry too much about what you’re studying and working on in college. Get a well-rounded education and you can—you should— all do a campaign if politics is the thing you want to pursue for a living.