Rep. Joe Kennedy III with student representatives of the USC Political Student Assembly and USC Undergraduate Student Government, after his conversation with USC Center for the Political Future Director Bob Shrum on the 2020 presidential election and young voters.

Citizenship: A Smart Investment for Business

TAKEAWAY: While many major companies are relatively new to the fight against polarization, several universities have focused on solutions for decades. One of them, the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for the Political Future (CPF) is reaching out to businesses to help inspire in students a lifelong devotion to deep civic engagement.

Founded in 1978, CPF is among the USA’s most famous institutes of politics. Its mission: To advance civil dialogue that transcends partisan divisions and explores solutions to our most pressing national and global challenges. True to its goal of bridging the partisan divide, CPF is co-directed by a political expert from each party. Bob Shrum is a renowned Democratic strategist who has worked closely with dozens of national candidates, including Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton and John Kerry. Mike Murphy is a veteran Republican campaign strategist and has worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and Mitt Romney, among many others. The Center’s Executive Director is Kamy Akhavan, former CEO of ProCon.org, the nation’s largest source of pro and con research on important social issues.

CPF is focusing new efforts on how the business community can help improve civil discourse and people’s confidence in representative government. Increasingly, businesses want to address the problems of hyper-polarization and ineffective governance, which affect both short-term profits and long-term sustainability. For many years, discussing political issues in the workplace was seen as an unneeded risk. Times have changed. Studies are showing that benefits accrue to businesses that take principled stands. Further, businesses have a model of success: training in diversity and inclusion has generally been lauded as effective. Why not other kinds of training, such as listening, critical thinking, and civic engagement?

Several CPF programs have proven especially successful in developing future political leaders and teaching critical thinking skills to combat polarization. These include:

  • Political Conversations, which invites high profile guests to converse with CPF leadership. Unlike typical interviews, these sessions are designed to build listening skills and the civil exchange of opposing viewpoints. Notably, the series teaches the value of the psychological strategy of “slow thinking” wherein questions act as filters to our opinion impulses, along with the practices of generous interpretation, the pursuit of superordination (finding commonalities) and the art of respectful disagreement. These strategies for conversation are effective at disrupting the “echo chamber” effect as well as building empathy, encouraging humility, and fostering respect among political opposites. More than 91% of student participants said they “feel more inspired to engage in political life” and more than 83% said they “gained a better understanding of a point of view different than their own.  
  • CPF Fellows, where Fellows-led courses are in-depth seminar classes on practical politics jam-packed with prominent guest lecturers and wide-ranging internship opportunities. Far from traditional political theory, these courses give students the opportunity to engage in real political quandaries and policy solutions with leaders from across the political spectrum. More than 94% of students who took a Fellows course said it made them more interested in a career in politics, policy, or public service. Fellows have included Democrats like Symone Sanders, an advisor to Joe Biden, and Senator Barbara Boxer. From the other side of the aisle, Fellows include Mike Madrid, a prominent political consultant, and Rep. Mimi Walters.  
  • The Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, named for the legendary California political leader, works to bridge the academic study of politics with practical experience in the field. The Unruh Institute serves USC students by giving them the opportunity to be politically active and civically engaged through internships, scholarships, and professional development.

CPF also hosts major national conferences, embedded political experiences, (including an Iowa caucuses program) youth civic engagement groups, and a highly popular national political poll, the USC Dornsife/LA Times survey.

Partnering with CPF can be a nonpartisan avenue for businesses that want to be part of the solution to America’s deep social divide in constructive ways. Says Bob Shrum, “It’s worth considering that business depends too much on business education, and not enough on the educational experiences that help future business leaders navigate the shoals of the political operating environment.” Says Mike Murphy, “It’s time for businesses to invest in their future employees, customers, investors and leaders of all stripes. The very basis for our democracy is under attack from so many quarters. Staying on the sidelines is no longer an option.”