The office of David Axelrod, director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP), is exactly what you might expect from UChicago’s foremost policy pundit. The wall nearest the door is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf bearing mostly political hardbacks. Some of them are old and yellowing; some of them pristine; more than a few of them written by Axelrod. On Axelrod’s desk, in lieu of a brass nameplate stands a pint glass that commemorates Hacks on Tap, one of Axelrod’s two political podcasts. And on the wall, signatures in silver and gold paint pen decorate a poster for HBO’s documentary By The People, which chronicles former President Barack Obama’s star-making 2008 presidential campaign—the campaign Axelrod led as Obama’s chief strategist.
The room is lived-in, cluttered, but undeniably glamorous, lined with all the memorabilia accrued by a near half-century spent in politics. It’s this office that Axelrod will be vacating next spring when he steps down as the director of the University’s Institute of Politics, the organization he founded in 2013, after a decade-long tenure. It was because of the decision to step down that I found myself, interview questions in hand, on the second floor of the IOP’s South Woodlawn Avenue brownstone in David Axelrod’s office.
The IOP is one of the leading political organizations—if not the leading political organization—at the University of Chicago. A professedly nonpartisan group, the IOP brings in political speakers, connects students to internships and campaigns, and broadly hopes to foster in its students “a passion for public service, meaningful dialogue and active engagement in our democracy.” While the IOP has drawn criticism, particularly from students that object to its centrist, careerist approach, the IOP remains one of the University’s most prominent extracurricular organizations.
Axelrod, who has stood at the IOP’s helm for almost 10 years, has assured students that his decision to step down from the directorship has been long in the making. “This transition had always been my plan,” he wrote in a public letter published on the IOP’s website in mid-February. “I love the IOP but however comfortable and rewarding it would be for me to remain as director indefinitely, I believe strongly that change and renewal are necessary and important.” Axelrod will become chairman of the Institute’s advisory board after stepping down as the organization’s director.
Early in our conversation—which ranged from President John F. Kennedy to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and proceeded always, invariably, back to the IOP—I asked Axelrod when the idea for an Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago first struck. It was a question he clearly anticipated, and one he has practice answering.
“It wasn't instantly apparent to me that [the IOP] could be at the University of Chicago,” Axelrod said. “I remember, I had lunch with [former University president Robert] Zimmer downtown. And the first thing I said to him was ‘Bob, I went to the College, and I hated it. And I hated it because all I heard about was the life of the mind and I was interested in the life of the world.’ And so, I don't know how something as, you know, as prosaic in the minds of some as an Institute of Politics would be received at the University.”
At first, Axelrod worried that such a forthright critique of the University would leave Zimmer disaffected. Instead, Zimmer assured him that an institute focused on the real-world practice of politics over the study of abstract political theory would be a welcome addition to a university with a famous disregard for applied studies. The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering had begun to bridge this gap in 2011, and Axelrod’s IOP would continue the work.
Axelrod considered establishing the IOP at Northwestern; he had “a lengthy courtship with both.” But, of course, he changed his mind—when his wife Susan, herself a University alum, told him: “There's no decision here. It has to be at the University of Chicago. We’ve got too many ties here.”
There was a terrific note of confidence—finality, even—in the story, which Axelrod delivered with casual aplomb. No matter where he has gone, he seemed to suggest, the University of Chicago has always found him: first as an undergraduate in the 1970s, then much later in his career.
That career spans a number of distinguished positions, particularly during the Obama years, when Axelrod served as a senior advisor to the president and the architect of both the 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. Indeed, Axelrod is a larger-than-life figure. His physical prominence—six-foot-two and broad-shouldered even into his sixties—is a reminder that larger-than-life figures are, in reality, often just a bit larger than everyone around them. I was reminded of the old elementary school tale that Washington (who stood at Axelrod’s six-foot-two) towered over his fellow statesmen and must have looked rather uncomfortable in those low-hanging colonial doorways. So too does Axelrod feel outsized at the small, plastic table and chairs at which we had our conversation.
Axelrod’s youth feels almost mythic, although perhaps this wonder is simply generational. “[When] I was five years old, John F. Kennedy came to Stuyvesant Town where I grew up in New York,” Axelrod told me casually. For Axelrod, the memory of seeing Kennedy speak remains fiercely alive; it’s one of Axelrod’s earliest and most vivid inspirations behind a career in the political world. “I was transfixed by the whole thing, by the spectacle of…this event, but also by the rapt attention that people were paying to him.… It all seemed very important to me, and very dynamic.”
In his autobiography Believer, Axelrod describes a childhood spent around politics. At 10, he was volunteering for New York gubernatorial candidate John Lindsay, and by 13 he was getting paid by a state assembly campaign.
This interest in politics carried Axelrod to the University of Chicago where, as a student in the early ’70s, he became involved in political journalism. Anti-war protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention had been met with a sharp and violent police crackdown orchestrated by then-mayor Richard J. Daley. It was conflict between Hyde Park activists and Daley’s political machine—his vast network of bureaucrats and political operatives, infused throughout Chicago’s political landscape—that dominated Axelrod’s early political reporting at the Hyde Park Herald.
“That was a very turbulent time in our history,” he said. “We’d just had this Democratic convention in 1968 [that] famously exploded…and Hyde Park was kind of the focus of independent Democratic politics in a city that was dominated by a political machine.”
This reporting proved an escape from what he saw as the closed-minded University’s neglect of real-world politics. “I always joked that nobody wanted to talk about anything that happened after the year 1800 here,” Axelrod told me. He admitted that this jape was always “a little bit of an exaggeration,” but added that “there was nowhere to go if you wanted to have a good sort of conversation about what was going on politically.”
It was Axelrod’s unfulfilled curiosity as a University student that would inspire the mission and direction of the IOP four decades later.
“It has been so satisfying…to bring to this campus the thing that I missed so much when I was a student, to see how enthusiastically people have embraced it. It's just been an incredible gift.”
In its time on campus, the IOP has granted a significant boost to the careers of budding politicians, political staffers, and journalists. The IOP has sponsored more than 2,500 internships for University students, and hosted over 2,000 speakers and hundreds of fellows, who range from journalists to activists to scholars, commentators, jurists, and elected leaders.
There are a few projects that Axelrod is particularly proud of. Among these is the Iowa Project, which enables students to intern with political campaigns during the crucial Iowa Caucus presidential campaign season. Another flagship project is Bridging the Divide, an inter-institutional initiative led by students at the University of Chicago, Eureka College, and Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago, which examines the political differences in voting behavior between rural and urban Illinoisians. The three schools collaborate to analyze political and cultural trends across a variety of neighborhoods and socioeconomic groups.
Axelrod is proud too that the IOP draws engagement from all across the University’s student body, not just those students who study political science. He said, “You know, I always make this point: Angela Merkel was a physicist, [Václav] Havel was a poet. Some of the great leaders came from completely different disciplines.… And being engaged, whatever discipline you go into, is an important part of living in a democracy.”
With the crisis in Ukraine, Axelrod is reminded that life under a democratic government is a lucky privilege, and not one that everyone shares.
“[My father] and his family came to America for the chance to participate in a democracy,” Axelrod said. In 1919, his father fled antisemitic violence in eastern Ukraine. “[Democracy]’s precious, and we should be about the business of keeping healthy and strong.” Axelrod hopes that people recognize “the degree to which people are willing to risk everything for the right to govern themselves.”
Axelrod remains a firm believer in that political engagement and genuine conversation are among the cornerstones of democracy. It’s the IOP’s continued commitment to bring in speakers from all ends of the political spectrum that Axelrod is most proud of, and he believes it’s a commitment whose efforts must be redoubled. Axelrod sees political polarization as a fundamental “challenge to democracy.”
To my ears, this is a somewhat modish refrain. But there’s real frustration, sorrow, even, when Axelrod speaks about the ramifications of polarization, particularly in the context of the IOP. “The world is different than it was 10 years ago,” he said. “10 years ago, it was easier to get people to come, it was easier to get people to open their minds, be they left or right.… I believe strongly that our mission is to bring good, provocative speakers, [and] also to make sure that they are challenged, and that students have the opportunity to do that.” Axelrod believes that in a democratic system, “you can't simply shut out ideas you don't like or disagree with. You need to contend with them.”
Behind Axelrod’s words hides his disappointment that, in 2022, students and community members interested in politics aren’t as willing to have conversations that span the political divide. Polling data demonstrates the reality of Axelrod’s disappointment. Pew Research Center data from 2019 suggests that 64 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of Democrats believe members of the opposing party are “close-minded,” with more than a third of each party further believing that opposing party members are simply “unintelligent.” The study points out that “partisans who are highly attentive to politics are most likely to express negative sentiments about the opposing party,” meaning it's among students interested in politics—students whom the IOP attracts—that these sentiments are, statistically, the most robust.
Axelrod told me that among his favorite events hosted by the IOP was a conversation from May of last year between former senator Justin Amash, a libertarian, and Deval Patrick, former Democratic governor of Massachusetts. Both Amash and Patrick spent significant time discussing the importance of bipartisan conversation. “I don’t think we can afford to live in a country where each side says, ‘Well, we have power now. So, we will use that power to achieve our ends,’” Amash said; Patrick called himself “a Democrat who doesn’t believe you have to hate Republicans to be a good Democrat.”
Axelrod said the discussion was “emblematic of the…sorts of conversations we should be having.” It’s an ironic twist that the most important conversations are about the importance of conversation. What purpose do these conversations serve? How do they translate into real political action? Do they only serve to self-aggrandize?
The leading question for the conversation was “What does freedom mean to you?” For Amash, freedom means restricting federal authority to allow for increased individual and regional autonomy. For Patrick, it means a basic social safety net that works to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans. These are diametrically opposed understandings of freedom; Amash and Patrick don’t reach an obvious compromise.
Perhaps when Axelrod calls this conversation “emblematic” of how we should discuss politics, what he means is that we should aim to replicate their tenor: respectful, curious, and with a genuine effort made to listen. If such a tenor could be replicated in other settings—say, on Capitol Hill—we might make more progress on our democracy’s most intractable controversies.
“Democracy really does require working through issues,” Axelrod said, “not trying to overwhelm your opposition.… [That]’s not possible and it's not healthy.”
Here, the immediate critique is obvious: It is possible to overwhelm the opposition; that’s been the de facto political agenda of both the Democratic and Republican parties since the mid-90s (at the latest). Axelrod’s rosy fondness for an old brand of politics is plain, and for the IOP’s critics—and many in my generation—the notion of bipartisan compromise in our real political action may well appear inimical to the pursuit of justice and progress.
But I, like Axelrod, would be inclined to suggest that a relentless struggle for one set of particular, inflexible ideals—just or otherwise—is not democratic. Democracy requires us to work through our ideas, likely with conversation, then put those ideas into action.
Axelrod will maintain a strong guiding hand in the program as the chairman of the advisory board, a position that he said will be “essential to the director and the IOP, in terms of offering ideas and rolodexes and assisting [the IOP] in executing on some of its big dreams.”
To the students and other community members, Axelrod offered reassurances that he will remain a presence on campus even as he moves into a more advisory role.
“You’ll be seeing me around,” he said, although he was quick to note that he doesn’t want to step on the new director’s toes. “The worst thing would be to have two directors, you know, one emeritus and one active.… So I'm going to be thoughtful about my participation, but my participation will be evident.”
Axelrod feels the IOP has become a “part of the fabric of campus life,” but he’s hesitant to measure the program’s success with such abstract metrics, or on the merits of individual programs, or—worse yet—with the name cachet of past speakers and fellows.
But Axelrod does have some idea how to assess the Institute’s success. “People used to ask me at the beginning [of the IOP], ‘Well, how will you judge your success? And I said, ‘I'm going to judge our success by the things that people who pass through this program do when they leave here.’” Over the past decade, Axelrod said, students who have spent time at the IOP have gone on to become journalists, politicians, political activists, nonprofit workers, and scholars at think tanks. One of the IOP’s first student affiliates, Erin Simpson, has returned to the program this spring as a fellow. She’s now an expert in her field—disinformation and technology theory. For Axelrod, this is the supreme testament to the IOP’s success.
It’s when Axelrod discusses the success of these alums that he is at his most vibrant. His tone is still subtle and professional, but it leaks pride.
At a point in the interview, Axelrod brought up Kennedy—this time, Robert Francis, not John Fitzgerald. He quoted RFK: “The future is not a gift, it's an achievement.” If each generation doesn’t work to ensure the stability and character of our democracy, Axelrod believes, it will simply slip away.
“I think this is the most public-spirited group of young people that I've seen since the ’60s,” Axelrod said. “And I do think that you guys have lived through such turmoil over the last two decades, that…you don’t take the future for granted, and that’s good.” Axelrod has real, robust faith in the work of the IOP—and most importantly, in the students that the program works to mentor. “I go home every day optimistic and people—you know, these have been dispiriting times—people say, ‘Well, what makes you optimistic?’ And I say, you spend time with the young people I do, and you’ll have a better feeling about the future.”