This Friday, February 24, the Institute of Politics (IOP) and International House at the University of Chicago welcomed conservative political commentator and writer S.E. Cupp and former adviser to President Obama, activist, left-wing political commentator, and author Van Jones for a discussion on the current state of politics in America. IOP director David Axelrod moderated the conversation as Cupp and Jones spoke on a variety of issues, including the role of government and the future of both political parties in the Trump era.
After commending the mixed crowd of UChicago students and community members for coming out on a Friday afternoon, Axelrod began by asking Cupp why she is a conservative and Jones why he is a progressive. Cupp claimed that she didn’t grow up in a political household and only started to develop a political ideology in college. She quipped that she was finally set on conservatism when she began to pay taxes. She joined the Republican Party because she liked the idea of self-reliance, limited government, and fiscal responsibility.
As for Jones and his journey through progressivism, he told the audience that he was born in 1968, the year that Martin Luther King was killed. And “I’ve been African American almost my whole life,” he joked. He proceeded to argue that civil rights struggles are not as distant in history as they may appear, highlighting the fact that his parents were married under segregation. Van Jones is a ninth-generation American, and, he said, “the first person in my family that was born with all my rights.”
After reminiscing on the origins of their political ideals, Axelrod shifted the conversation to the current state of politics. Jones jumped right in to say that “both parties kind of suck.” He explained extreme political partisanship by saying that members of both parties have strayed far from their party’s “original, noble principles.” Cupp echoed Jones by saying, “a lot of people in our party have forgotten what we care about.”
On the role of government, Jones thinks, “people should do as much for themselves as they can.” He walked a fine line on the edge of respectability politics, claiming, “the liberals are wrong if they think you can give somebody something, and stop them from being poor. People have to climb that ladder out of poverty on their own … Yet, the conservatives get it wrong too. Those kids have a responsibility to climb that ladder, but the grown people have a responsibility to make sure every kid’s got a ladder to climb.”
During the Q&A session, students looked for guidance on their role in politics. Jones advised students to “take things seriously, but not be in this perpetual freakout or outrage that we are constantly finding ourselves in.” Instead, Jones wants us to join organizations and get involved with civic engagement. Cupp agreed, adding that we should focus less on being so offended by Trump’s tweets and more on surpassing political intransigence in order to achieve real problem-solving. She pushed students to get upset, and learn to speak back, challenging the “big orange asteroid that hit the earth … You are not safe from being offended just because you’re in college.”