Last Thursday I was invited to attend the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s 2017 James C. Gaither Junior Fellows Conference, entitled “Don’t Stop Believing: Restoring Civic Norms and Faith in Institutions.” With a title like that, I knew I was in for a pretty intense experience.

The stated mission of the conference was to uncover the reasons behind the deteriorating political climate in the United States and to brainstorm solutions for rejuvenating America’s civic culture and faith in our institutions. Serious stuff.

I arrived promptly at the Carnegie Endowment with my fellow intern and my supervisor, and after grabbing a few cookies, we boldly claimed the front row seats. The conference opened with remarks from Willian J. Burns, who is the president of the Carnegie Endowment. He spoke of the importance of building a civil dialogue, and the increasingly interconnectedness between domestic and international affairs. He advised us to keep a global prospective, a skill I am already well versed in, thanks to Dickinson!

Next up was the keynote speaker, Heather Hurlburt who is the director of New Models of Policy Change at New America. She reminded us that there are never any simple solutions to problems like these. She told us that in order for America to heal from the vitriol and hostility that currently characterizes our politics, we must accept the diversity of our political identities and learn to coexist and compromise. She pointed out that the smartest people are those that are not only confident in their own political beliefs, but also curious about those who hold different views.

After the keynote, we got to take in a panel discussion entitled, “The Populist Movement: Understanding Citizen’s Frustration with American Democracy” (pictured below). This was by far the conference highlight for me- as an International Studies major, I have been following the populist movement as it has spread across Europe and the United States. I did learn something new- unlike liberalism or conservatism, populism is not a concrete ideology, in fact populist movements across history have had very different goals and core values. Populism arises when a group of people become disenchanted with their system of governance, and long for a radical change.

Following the panel, we broke up into groups to brainstorm solutions. The most common suggestions were to enhance civic education, applaud leaders who publicize their commitment to compromise and cooperation, and condemn those who choose to deviate from the standard of civility.

After the breakout, we listened to one more panel discussion, this time the topic was “American Democracy in Comparative Perspective: Pathways to Democratic Renewal.” My supervisor even knew one of the panelists, Hala Harik Hayes (or as he affectionately calls her, “Triple H”). Hala is a former program associate at AmericaSpeaks, which was founded by the NICD’s current executive director, Carolyn Lukensmeyer. Pretty neat.

At the reception afterwords, I sampled several varieties of cheeses, and handed out my fancy new business cards to anyone who came over to chat.

After a great weekend of traipsing around the different DC neighborhoods and experiencing many culinary delights, I look forward to another week of work!