Former-President Bill Clinton (SFS ‘68) delivered a keynote address in Gaston Hall on November 6, the capstone for the multi-day Clinton 25 Commemoration Event. Clinton condemned the politics of hate and division as well as the hyper-partisanship that stifle political discourse while advocating for inclusivity and engagement with others.
The Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service hosted the event to celebrate Clinton’s election as president 25 years ago on November 3, 1992. The four-day symposium featured live election coverage, panel discussions, and movie screenings that culminated with Clinton’s address. Panel topics ranged from Clinton’s vision of America, of the world, and of leadership and public service. Notable panelists included former-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former-President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, Chief of Staff from 1998-2001 John Podesta, and many more. Clinton’s speech marked the final installment of the Clinton Lectures.
Clinton acknowledged the fundamental struggle of the political moment: the difficulty to define what it means to be an American in an age of unprecedented globalization and interdependence. In doing so, Clinton drew parallels between the political situations he faced as an undergraduate and those faced by current students. This question of identity has a pivotal domestic implication: What is the purpose of government and public service? Or, what should the purpose be?
This question has fueled a stifling degree of partisanship, and it is a direct factor in the polarization so prominent in the 2016 election, according to Clinton. He lamented the passing of the era of American politics when the parties were able to come together and at least discuss political issues. Now, however, Clinton explained that is simply not the case. Politicians and citizens alike end conversations once they see a party identifier: pro-gun vs. anti-gun, pro-life vs. pro-choice, Republican vs. Democrat.
In a slight toward President Donald Trump, Clinton used the planned border wall with Mexico as a metaphor for this troubling trend.
“What’s the function of borders? If you put up a wall you might be able to keep people out, but you can’t keep the Internet out. You can’t keep ideas out,” Clinton explained.
Further emphasizing the need for dialogue, he pointed to the November 5 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas as an example.
“There’s no reason we should have this number of mass killings. But, we don’t talk to one another—and we must,” Clinton said.
His message was simple: We need to listen to each other. We need to listen to the other side. Politics is about reaching across the aisle, debating the issues, and working towards proactive change. To capture this, Clinton argued that the Constitution should be nicknamed, “Let’s Make A Deal.”
Clinton warned the audience against the politics of hate and division, emphasizing that in order to be a great country, politics matter, words matter. This division is what limits the possibilities of engagement.
Targeting Trump’s rhetoric, Clinton bluntly said, “I don’t believe your ability to bad mouth somebody else is evidence of authenticity,” receiving cheers from the audience. He continued, “I think it’s okay to respect one another.”
According to Clinton, the only way to stop this sort of impolite politics is to not vote for those candidates. Victories ingrain that behavior, creating cycles of base politics that further stifle discussion, diminish facts, and harm not only the American people but democracy. Clinton referenced this as a primary reason why Americans need to participate in the political system, arguing that a collective voice is powerful in bringing systemic change. However, this voice cannot be limited to once every four years; citizens must engage in all types of elections, especially in the 2018 midterms.
In this discussion, Clinton spoke of voter disenfranchisement, arguing that it has further marginalized portions of the population, and he continued by claiming voter disenfranchisement is a primary factor in why we do not have certain policy reforms. For instance, Clinton claimed that it is the reason we do not have serious immigration reform.
“If we keep disenfranchising people, at some point, we won’t be America anymore,” Clinton emphasized. He continued, “It has a devastating effect on people to think they are powerless to make a better tomorrow, today.”
Having condemned the politics of hate and outlined its consequences, Clinton proposed his vision for American public service and delivered a charge to the audience. In doing so, he suggested an answer to the question of American identity: a character built on the cornerstones of inclusivity, diversity, and open debate.
“Do we believe, fundamentally, in having an inclusive nation of cooperating, diverse communities? Or, a nation of exclusive groups with separate interests and goals, who believe in order for them to win, someone else has to lose,” Clinton asked.
Answering the question himself, Clinton said, “Everyone should be seen, everyone should be heard.”
This diversity of voices enables the interplay of ideas, a characteristic Clinton says is fundamental to American identity and to successful politics. In bringing different communities to the table, the United States can strive towards a more perfect union, according to Clinton. As an example of this, he spoke directly to the audience, urging millennials to participate actively in the political process. He emphasized this principle throughout his speech with a common theme—it is important to get caught trying to incite change.
“We all need to be involved in something bigger than ourselves: building a better country and better world,” Clinton concluded.