Shut Down the Institute of Politics

The IOP churns out career politicians, continuing a toxic cycle in Washington.

By Jake Bittle

My argument in this article—that the Institute of Politics (IOP) does more harm than good and should be shut down—is sure to anger many people. Well, the truth hurts. This country has just catapulted into power a coterie of madmen whose policies and temperaments threaten all of our survival. There is no more time for hedging. I hope those of my peers who are involved with the IOP, instead of dismissing me outright, will look up from their spreadsheet of viable think tank internships and hear me out. Our future may well depend on it.

It is plainly true that no matter how many Reince Priebii get appointed to Trump’s inner circle, the “Washington Establishment” has been dealt a significant blow by this election. The distance and emptiness of the political class and its disregard for the lives of the working people who make up the supermajority of this country’s population has never been clearer. The Trump supporters out in Hootenanny County may be racist, but they have a point: Washington is broken. It is full of people who do not care about us. 

We must work to dismantle this class at the local level by cutting off its personnel supply. The world does not need any more tank-thinkers or self-described “policy wonks” (those for whom FiveThirtyEight projections approached becoming a sexual fetish). It does not need another cadre of Fellows Ambassadors. It does not need any more 17-year-old Wall Street babies who show up during O-Week and learn how to shake hands and take selfies with war criminals, any more moderates who lust for compromise in the legislatures and tweet gleefully about Hamilton while minority voting blocs in rural areas get gerrymandered out of existence. These people have gotten us nowhere and they will continue to get us nowhere, buzzing around in their insulated sixth-floor offices while women are jailed for underground abortions and entire cities are deported en masse, unless we cut off the source that produces them. This entails shutting down, tomorrow if at all possible, an institution that encourages and enables new drones to enter a career in politics and spend a lifetime getting paid to manufacture the illusion of progress and problem-solving—the Institute of Politics.

It’s not that I think everything the IOP does is bad, just most of it. Money, God bless it, can be a powerful thing. There have been some amazing and brilliant speakers at the IOP, no doubt, but they also invite evil members of past Republican governments to talk about “the pressures of the job.” The IOP’s ongoing programs and committees provide a place for people interested in improving the world to congregate and share ideas, to be sure, but it is my belief that for the most part this results in optimistic young people getting their morals blasted out of them with the pile-driver of “politics.”

If they are lucky enough to resist pulverization by the “Off the Record” culture of the IOP, some of these young people may end up participating in or founding the few good programs that exist under the IOP umbrella, programs like the Leaders of Color program and the Women in Public Service Program, both of which have been very important places for some of the bravest and most righteous people I have met at this school. But these programs, I’m sorry to say, are exceptions to the rule, created by bright students and fostered by anomalous saints within the IOP’s ranks. They float along, undisturbed but disfavored, in the gulf stream of the IOP’s mainline activity, which is the production of the very same political nihilism that we are now finding has sold our country down the river.

If the problem with the University of Chicago is that it dumbly insists on avoiding “politics” in its institutional actions in deference to the authority of an obscure report that none of the administrators have even read, the problem with the Institute of Politics is that it is all politics and only politics. The principal arbiter of this view is, of course, chieftain David Axelrod, the title of whose memoir, Believer, belies the fact that he runs an institution that teaches undergraduates to believe in nothing except the hollow virtues of “politics,” “discourse,” “debate,” and most insidiously, “compromise.” Reading Believer gives us a look into the mind of someone for whom politics really is a game played between two sides on an equal playing field, a deliberative and ultimately productive process. It is this mentality that informs the incubator culture of the IOP, where even the most virulent of ideologies are welcome so long as they bring advice on how to get involved in “the world of politics.” 

The reality, of course, is that “the world of politics” is actually a haywire plutocracy engineered without substantial safeguards against authoritarian rule, dominated by dark money, and staffed by “pragmatic” bootlickers whose ambition has eclipsed their morals. Surely the election of Donald Trump has brought some of this home, so that we no longer have to humor this political establishment—people like Liesl Hickey, strategist for Jeb Bush’s super PAC and one of this quarter’s IOP Fellows—and can now get down to the business of changing the world. 

Just imagine the “post-Trump IOP,” and that’ll tell you everything you need to know. Try reading Believer after the election, or go back and reread the Maroon article last winter wherein Axelrod defends Anita Alvarez’s right to not get protested at the IOP. His argument looks ridiculous now, and the rebuttal article by Stephanie Greene and Elizabeth Adetiba now seems all the more true. Deliberation, analysis, and “hearing out both sides” is no longer viable. Now that we are faced with a real crisis, we must take real action and dispense with all this sophistry, all these abstract notions of civility, which are just the Ivy League translations of the vulgar “give Trump a chance.” 

By “real action” I mean donating money to the American Civil Liberties Union, to Standing Rock, and to Planned Parenthood; calling your representative incessantly; protesting obsessively; reading Masha Gessen; going to D.C. and flipping cars when Trump walks away from the Paris climate agreement; attacking racists when you see them harassing people in the supermarket—whatever it takes. Only through a concerted, collective, and unflinching refusal to compromise, no matter how much clout and how many think tank internships it costs us, will we be able to fend off autocracy and protect the future of our planet. A sensible place for the University to begin in this regard would be to shut down this campus’s greatest factory of ambition and compromise, the Institute of Politics, and replace it with a center for the study of Antonio Gramsci, or a second Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, or maybe just a good old homeless shelter. 

Jake Bittle is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.