David Axelrod
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David Axelrod on Why ‘Democracy is Messy’ and the Future of Politics (Ep. 14)

David Axelrod discusses the midterms, the rise in divisive politics from Obama to Trump and why young people make him optimistic about our future

David Axelrod
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Show Notes

David Axelrod departed Washington, D.C. because he knew it’d be hard to top his role in helping Barack Obama make history.

But when the president’s former senior adviser began the next chapter in his illustrious career, he looked to his alma mater to make an impact.

In 2012, Axelrod, AB’76, founded the non-partisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. In the years since, Axelrod has helped build upon the University’s tradition of wide-ranging debate by welcoming guests ranging from Senator Bernie Sanders to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He’s also interviewed hundreds of celebrities and politicians—most recently, President Obama—as host of the “Axe Files” podcast.

But as he said on Big Brains, Axelrod takes the most satisfaction in helping inspire UChicago students to get involved in public service and politics.

“I go home feeling optimistic every day. These are trying times, and there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the future,” Axelrod said, “I feel much better about the future having spent all this time with these young people who are skeptical but they’re not cynical, and they believe they have a role to play in the world.”

In this episode of Big Brains, Axelrod discusses the 2018 midterms, how seeing JFK at age 5 inspired a career in politics, and how Obama’s election sparked the divisive political climate from which President Trump emerged.

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NARRATOR: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains with Paul M. Rand, conversations with pioneering thinkers that will change the way you see the world.

PAUL RAND: Who better than David Axelrod to make sense of the midterms and talk about the future of US politics? David has been shaping narratives in his highly influential career first as a journalist, then as an advisor to President Obama, and now as the Director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

RAND: And of course, as host of the wildly popular Axe Files podcast. I talk with David about today's political climate, how seeing JFK at age 5 sparked an interest in public service, and why UChicago students are making him so optimistic about the future of our country. I hope you enjoy our conversation. We are thrilled today to have David Axelrod with us. He is the founder and the director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. And he's also host of The Ax Files. Thanks for joining us today.

DAVID AXELROD: Paul, good to be with you.

RAND: Well.

AXELROD: It's good to be on the other side of the microphone.

RAND: Yeah, how about that? It's a little bit interesting getting to be on the other side of the questions here.


RAND: You know, I wonder if I can start right out of the gate, because we're not far from the midterms.


RAND: But I want to kind of look at it in terms of not simply just talking about the midterms, but you are studying these types of things, and you have a lot of folks over at the IOP thinking about what's going on. What was the reaction to midterms with your group?

AXELROD: Well, this is a very clinical analysis, because though I come from a partisan background having worked for years on the Democratic side, I try and look at these things with some detachment. But having said that, it was a very good day for Democrats, not just in terms of the number. They probably will end up with 37, 38 seats in the House, which is the largest catch since the Watergate election of 1974.

AXELROD: They elected seven governors, knocked off some prominent Republicans. Walker in Wisconsin being.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: One of them. Held the margin in the Senate down. You know, this was the worst map than any party has faced in a century in terms of the exposure the Democrats had. And 10 of those seats, of the 26 democratic seats that were in states that Donald Trump had carried substantially, and it now looks like they'll be down one or two seats, which would be a good result.

AXELROD: I always thought if they could even hold it anywhere close to the 51-49 Republican, that would be good. But beyond all of that, the Republican party's basically been pushed back to its rural base and suburbs are much more difficult for them now.

RAND: So if I'm over at the IOP right now.


RAND: What's the chatter? What are you hoping people take out of this?

AXELROD: Our goal at the Institute of Politics is to promote passion for public service, for engagement as citizens. This was an interesting election, because it was defined by a record turnout.

RAND: Was it over 50%-ish?

AXELROD: It was about 50%.


AXELROD: It was the largest since 1966. I think was a slightly larger than '66. I think maybe the largest midterm turnout in a century.

RAND: On both sides, is that right?



AXELROD: And I think that's good.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: I mean, and one thing I will say about the president is that he has certainly spurred engagement on both sides to a point where people now see, and this goes to your point, that elections matter.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: Elections matter, and participation matters. I was faced in the past with young people and people generally saying, well, it really doesn't matter that much who gets elected. I think the election of 2008 and the election of 2016 has disabused people of that. There is a real sense now that this matters. And that is positive and that's as much as anything, what I want them to take away. We were engaged in this initiative on campus, this U.

RAND: What a turnout you ended up having.

AXELROD: Vote, yes.

RAND: Something else.

AXELROD: Yes. We had 70% of our undergraduates signing up to TurboVote, which is a site that helps you register and vote, 4,400 undergraduates in total. And we also for the first time had on campus, an early voting site for three days.

RAND: Is it true the next closest was 30%?

AXELROD: Yes, among universities.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: We were the most successful. And I feel really good about that and about our students. And this early voting site, over 1,000 people voted here on campus. So everything that you see nationally, we saw in stark relief here. That was very, very positive.

RAND: Well, clearly, you're having fun.


RAND: And if you look back and you're five years into this, is that right?

AXELROD: We're almost six, six year anniversary coming up in January.

RAND: OK. If you go back almost six years and you're contemplating the options that you could have chosen.


RAND: What prompted you to say, I really want to come back to the University Chicago and put this place here?

AXELROD: Well, the operative word is come back. You know, I was a student here in the early to mid '70s. And I came to Chicago in part because it was such an interesting political town. They'd just had this calamitous Democratic Convention. It was the last of the big city machines. Was still very much alive. Richard J. Daly, the first Daly.

AXELROD: And Hyde Park, where the university sits, was sort of the hub of what was a nascent black independent political movement. And all this really interested me. And I got here, and frankly, there wasn't, there weren't many pathways to engagement. I always joke that nobody wanted to talk about anything that happened after the year 1800, you know? So I really, I became a journalist while I was a student.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: In order to satisfy my interest in politics. And so.

RAND: And Hyde Park?

AXELROD: I worked for the Hyde Park Herald.

RAND: Herald. OK.

AXELROD: Was one of my first gigs as a political co-, I was a.

RAND: I'm sure there's a plaque there for you, right?

AXELROD: 18-year-old political columnist. Huh?

RAND: There's probably a plaque for you there.

AXELROD: I don't know, but I feel like that would be good. We should work on that project. But I mean, I knew that this was a gaping hole in what was otherwise an incredible environment academically. You know, then, the emphasis was on the life of the mind. But I was interested in the life of the world. And I don't think the two are in conflict. And the fact that Bob Zimmer, the president university, was so eager for us to bring it here, was meaningful to me.

AXELROD: Because it said, you know, this was a new era in the university. But I did talk to Northwestern as well. And it went on for a couple, a few months. And then my wife said to me, well, what are you doing? I said I'm trying to figure out what the right place is. And she said, she's the daughter of Richard Landau, who was an endocrinology professor, and really helped build the endocrinology section at the medical center here.

RAND: OK, here at the university.

AXELROD: So she grew up on this campus. She got an MBA here.

RAND: Wow.

AXELROD: She said, there's no choice here. You've got to have it at the University of Chicago. And she said.

RAND: That settled that.

AXELROD: Yeah. And that was, she helped clarify my thinking on it. But it was the best decision that I could make, because in fact, there was this need here. The way, the sort of energetic, kind of voracious take-up of it on the part of students has been really, really gratifying. I feel like six years in, the Institute of Politics is really embedded in this campus in a way that I think people couldn't quite imagine it without.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: The Institute of Politics. So I mean, I'm just thrilled by it. And the other, Paul, the other benefit of it for me personally, is that I go home feeling optimistic every day. You know, these are trying times, and there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the future. But I feel much better about the future, having spent all this time with these young people who, they're skeptical, but they're not cynical. And they believe they have a role to play in the world.

RAND: Has this changed even over the last two or three years?

AXELROD: I think so.

RAND: It has. What do you think has changed in the six years?

AXELROD: Well, I mean, first of all, we had a very good take-up from the beginning, so I don't want to in any way, suggest otherwise. But I do think this sense of urgency is greater now. And we do have students on this campus who support the president. We do have Republicans on this campus. We encourage them all. We have Republican, as well as Democratic speakers, pro-Trump Republicans, anti-Trump Republicans, all of that.

AXELROD: But I do think, as I said, people, they see that the process itself is important in a way that they didn't before. I mean before, you know, when you mentioned the need to have an impact, these young people would say, yeah well, let's start an app, you know, let's engage in social media. Powerful, powerful tools that we can learn a lot from and we need to use.

AXELROD: But I always remind them, you know, Congress is going to meet with you or without you. The legislature's going to meet with you or without you. And all those equities that you say are important to you are going to be impacted dramatically by the decisions that are made there. So you can't ignore that process. That process is very significant. And whether you're going to, whether you impact from the outside or the inside, you ought to pay attention. And I think there's a real awareness of that.

RAND: David, if we look back as you got going and decided to get into politics, what were the things, the early influences that led you down that initial path.

AXELROD: The triggering event for me was in 1960. It was really, I can tell you the exact date. It was October 27, 1960, and it was like 12 days before the election in New York. I was a five-year-old kid. And John F. Kennedy came to Stuyvesant Town, where I grew up in New York, a housing development that was built for returning war veterans. The woman who cared for me when my mother was at work, this wonderful woman named Jessie Berry, said, she heard he was coming and she took me out, put me on top of a mailbox.

RAND: At age five.

AXELROD: At age five. And I, this, 20th Street was a big boulevard usually filled with cars, and now it was filled with people, which alone, was kind of stunning to me. And then this young man jumped up on a platform and he started speaking, and his voice was booming off the buildings. And everybody paid rapt attention. And even though I didn't understand all of the words that he was speaking or what they meant, it was very clear that this was exciting and it was important.

AXELROD: And I started following him and it, you know, politics generally. And I start reading newspapers. Like most kids, I read them from right to left, these tabloids, because I'd read the baseball and sports scores first. But I was very interested, watched the news, you know, all the time. And I started working, the first campaign I ever did anything in was when I was nine years old and Robert Kennedy was running in New York for the Senate. And I handed out a few pamphlets, and.

RAND: Sold buttons, is that right, I've seen?

AXELROD: I did that as well. That was maybe in his campaign for the president in '68.

RAND: Yeah.

AXELROD: And I worked for John Lindsay, who ran for mayor of New York. You know, I handed out stuff for him when I was 10. You know, so this was a very early passion of mine and has paid a lot of attention to it. That's why I ended up doing reporting, just because of my interest in politics.

RAND: Do you think of yourself as a political strategist, an educator, a storyteller? How do you like think about yourself these days?

AXELROD: Well, I think a storyteller comes first. It's one of the reasons I like doing this podcast, The Ax Files, where I, you know, it started actually at the IOP, because I was doing these things on stage with people. Sometimes people of different parties and philosophies. But I always felt like if you know people, if you understand something about them and where they came from and what influenced their thinking in their lives, it's harder to dehumanize them. It's harder to hate them. Even if you disagree with them. And that's how the thing started.

AXELROD: But it was consistent with my whole life. When you're a journalist, you're a storyteller. And the idea is to go and find out what is the core of a person and of a situation and describe that. When you're a political strategist, your role is to get to the essence of who a candidate is and what a campaign is about and tell that story.

AXELROD: So everything I've done has been motivated by that. You know, and obviously, there are different elements to each of the jobs I've had. I've been lucky enough to go from assignment to assignment in my life and never actually feeling like I was working, because I so enjoyed what I was doing. And they all were slightly different, but the line that runs through them, and I realized this when I was writing.

AXELROD: I wrote a autobiography a few years ago called Believer. The line that runs through them all is this, my fascination with stories.

RAND: I read it, it was very good, by the way.

AXELROD: Thank you.

RAND: Yeah. So the storytelling element, and it seems like, and how many podcasts have you done now?

AXELROD: Oh, my goodness, I think we're nearing 300.

RAND: Near 300.

AXELROD: I think I've done about 280.


AXELROD: Something. So, yeah, I'm nearing 300. So that's a lot of conversations

RAND: There's a consistency to how you approach it. You're really getting to know somebody. By the time you get around to the political aspects of it, you certainly have a better sense of them as a person.

AXELROD: Yeah, and that is my view and my philosophy of how to approach these things. But everybody has a story. We do significant research before each podcast. I read a lengthy brief on each person, including where their families came from.

RAND: I'm maybe a little disappointed to hear that, because it sounds like you're hanging out with them on your back porch the night before.

AXELROD: Well, no, but you know, those things spark questions.

RAND: It really is great.

AXELROD: In my mind. So if someone, you know, if I see that someone had some challenge in their lives.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: Lost a parent. A number of people have talked to Michael Phelps, for example, the Olympic swimmer.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: Has struggled with depression and suicide, suicidal impulses and so on. I'm interested in those things and how they help shape who someone is and how they overcame those obstacles. I did a podcast with Karl Rove. We were speaking together in Prague a few years ago and we did a podcast.

AXELROD: And Karl and I have this thing in common, this sad thing in common, that we both lost parents to suicide. And we had a long discussion about that. You know, and we obviously talked about politics as well and our respective, we were sort of opposite numbers for two different presidents of two different parties and there was a lot there.

AXELROD: But there was, that was sort of a bond between us. And also something that no one ever knew about him. He had written a little bit about it in his autobiography, but most people didn't know. And those kinds of things are revealing and important and they humanize the person you're talking to.

RAND: This has been what? 10 years since you.


RAND: From the big opportunity with now President Obama.


RAND: As you look at the climate that existed then and it feels meaningfully different now, if you had to say what transpired during that period that got us to where we are today?

AXELROD: It's a good question. One of the things that transpired was we took office amid deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. And were called upon to make a series of decisions, each of which were as unpopular as they were necessary to help pull the country out of the crisis and to avert a deeper crisis. But were politically costly.

AXELROD: President's decision to take on health care was a, I think, a very courageous one. And I'm proud of him for doing it. You know, he knew that he was going to be spending political currency to do it. One of the reasons I so admired him and admire him today is that there were things that were more important to him even than winning elections.

AXELROD: He wanted to win them, thought it was important to win them, but he wouldn't subjugate the really important work that he thought needed to be done to those elections. But the other thing that happened was, the Republican Party had taken a beating for two successive elections.


AXELROD: There was a near filibuster-proof majority of Democrats in the Senate, an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the House, and they made a calculation. And Senator McConnell's been very clear on this, that they weren't going to participate in a meaningful bipartisan way because.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: Obama's whole message was predicated on the fact that we could overcome these partisan, the partisan morass we were in. And McConnell said, if we joined with him, it would signify that he had this figured out and we would be. I mean, implicit is that they would be in the minority for a very long time.

RAND: Right, right.

AXELROD: Instead, I think they made a calculation that the president would be having to make really difficult decisions and that they were in a better position to take advantage of the discontent about the economy, in particular, if they were not, if they didn't have their fingerprints on those policies.

RAND: Let me come back to IOP and institute politics. Do people talk about this in the way that you're conversing about it now? Understanding the difference and the need to figure out that degree of flexibility and?

AXELROD: You know, we have these conversations all the time, because I do bring people across the political spectrum. And I think one of the things that we've done is, we've first of all, shown that you can have these kinds of conversations and that, you know, everything isn't the kind of Manichaean struggle that it appears on.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: Television. That you can disagree and still have respectful conversations. We just had Shelley Moore Capito, the senator from West Virginia, Republican senator of West Virginia here. I had a dialogue with her and we obviously didn't agree on everything, but it was a respectful conversation. But yeah, we try and tackle these issues.

AXELROD: I mean, democracy is messy and challenging, and it's more messy and challenging today in certain ways because of the modern media environment. But we are all responsible for trying to sustain this. It's not a, Robert Kennedy said, the future's not a gift, it's an achievement. That is particularly true of democracy.


AXELROD: And so, one of the things we want to impart is, these are the kind of challenging, messy questions that we have to confront. One of the things that we did at the IOP that I'm really proud of is, after the 2016 election, it was very apparent to me that we were talking past each other as Americans. And we created something called Bridging the Divide. And we take 10 students down state and we've partnered with Eureka College.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: They've sent their students up here. And they, these 20 students.

RAND: It's Ronald Reagan's alma mater, right?

AXELROD: Ronald, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it.

RAND: Yeah.

AXELROD: But it's a small school in the center of the state, very much draws on a rural population. And there were a number of young people there who were Trump supporters. They came up here and spent time in Chicago. Our students came down there and spent time down there. We did focus groups in each place to get a sense of what voters were saying. And it was eye-opening and fascinating, not just for the students, but for us.

AXELROD: But you know, for example, in the focus group in Chicago, there was a lot of disdain shown for people in rural.

RAND: Right.

AXELROD: Places. And I think the students, the University of Chicago students were a little bit chastened by that.

RAND: Hmm.

AXELROD: Because they had been spending time with these students from downstate and this didn't square, the cartoon didn't square with what they had seen. Then we talked to Trump voters downstate and one of them said, you know, I'm tired of paying taxes for people who don't want to work. And some of these young students from Eureka said, you know, afterwards they said, you know, I was struck by that, because we spent time in the city and we saw a lot of people who wanted to work and couldn't find work. And they'd be really eager to work.

AXELROD: And so that's the problem isn't lack of initiative, it's lack of opportunity. But I don't know that they would have given the same answer had they not had this experience. So I think our goal should be to try and bridge these divides. Not to persuade anyone that they should have less passion for their position, but I think going back to the storytelling aspects of my life, listening is as important as speaking. And hearing each other is as important as lecturing, or preferable to lecturing. So that is something we hope that our students absorb.

RAND: Well, you mentioned a few moments ago, as we wrap up here, that you go home optimistic.


RAND: About the future. Expand on that for a little bit. What are you optimistic about?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think this generation that's coming along is fundamentally different than those of us who are maybe young at heart, but looking at less years. First of all, these kids grew up in a time of war and economic crisis. They don't take the world for granted. That they are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, really thousands in some way or another, interact with the Institute of Politics on a yearly basis.

AXELROD: And they come, they don't get a credit for it. They come because they want to, and because they believe that it's important to engage in the world. And we've seen them go on to do great things in government, in NGOs and in the media. And many of them are going to be impact players. And what makes me optimistic, is that there is more tolerance. There is this sense of engagement, and a fundamental sense of responsibility about the future. And I have confidence in them. And that's what makes me optimistic. They are an impressive group of young people.

AXELROD: One of the things that John F. Kennedy said that day in Stuyvesant Town in New York was I'm not running on a platform that says if you elect me everything will be easy. Being an American citizen in the 1960s is a hazardous occupation filled with peril. But also hope, and we'll decide in this next election, which path we want to take. And the message was, elections and politics is the way we grab the wheel of history and turn it in the direction we think is most important, and the right path for the country.

AXELROD: And I've always believed that. My book is called Believer, and it's not about any particular person, but about this process. So I always believe that even when times are challenging, when things are difficult, democracy affords you a way to adjust your course, and to take control of the future. And I still believe that.

AXELROD: I think in these midterm elections, a lot of Americans wanted to send a message of change. And I think it will have some impact. And certainly we're going to see another election in 2020 that will have great import in this regard. But that's the beauty of democracy. It is energizing to be a part of it and it gives me hope.

RAND: Well, it's a gift to have you on this campus. It's a gift to have you doing what you're doing.

AXELROD: Thank you.

RAND: Thank you for spending time with us.


Big Brains is a production of the Chicago Podcast Network. To learn more, visit us at news.uchicago.edu and subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and wherever else you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

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