On Tuesday November 30th, just like any other weekday this semester, I arrive on the metro at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Walking out of those hefty, ornamental doors, my eyes are immediately drawn to the nation’s Capitol Building, where the Statue of Freedom memorializes why many flock to this city in the first place. Temperatures strikingly linger around thirty degrees, and I watch the first snowfall crown the magnificent Capitol Dome.
In my chilly trek to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, I pass a sea of Hill Staffers. One is perhaps a Legislative Director, or a Capitol Hill policeman, and another may work on support staff in the food department, and then there are the college students like me — the interns.
These staffers differ — some seasoned, some novices; some law enforcement, some support staff. But they have something extraordinary in common: they all share a dedication to public service and a desire to influence society for the good, though those goods and party affiliations vary.
This is just one of the many invaluable perspectives that I gained as a student in the Baylor In Washington Semester Program. The Program has provided members of my cohort and myself with a unique learning and leadership opportunity.
Baylor students that choose to spend the semester in Washington write thought-provoking research papers and maintain academic rigor through a course on public policy. Many top professionals with diverse backgrounds and beliefs address complex issues and aid in our examination of the actors in the implementation of policy. This semester, guest lecturers local to the Washington area discussed the ethical quandaries of Big Tech, environmental stewardship and public policy, and demographics and morality.
In addition, each student works in a full-time internship. Several members of my cohort work in competitive internships such as the Heritage Foundation, Departments of State and Justice, the Religious Freedom Institute, and (like myself) congressional offices.
My internship with the United States Senate Committee on the Budget has been quite different than what I anticipated, in a refreshing way. Living in an era of polarizing political agendas and radicalism painted by the news media, I expected coming into this internship to witness more of this firsthand on the Hill.
Policy will always differ and can differ radically on both sides of the aisle. Having divergent perspectives is crucial to lawmaking and for senators to make policy that they deem best for their state and ultimately for their country. But, in my experience this semester in Washington, I have personally observed more unity, civility, and bipartisan efforts for the common good than the media may project.
According to researchers at Brown University, a 2020 study finds the “rise of 24-hour partisan cable news” combined with “major political parties becoming more aligned with certain ideologies, races, and religious identities” largely contribute to partisan polarization that has risen over the past forty years.
Jesse Shapiro, a professor of political economy at Brown University, said that a true understanding of the root causes of political polarization in the United States could not only help politicians and citizenry to understand the phenomenon but could “ultimately reveal strategies for bridging divides.”
A few firsthand experiences of mine interning in the Senate precisely captured this: the bridging of divides. One of my favorite moments was at the cafeteria a few months ago. I was sitting at a table eating my lunch when a senior staffer for a Democrat Senate Leader sat down at a table next to me with a Republican staffer. I heard some chuckles when one of the staffers remarked “Here we are, old friends who are sharing a bipartisan meal!”
In another instance before a hearing recently, two top Republican and Democrat senators fist-bumped and joked with each other before entering into the hearing and civilly opposing the other’s policy perspectives. Unsurprisingly, the media does not cover stories such as these that do occur and are more heartfelt than those that are portrayed.
During President Trump’s State of the Union Address in February 2019, Speaker Nancy Pelosi rose to her feet and clapped for the President when he asked everyone to “reject the politics of revenge and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good.” This moment quickly went viral, as the media pegged the Speaker’s action as a petty version of an applause. Perhaps the Speaker’s praise was just that, praise, and a step towards unity despite the media’s divisive narrative.
Emmeline Bearden, a member of the Fall cohort and intern for Representative Bill Posey’s office (R-FL), said for those reasons, she does not watch the news often as it is disheartening to her. She added that prior to her internship in Washington she “anticipated intense polarization, that there is nothing shared and there is no common ground.”
Her internship in Washington disproved this misconception. She discussed that when policymakers and staffers identify the pursuit of the common good and agree upon how to get to that point, they hold the “golden ticket.”
“These situations are congenial. Cameras stop rolling, you step outside the Floor or the Hearing, and find your humanity a little bit when you are not in the public eye.”
She poignantly added that her congressman will specifically choose not to talk about his views to the media during intense debates because he knows how polarizing those issues are and how they may be portrayed harshly. According to Emmeline, certain congressmen “prioritize [their] humanity and others to the degree to not get on television and berate them.”
Sophie Webster, who also is a member of the Fall cohort and interns for Representative Colin Allred (D-TX), shared in that experience. She says, “The media does not always portray people properly; people are simply kinder and respectfully collaborate more than the media gives them credit for.” She continued that she did not truly realize how closely her office works with those on the other side of the aisle, specifically in the co-sponsorship of bills; nearly 75% of her office’s bills are bipartisan in nature.
Both Emmeline and Sophie, who intern for congressmen on opposite sides of the aisle, shared that these experiences give them hope. Emmeline discussed that the polarization depicted by the media coming straight from Washington politics does not seem to impact individual relationships on the Hill. She added that “I have faith in that people are coping and finding middle ground, not bending to popular culture. If nothing else, they do it for the sake of relationships.”
This is not all that can be said about the insightful perspectives gained through the Baylor In Washington Semester Program, but what we’ve covered here is an insider’s look of the personal civility, unity, and charity in Washington D.C. on both sides of the aisle; these actions, moments, and postures are simply not as rare as the media may represent.
Each morning I wake up in awe of this opportunity presented to us, to be here in Washington and get to fully absorb such experiences. Attending a school like Baylor that insists on “being the light”, there is a certain charge placed upon us. This charge is not only to “be the light” in order to honor God, but to be willing to look for it with an open mind and an open heart.
Loving thy neighbor is what this boils down to. I can say wholeheartedly that I have seen this not only from the members of my cohort from Baylor, but in the hearts of staffers, lawmakers, Baylor alumni, and Baylor leadership on both sides of the aisle. Whether that is meeting for professional development, or conversing with someone about their career, or maybe grabbing lunch with a friend, most people in Washington want to pay it forward. We all must start somewhere.
They say that “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” My experiences and those of my colleagues — my friends — would seem to make that untrue.
James Clavell, late World War II veteran, prisoner of war, and novelist, claimed that we have three faces in his novel Shōgun. The first you show to the world. The second you show to your close friends and your family. The third face, that you never show to anyone, is the truest reflection of who you are. Washington D.C. is the same way. The first is portrayed as the radical capital city of the United States. The second face is perhaps the media’s polarizing depiction of the city and the work that occurs within its sphere. The third face — its true face — is one filled with collaborative, virtuous, and optimistic people seeking the good. It is only seen when one looks beyond the cameras rolling.