Discussion: The Future of Politics

We talked with three alumni working in politics about our current political climate and what they see in our country’s future. Here’s what they said.

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April Ponnuru

Conservative reformer and previous Jeb Bush Campaign advisor

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Jerod Patterson

Republican strategist based in Austin, Texas

Julia Kiewit

Free market policy advocate in Colorado

What do you see as the primary political divides in the U.S. in 2016 and beyond?

APRIL PONNURU: Social scientist Charles Murray’s 2014 book Coming Apart has heavily influenced my views on the divisions—political and otherwise—that are developing in our country.  I largely agree with his thesis that America is undergoing an unprecedented and rapid social polarization that leaves many of our nation’s “new lower class” unmoored to the social institutions that once provided Americans with a healthy civil society. The decline in marriage, religiosity, industriousness, and honesty has myriad political ramifications and seriously compromises our capacity for self-government.

JEROD PATTERSON: The right versus left political divide continues to be the most defining cleavage in American politics, especially with an eroding political center among governing elites. In more recent years, an insider versus outsider divide has emerged, pitting the so-called establishment against those who claim a more populist tone. This is evident among both parties. Sanders plays the part of the outsider to Clinton’s insider. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush could never shed the “insider” label—damning his campaign—while Trump, Cruz, Fiorina, Carson, Walker, and others staked their hopes on anti-establishment appeal. The outsider rhetoric is far more appealing to the American electorate because it presents a shared emotive reaction to perceived problems. Unfortunately, it does not always lend well to a workable policy solution.

JULIA KIEWIT: The true cultural political divide is seen in each side’s view of the purpose of government and what it means to be human. Is man someone to be controlled and socially engineered? Or is he an individual with a will, a sovereign human person that can self govern? The primary political divides come down to these two understandings of the purpose of government. Abortion, marriage, taxes, marijuana, energy, education -- all these are issues that make people lean one way or the other, but none of them are foundational. Each government policy reflects one of two positions: government control or self governance.

Given the conflict of this Republican primary season, what will conservatism look like in the future?

JULIA: Whatever conservatism looks like, it isn’t going to be a direct result of this year’s Republican Primary season. The Primary battles we see are not primarily over conservatism versus progressivism, but rather populism versus what people view as an elite political class. The conflict this season will not leave a negative mark on conservatism; no one thinks that is what the current debate is about. There will still be great opportunity for conservative leaders to imagine and paint a vision for what the future looks like.

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JEROD:  This presidential primary has been very telling. The Republican contest shows that a contingent of the party electorate has traded in conservatism for various counterfeits. Conservatism looks to the inherited wisdom of the past for guidance in addressing the challenges of the present day, while elements within the current party electorate view governing experience with suspicion if not hostility. Conservatism values human flourishing and the life of the mind, while some in the GOP would prefer to commoditize education, arts, and the like, and reduce them to simple business transactions. Instead of conservatism, some in the party electorate prefer to celebrate that which is angry, unrefined, and at times uninformed, as if there is inherent virtue in maligning a so-called political class. When Reagan invoked Winthrop’s vision for a “City on a Hill,” I dare say he intended nothing even remotely close to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” True conservatism does not suffer a demagogue; certain elements within the current party electorate are glutting on them.

Is our process for the election of our politicians capable of regularly giving us good leaders?

APRIL:  Our track record in recent elections has admittedly not been great, and I do think reforms are in order. At the moment a candidate is advancing to the presidential nomination without having the support of a majority of Republican voters. That fact suggests that we have a flawed process for choosing nominees: one that generates candidates who cannot win the support of their own party, let alone of the electorate as a whole.  In most cases I believe that state parties should reject conventions in favor of primaries, where a larger cross-section of their voters would choose the nominee. I also believe that in the case of presidential contests, states should consider adopting instant run-off procedures so that the primary winner is acceptable to the majority of the party. This reform would be most important in winner-take-all states, which play an outsized role in choosing the eventual nominee.

JULIA: The structure of our representative democracy is not one that was built to ensure we had good leaders. It was one intended to ensure that we had the ability to elect good leaders. So absolutely, our process is still one that can give us good leaders, provided that informed, thoughtful people run for office and are engaged and participate in the electoral process. The capacity for that still exists – and if nothing else, perhaps the attention that has been drawn to the electoral process the season, even if negative, has reminded people that there is a very real process with which we can be engaged.


About These Alumni:


Conservative Reformer and Previous Jeb Bush Campaign Advisor

April is the Senior Advisor to the Conservative Reform Network and recently directed the publication of Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, which David Brooks has called “the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.” Her work as a promoter of cutting-edge conservative ideas was profiled in The New York Times Magazine’s cover story, “Can the G.O.P. be a Party of Ideas?” In the fall of 2015, Ponnuru was included in the prestigious Politico 50, a list of the top thinkers, doers, and visionaries transforming American politics. The Independent Women’s Forum also profiled her as part of their “Modern Feminist” series. She speaks frequently about a conservative reform agenda, participating in panel discussions at venues including Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. Her essays have been published by National Review,The Weekly Standard, Forbes, and The Hill, among other publications.

April recently served as advisor to Governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. She formerly worked as the Executive Director of the non-profit National Review Institute, founded by William F. Buckley, Jr., and was National Review magazine’s Vice President.

Learn more about the Conservative Reform Network here: http://conservativereform.com/.



Republican strategist

Jerod Patterson is President of Patterson & Company, a Texas-based political consulting firm. He has helped more than 100 clients implement winning communications strategies and his work has been recognized as some of the best in the nation with more than a dozen national awards from the American Association of Political Consultants and Campaigns & Elections Magazine. Political news journal Capitol Inside recently ranked Patterson & Company one of the top Republican consulting firms in Texas.

Learn more about Patterson & Company here: http://www.pattersonconsultants.com/.



Free market policy advocate in Colorado

Julia Kiewit lives in Denver, and works for Colorado Concern, an organization focused on the intersection of business and politics to promote pro-business policies at the state legislature. Prior to that, she worked for a Colorado state senator, and was involved in political campaigns across Colorado.

Julia is a John Jay alumna of the 2009 class, and credits her time at John Jay with giving her life-long friendships and collaborators, as well shaping her understanding of the government's relationship to the human person.  

Learn more about Colorado Concern here: http://www.coloradoconcern.com/.